Over the years, I’ve written an alarming amount of novels that I’ve never done anything with. They reside in Dropbox, dump drives, flash drives, etc, scattered and saved for the inevitable day when I decide, ‘I’m bloody doing something with that’. The MA has prompted me to re-look at everything I’ve written, and has given me a far more critical eye for seeing the now glaring errors and problems with them.
With interest in two novels, I wrote and finished one (A Game of Two Halves) and have started working on another. With Two Halves, I’d written about 80 pages, and originally tried using them, up until the point where the old version didn’t work with the new plot, and I had to write it entirely from scratch. What I noticed, through feedback, critiques, and my own, was that the sections and chapters that had the most problems, were the sections and chapters that I had edited from earlier versions., and so, for the five or so chapters that were riddled, I re-wrote them.
The one I’m working on now, was originally a 50k word story, and I’m re-working it into a full length novel, aiming for around 80-90k. Like two halves, I printed it out, and started to edit it, and after two pages with pretty much everything crossed out, new sentences scribbled over and under them, and notes all over the sides of the page, I sacked it off as a bad idea. I then started to work on Word docs with the original chapter (or the parts of the story I was using for the new version of a chapter), with the new stuff above the old stuff, re-writing it, based on the old writing. Sounds like a pretty sound plan, until I realised, that I was just writing the same problems into the story, but in a new way.
I think the issue lies, in having the Hug-Factor with everything you’ve written. If someone slates it, you can do one of two things, take their criticism on board and work out any issues the story has, or you can tell them to ram it, and cuddle your novel until your faith in it is restored. Or, like I often seemed to do, take it on board, and hope that it would fix itself, while I rocked back and forth hoping I’d learn how to write proper (like what we do… 😉 and that also, hoping that it would magically fix itself.
The Hug-Factor was something that I suffer with whenever I come to re-write something. I don’t want to lose it. I don’t want to edit it too much, in case I lose what it was. To this end, when I tried both of the tactics above, I found that I was writing the same shite, but in a far better way. All issues and problems, plot things and whatnot were still there, but they were nicer on the eye, and a pleasure to read. It was only after getting nine pages through the Prologue, that I read back through it and thought; ‘This whole section isn’t even necessary for the novel itself.’ and binned it. I then looked at what is now the new chapter one (saved as Prologue… yes, anyone who has read early edits or critiqued anything of mine, will probably know that my chapter numbering is always naff. It will usually say ‘chapter 1’ and in brackets nearby, scrawled in my appalling hand-writing, ‘(2)’. The reason is stupid, and I reckon one day, I’ll nail it, and have chapter 1 as chapter 1, without the need for a bracket saying (1) or (2) or what have you.
So chapter one in the novel I’m currently re-writing, is saved as? 00 Prologue 01.1 (1). I’m an idiot. It’s 00 because I like to have the files for each chapter show up in numerical order. Prologue, because it was the file I was originally re-writing, before casting it into the darkness. 01.1 because I still have the first version of the prologue re-write saved as 01, so the .1 is the ‘use this one’ indicator. the (1) is because I’ve downloaded two versions from Dropbox.
This current version of Chapter 1, is a million times better, and it’s one where I’ve re-written it entirely from scratch. In my Planning a Novel post (here) I said about how I plan it, and so, when I’d finally (after a couple of weeks of frustration and writing nonsense) decided to start it from scratch again, I planned each chapter using notes from the original. Chapter 1 ‘GG notices this’, ‘GG and NV discuss this, this and this’, ‘GG thinks NV is a total that’. etc. From there I’ve written it start to finish from scratch, including only information that I wanted from the original, and leaving behind the wordy mish mash of information I had previously.
Also, in the new version, you can smell the frost, feel the cold, and enjoy a cigarette with the main character without actually leaving the house or having to smoke.
The point of this post, which I’ve kind of navigated around a little, is that, no matter how I’ve tried, I have NEVER been able to edit an old version to as good a standard as I have by re-writing. The reason I’ve taken A Heist too far and The Good, the Mad and the Undead off sale, is because of this, I loved the originals, but I know I’m now able to write them SO much better. My advice would always be to re-write, using only vague notes of the important things from the original.
The main thing though, is do what works best for you. What works for me may not work best for you, and it’s the same with all advice, take what is useful, discard the rest.
2 thoughts on “To edit or re-write? The folly of re-working old stories and novels.”
I’ve been through each phase – at first I’d close edit as I went through, which is easily the best way never to finish anything, then I decided to try and whiz through and follow this up with a close edit, I’ve eventually settled on trying to whiz through the first draft, then close edit, then re-write using the second draft as a guide. This is why writing is a full time job and difficult to do when working full time.
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Definitely, fitting writing in around full-time work and any slivers of a life I try and maintain is hard work. Less sleep, more coffee can only sustain for so long! 😉