Writers tend to use the word “revision” as a catch-all term that applies to every type of self-review of their manuscript. The fact is that all revisions are not the same. A recent blog post by Janice Hardy on Fiction University outlined three different types of reviews: revision, rewrite, or redraft. In a revision, changes are minor. “The focus is on the text and the flow of the scenes,” Hardy wrote.
The next level is a rewrite. “The focus is on reworking an existing story to bring out the core idea,” she wrote. In this type of revision, “large chunks of the novel are often scrapped or reworked, but the bones are there to build on.” In a rewrite, “goals, conflicts, and motivations frequently change to reflect the new direction of the story.”
A rewrite is necessary when the writer is happy with the idea, “but the story isn’t quite unfolding the way you want it to yet.”
Then, there is the third type of revision, and the most comprehensive. This is the redraft. In this type of revision, she wrote, “the focus is on the original idea and how to get back to it.
“Nothing you’ve already drafted will work—it’s too fundamentally flawed to save. You have changed your story in a significant way.”
In a redraft, the writer is “not happy at all with what’s there.”
In my current work-in-progress, I’ve done all three types: revisions, rewrites, and redrafts. By far, the most difficult type of revision to undertake is the redraft. I threw out half of my draft novel after receiving feedback that the story didn’t work. Specifically, certain events in the story and decisions of the main character made her appear cold and unfeeling, the exact opposite of how I wanted the reader to perceive the protagonist. Discarding the latter half of my book meant wholesale changes to the story itself. In the original draft the main character’s mother is murdered after she goes out looking for her daughter (the main character), who was kicked out of the house. Now it was important to the story that the main character lost her mother, but there were other ways to do it (talk about killing your darlings).
In the first draft the father kicked the main character out of the house after she told him she intended to have an abortion. She doesn’t have the abortion, so she should have come back home, right? That was the reason she was kicked out, but she doesn’t come home. She stays away for 10 years, because it allowed me to use all of these phony plot devices.
In the redrafted story, she comes back home shortly after she decides to have her baby, only to discover her mother has dementia. In her condition, her mother is lost to her and she ends up dying a lot sooner, anyway. The main character is forced into a role she is not ready for and it challenges her in ways that relate strongly to her internal goal and obstacles.
The lesson for writers is that there may come a time, even after multiple rounds of revisions, when the story still doesn’t work. That’s when the writer is confronted with a difficult decision: undertake a redraft or scrap the story entirely. What makes this such a difficult decision is the redraft is a daunting, time consuming challenge, that occurs at a time when the writer has already put a lot of time into drafting and revising a story. What makes it worthwhile is the possibility that the writer can create a more powerful story.
How does one know whether to kill or redraft a story. Here are some questions to ask:
–Does the main character have a strong internal goal? Is that goal clear to the reader? If achieved, is the goal worth the reader’s time?
–What are the stakes and how do the stakes relate to or threaten the main character’s achievement of the goal?
–Do the oppositional forces, whether an antagonist, external events or other obstacles, grow naturally from the plot in a way that makes sense?
–Do the events of the story relate to the main character’s internal quest?
In my case, I hadn’t spent enough time identifying and developing my main character’s internal goal and the forces that prevented her from achieving it. Instead, I piled on a lot of external events (a plan to hide from her family in plain sight, a murder that her brother unwittingly caused) that I thought at the time would create a better story. Those events only served to weaken the main character and cause the reader to lose respect for her.
Once I thought through the main character’s internal goal and identified the obstacles that would block her from achieving it, everything fell into place.
Redrafting can bust a writer’s confidence, but once the writer moves past the fear of the work required, it can be satisfying to resurrect a moribund story and breathe new life into it.