How You Re-Write 3: Method over Madness

The philosophy I share with all students and editing/coaching clients? Anyone–ANYONE–can deconstruct and rewrite a manuscript. Anyone can learn to rework a story one element and scene and character at a time. Last week I shared some of my basic techniques for  understanding the key characters in your completed story draft (at a high level). Click here and here for those posts, to catch up or refresh or try to niggle a bit more out of each one.

This week and next, we’re diving into the actual method of deconstructing. My method. The title of this series is HOW YOU RE-WRITE, and the overall blog category is HOW YOU WRITE. So, disclaimer time: this works for me and many of my clients and students, but the only way you’ll know if it works for you is IF YOU WORK ON REWRITING SOMETHING OF YOUR OWN. Eh-hem… Sorry, it’s a nit for me.

writing is rewriting

What’s the deal, you ask?

Just as a refresher: re-writing is hard; looking at what’s not working with your characters and plot points and themes and secondary everything can be a nerve-wracking, soul-sucking, insecurity-making exercise; and a lot of people listen but never try many of the basic, not-so-hard-to implement exercises I recommend. Which is too bad, because learning to rewrite (and we’re all ALWAYS learning, with every new project) is your job. It’s not an option. And I can’t tell you the number of clients who fade away or students whose enthusiasm wavers after a course ends or followers contact me years later to say they still haven’t finished that book they were working on back when, but they’ve started 5 new ones since…and not finished them, either.

Which is unfortunate, sad and avoidable. Just do the work (or in this case the re-work). Do it. We all have to. All of our pretty babies are drafted in the shadows of “ugly.”

writing pen

It’s madness to think yours won’t, and inexcusable as an artist to let your creative drive for approval (especially your own) block you from learning and applying the craft that will better enable you to bring your unique voice and vision and stories to readers who are languishing these days, in a sea of often poorly-written, poorly constructed, badly delivered free or so-close-to-free-it-doesn’t-matter digital content.

Rant almost over. Except to say this: make what you create matter as viscerally and beautifully and impactfully (not a word, but you get the gist) as it can, by understanding it, honing it, and ruthlessly re-working it to the best of your ability.Then, once you’re done, work harder on YOUR re-writing method, so with the next project you “finished” is a story that connects with readers even more organically.

But HOW?, you ask. How do I do what you’re talking about with a full draft, when it always, ALWAYS, seems so overwhelming each time I try? Good question. I hear it a lot. I ask it of myself and my work a lot. I spend entire days and weekends giving workshops and months at a time sometimes with private coaching clients working through deconstruction and planning and re-writing approaches. Which is a long way to say this:

DISCLAIMER–these posts are overviews, folks. Rich-in-content overviews (in my honest opinion), meant to inspire you to think more directly and “simply” about parts of your project, focusing on one piece of what you’ve done at a time. These are ways to see trees instead of the overall forest. My approach will demystify what’s not working, and NOT let your off the hook for allowing flaws you sense in your work to go uncorrected–because you tell yourself it’s too complicated to revise a full manuscript. It’s not. This is my way of showing you that.

BUT, my way isn’t the only way. The goal of my work with you and all clients and students is to empower you to FIND YOUR OWN WAY.

So, take a look, take what works for you, USE IT (yes, I’m going to stop all-capping things now), and then move on to another of the lessons life is putting in your path to help you become better at what you create. But most importantly, understand that the intention of this and other re-writing posts in this series isn’t to make you an “expert.” It’s to strip away some of the stumbling blocks that can get in the way. To lower the frustration level a bit. And, because I’m a pain that way, to pop the bubble of some of your favorite excuses and rationalizations for not reworking a story into the better experience you might wish (and know) you could create.

Okay… Onward!

This week, I’ll do my best to cover the high points of a deconstruction technique that, combined with rewriting, can take me a two-day weekend workshop to teach properly. The mindset I hope to help you achieve:

  • No more excuses for not rewriting.
  • No more hiding behind “not seeing” what needs to be changed in your story.
  • No more big, scary book that’s too complicated to rework.
  • No more feeling out of control of your creativity as you rewrite!

Today’s goal is to, in a more hands-on way than last week, help you “see” the various pieces of your story more clearly--so that you’re more ready for our next topic/exercise, which is analyzing your story elements and developing an actual re-writing plan BEFORE (swears, that’s the last all-caps) you dive back in and start tinkering with things.

Because once your draft is completed, it’s time to take a look at the “layers” of story and character you’ve created.


The idea is to challenge your key story components. Ask them some questions and see how they hold up.

In re-writing Lesson 2, we discussed isolating your protagonist’s emotional journey through the book. Emotional only for those exercises, because my B-M-E Chart process focuses on the internal, psychological growth of a character at key story turning points, rather than what’s physically happening to them in the plot. A we go deeper into the method of deconstructing, let’s open your story up and look around a bit more.

