Rewriting a Novel: or What’s This About Writing Workshops?

Absolute Blank

By Ana George

A while ago I wrote an article about writing a novel in a month. I’ve done this National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or “NaNo”) thing four times now, producing a 50,000 word draft novel each time.

Let me stop for a moment to echo Justine Larbalastier who, in her writing blog, repeatedly points out that some writers produce readable first drafts, and others do not. Let’s say the draft has been edited to the point that it’s readable, there’s a story that flows, the typos have (at least mostly) been fixed, the sentences are grammatical, and while it may not be the most wonderful story ever told, it’s a story. That’s where my NaNoWriMo manuscripts typically stand at the end of November.

I’ve been kind of intending to take a writing workshop at the local adult education center. I’ve drooled in their catalogs for several years, but this fall my schedule cleared enough to actually sign up for one, and they offered a workshop on novel writing.

I was about to start rewriting my 2007 NaNo, and so I signed up. The cost was about $160, for eight two-hour sessions, and it was limited to twelve students. I signed up several weeks early, to ensure a place. The catalog blurb said to come to the first class with a few-page long synopsis and a first chapter to share.

Background Image: Elliott Brown/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Meanwhile, I started in on the rewrite. I had the first draft printed by, a print-on-demand service, in the form of a book. A 50,000-word document costs me around $17 to photocopy at the local copy shop; Lulu printed and bound it for about $10 (plus shipping costs). The per-copy shipping costs are minimized by ordering several, so I got one to keep on my shelf, as-written, one to scribble in and mark up, and several to circulate to reading friends. One such friend, an eighth-grade English teacher, made extensive marks and comments, which proved very useful.

Having re-read the novel several times myself, and with first-draft readers’ comments in hand, I started the rewrite. I did it in order, taking one chapter at a time from the folder with the original manuscript in it, and bending it to suit the new ideas. I re-read the comments on each. Some plot elements had to be moved; one significant chapter needed to happen much earlier. This kind of thing is perilous, because the characters know what they’ve already done and been told, so it’s important to keep track of what depends on what, at least long enough to get it written into the book.

As another example of a fairly drastic change, one character’s nationality (and name) needed to be changed. Again, much depends on this kind of thing, so it’s important to pay careful attention if you need to do something like this.

In some cases, chapters were split and expanded, giving more detail, or acting out a story that was merely mentioned in conversation between two characters. Writing coaches are fond of saying “show, don’t tell,” and perhaps this is the kind of thing they’re talking about. The plot slowly took on more of a shape, through the pruning out of unneeded scenes, and the addition of new ones.

I got stuck, about three-quarters of the way through the book. The ending of the first draft was rushed, readers of the first draft urged me to expand it, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it.

Enter the writing workshop

One of the assignments for the fast-approaching workshop was to write a synopsis of a few pages. This was hard going, but proved to be very useful. The first draft was all characters and plot, just a list of who, what, where. A couple friends (including the novel forum here at Toasted Cheese) helped by making comments that were functionally “um, what?” The second draft had much more of the why in it, but not enough about the characters and events to allow the reader to follow it. A final draft, which I submitted for the workshop, struck a balance.

While writing the synopsis, it became much clearer to me what I wanted to do with the ending. I can recommend from experience: when you get stuck on the plot, write, or re-write, a synopsis.

The workshop itself was a lot of fun. At the first class we went around the table, and the students each read a few pages from the beginning of their novels-in-progress. Comments were relatively few, by design: did it get your attention? Could you taste the snow? Were you embarrassed for the shoplifter?

For the remaining classes, two students were assigned to bring in enough copies of their synopsis and a first chapter (or two), which were handed out. These were read and critiqued in the ensuing week, and discussed at the next class.

The discussion was fairly formal: the first ten minutes were for positive comments only. The next twenty, for any comment anyone cared to make about the chapter and the synopsis. Up to this point, the author was, by rule, silent, except perhaps to clear up confusion. The last ten minutes, the author could answer, elucidate, ask questions of the critics, and so forth. It was difficult to sit through half an hour of discussion on my own book, without answering, but it was most enlightening, seeing the things other people saw in it: parallels to similar novels or movies, wondering where it was going and how it would get there.

In my case, the consensus was that my novel starts too gently, without enough of a hook to draw the reader into continuing. There’s little idea of where it’s going from that first chapter or two. This became clear from the other students’ comments. They also pointed out that the understanding of the characters about the nature of time and the mutability of history changes as the book progresses. I’m not sure I had noticed that before someone pointed it out. It should certainly be made more explicit in the synopsis, and perhaps in the book itself. Here is an article on how to write a fiction synopsis. The rewriting process for me was like a three-legged stool: the synopsis helps with sorting out the plot, the workshop helps with the synopsis, and the novel itself helps with both the synopsis and the workshop (if only through sympathy with the other writers’ plights).

There were enough dropouts that we had an extra session at the end of the class with nothing to critique. We agreed among ourselves that we wanted to learn more about plotting, so the instructor encouraged us to write a synopsis either of one of our own novels, or any other novel which we’d found interesting and plot-rich. I responded with a synopsis of my first NaNo (from 2003), which served in part to emphasize the plot flaws of that story, but was also valuable experience in writing a synopsis, and in seeing how it reflected on the plot. Another student wrote a synopsis of a published book, in a spirit of learning from the masters. One other student demanded to read the 2003 NaNo on the basis of the synopsis (so maybe I did something right).

Writing Group

Several of the students from the workshop have decided to form a writing group, to get together from time to time and critique each others’ work. That’s due to start later this month (January ’09). I think most of us felt it would be useful to have more detailed feedback on the rest of our novels, beyond the first chapter and the plot synopsis. Perhaps this will be a place where we can do that for each other. It’s certainly the case that most readers of a novel will give only very perfunctory comments (“I liked it.” or “It was good.”). If you can find somebody who will tell you Aunt Agatha really has to go, and that this side-plot is interesting but not germane, recruit them for your writing group. Start a writing group if you don’t already have one.

Final Poll Results

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