You can isolate and examine and then analyze almost anything.

The pieces of your plot:

  • Story Structure (inciting incident, turning points, midpoints, black moment, climax/resolution)
  • Secondary Plots
  • Chapter and Scene Openings and Endings
  • Conflict and Motivation

The characters in in your story:

  • Protagonist’s Arc
  • Antagonist’s Arc
  • Secondary Characters’ Arcs
  • Point of View
  • Conflict and Motivation
  • Backstory

Other elements:

  • Setting
  • Theme
  • Symbol
  • Repetition
  • Time/Sequencing

You can challenge any part of your story by visually “flagging” each piece, every time it appears. Deconstruction is about digging from the full story anything that you want to look at more closely.


You did this at a high level in Lesson 2, by focusing on only the beginning, middle and end of your protagonist’s emotional journey. I begin with the B-M-E approach when I teach students and work with coaching clients, but before long we’ll need to dig deeper.

And for that, I use (with my hard copy of the manuscript) post-it note flags. You know,those colorful things that you tag pages with. There are so many options to choose from. Select a set that strikes your fancy. Then pick one color for a single piece of your plot or a character trait, etc., that you want to understand better. Then do the following.

Pay careful attention…it’s a very difficult technique to learn (I say knowing you’re going to see the simplicity of it as soon and wonder why you should keep reading, it’s so basic).

Let’s start with something simple. For instance, you want to “see” your use of a secondary character:

  1. Flip through your hard copy of the manuscript.
  2. Each scene in which that character appears, flag it with a post-it note. Don’t stop and read, just flag.
  3. Continue flipping and flagging all the way through the book. Don’t get distracted or stop and look at anything. Simply repeat this “flip flag” method until you run out of pages.

That’s it.

You’ve now officially deconstructed a secondary character’s journey through your story. You have a visual representation of and a functional means to access each instance in which that character appears. All the goodness (and likely opportunity to improve) of that character’s presence and involvement in your story is now, quite literally, at your fingertips.

The wealth of information you can now review and analyze (and the improvements you can now more easily plan to implement) can be astounding, and we’ll dig into that treasure trove in the next How You Re-Write post.

But to give you a taste of where we’re going…

  1. Try reading the scenes you’ve flagged, and only those scenes, from the beginning of your story to the end.
  2. Focus on the world you’ve created only from the standpoint of the secondary character. What she’s seeing, saying, doing. How she’s interacting with the lead characters, the plot, and the conflict.
  3. Consider elements like consistency, growth. Is she essential to each scene? Is her presence relatively “flat,” or is she an essential component of the overall story in each appearance. Make notes as you go and don’t worry yet about what you’re doing. Just keep track of your thoughts, and at this point don’t succumb to the temptation to start re-writing or editing your work.
  4. Congratulations, you’re  isolating a single aspect of your novel and beginning to analyze how a part of the overall, complex whole is working.

Hard, right?

Nope. Not at all. Not until you pick another component to deconstruct, and follow it through the book without being distracted by anything else. And then another. And then another. And before long, that overwhelming feeling will begin to creep back.

head in hands

Because deconstructing and analyzing is as complex as the stories we re-write. It’s not by accident that I had you work with a secondary character today. When we talk about analyzing lead characters and analysis and a lot more in future re-writing lessons, things will get tougher again. I encourage you to start small and work on less-challenging things to start, so you can master the technique first. We actually will get into analysis and re-writing technique soon, but we’ll always start small with something you can be successful out right from the start.

For today, stop the madness dig into this method and prove to yourself that you can do it. I promise, anyone can. All you have to do is decide that now’s the time to get even better at what you do, and then dive into the unknown believing in yourself and your gift and your ability to grow in your craft.

Because that’s how you write!

Related Posts

How You Re-Write 1: Revise with the B-M-E Chart

How you Re-Write 2: Actually, it’s Beginning-END-Middle

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4 Responses to “How You Re-Write 3: Method over Madness”

  1. Tamara says:

    Ok. I’ve made it through the first revision which took 2 books and made them 1. It was necessary and I needed 6+ months to fully absorb that fact before acting. Story is much better. There’s still room to improve.

    Now I’m going to try this method of NOT rewriting but breaking down the draft to see where things are and KNOW where I need to make changes. I’m giving myself 1 week to deconstruct (find the right scenes) for hero, heroine, and 2 secondary characters. Wish me luck!

  2. Tamara says:

    Well I did it. Kind of. I tabbed scenes for the hero, 3 sub-characters, and one sub-plot. I brainstormed ideas to fill in what was needed to give each a stronger story arc. I’ve begun the process of cultivating which ideas I want to move forward with and locating the scenes (existing or new) that will be needed. Not much writing except to note the ideas and their locations.

    Thank you for the advice, Anna. It is helping me move forward.

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