Tfw You Need to Rewrite the Whole Draft From Scratch

Unsolicited Opinions / Sunday, September 16th, 2018

Ya’ll familiar with Theseus’s Paradox?

Quick philosophical set-up: Theseus was all about adventuring on his great wooden ship, right? Well, after he dies, the Athenians keep the ship as an homage. As the years go by, it begins to rot. The people of Athens replace each piece of rotten wood with a fresh plank until not a single piece of the original wood remains.

Is it still Theseus’s ship?

This is my awkward segue into a horrible admission that I have had difficulty blogging about. It’s finally time to share, just in case any of you have been in a similar position.

The first draft of the third book in my series was so bad that I had to literally rewrite it.

The. Entire. Thing.

Though I’ve overshared about the stages of rewriting in various forms, this is the first time I found a draft to be completely unusable. And it was especially demoralizing because, as the third book in the series, I thought it would have reflected better writing since I’d had more experience by then.

No such luck.

You should have seen me reading this thing through for the first time. Picture heavy black eyeliner, nails bit down to nubbins, disappointment, despair, despondency.

I took every single piece of wood out of that moldy old shipwreck. Maybe there’s a few paragraphs left of the draft, a forgotten plank in the corner of the hull, but in time those will probably be replaced as well. 

During my rewrite, I’ve changed the entire plotline. Added characters. Subtracted characters. Killed some off that I hadn’t originally; saved some that I’d thought were doomed.

Did I say I was replacing planks? This weepy writer wasn’t just replacing the wood. She was heading out to the forest with a chainsaw and gathering the fucking lumber for the planks. It was hard. Or I should say, hard in writer terms. (The other day, I mentioned that writing is hard to my brother, who’s an ER doctor and he didn’t say anything mean but he did raise his eyebrows sort of high which is when I realized sure, okay, maybe typing on my keyboard while drinking various teas is different and perhaps less difficult than working 24-hr shifts saving other human being’s lives or whatever.)

Okay, back to me. The worst part of this GRUELING PROCESS?

This complete rewrite came on the heels of a previous frustration. Like, I didn’t start this project with a spring in my step and a song in my heart; I’d just abandoned edits on my second book because I was losing perspective, so I already had this sort of desperation about my series in general. So reading through the first draft of the third book and seeing how much work it needed really bummed me out.

But I started a document and entitled it Book 3 Rewrite and here we are, a few months later.

Am I coming at you triumphantly, with a beautiful completed second draft? No, it takes time to rewrite an entire book. I’m about 4/5 of the way through, and I just realized that I have to AGAIN go back and rewrite some of the earlier chapters in order for the last act of my novel to make any sense.

It’s been distressing, but throughout the process I’ve been practicing “positivity,” and placating myself with the following, which I share in case you ever find yourself in a similar position:

It’s still your ship, dammit.

I solved Theseus’s Paradox, at least on a personal level. Despite all the changes, it’s still the same book. My book.

Part of my personal Greek tragedy about rewriting this book was that I was attached to it, shitty as it was. I didn’t want to take it apart piece by piece. I sort of loved it, bad as it was. Maybe, just maybe, I should let it stay and molder instead?

No. Because even if you completely replace your first draft with your second, and your second with your third, it is still your book. You know what you were trying to capture with your work, the feelings and meaning you wanted to convey. It’s still yours, and making it better bit by bit isn’t a dishonor to your original vision.

You are not alone

We are not all Stephen King, who writes like three drafts then taps the pages of his manuscript with a magic wand. And produces a bestseller. Many writers have to scrap the entire first draft and basically start from scratch. I always take some comfort from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, where she says,

“In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

So there you go, even famous well-regarded writers write shitty first drafts. And I guarantee that in any given coffee shop in America right now, there types a despondent author wondering if this time, just maybe, she’s writing the draft that will stick. (This, incidentally, is where reading other people’s blogs has been a Godsend to me. Bless all of your hearts for being so open and honest about your travails.)

You did not waste your time

Oh, I did struggle with this thought a few months ago, when I realized that virtually everything in my draft had to be dismantled. Patiently and methodically like when you take the Christmas lights down at the end of January and they’re all sad and blink-y and you’re sad, too, because it’s January and Christmas is over for good and you have to start a whole new dumb year all over again.

It can feel like you wasted your time. Like all that time you spent trying to navigate eating an apple while typing on your lunch break (leaving only a sweetly sticky keyboard as evidence of your trials) is for NOTHING. It can even bring all those writing guilt feelings to bear, like maybe instead of locking yourself inside your fortress (in my case, 1 bedroom apartment) of solitude you could have, I don’t know, hung out with other people or made some money?

If you find that you’re reproaching yourself for spending so much time on something that failed, I recommend reminding yourself that you’re an intfintesimal speck of nothingness in the cold vastness of the universe and nothing you do matters anyway.

It really puts things in perspective

Take it day by day

If you re-read your first draft and you start to hear a long, low funereal dirge inside your skull, chill. It’s not that big of a deal. You know what you have to do. Just lay out the pieces, day by day. Try to keep yourself on schedule with the rewrite, but feel empowered to step back when you need to. You book will be written.

If you’re in the same position as I am, then I genuinely feel for you. I know what it’s like. If you ever need to commiserate, please get in touch.

Conversely, if you’re writing your first draft and everything is going swimmingly and you think it’ll hardly need any edits at all, well…we probably can’t be friends.

Just kidding.


15 Replies to “Tfw You Need to Rewrite the Whole Draft From Scratch”

  1. That would kill me. I suppose, because I write so slowly, opportunities to alter plot points and characters are always there. And if I do need to change some prior assumption, it’s not so disruptive that the rest of the story comes unhinged. So far, all my efforts have gone from A-Z with few hiccups. I’d prolly abandon a broken finished plot.

    1. Ha- we have very different writing styles! I write my first draft with just a vague skeleton, so usually the plot doesn’t develop till the second, sometimes third draft. So I write quickly, then edit slowly.

  2. Hang in there! Writing something you feel proud of can take a lot of time, but it’s worth it in the end. I’ve been working on one novel for over 2 years now, and recently looked back at a previous draft of a chapter I’ve edited over and over, and I was able to laugh at where I’d started and how far I’d come. I’m still not quite finished, and who knows whether anyone else will ever read and enjoy it, but when I look at it now I don’t regret the time and changes it’s taken, and when you’re proud of your draft you (probably) won’t either. It’s definitely emotionally challenging in the process, though. But when it works… words can save lives, too. 😉

    1. Ahh thank you so much for the encouraging words! It’s so true – despite my angst, I really am proud of my series. It needs a lot of work, but luckily it’s my favorite work in the world. Thanks again for the kind words😊

  3. Can’t you do what car companies do? Just take an old car model, slap a new body on it, and then re-market it under a different name? Or is that called plagiarism?

    Okay, now I have a more legitimate question. How do you know a draft is so bad that you have to re-write it? I mean, I get that all first drafts are bad, but how did you know that this one was unsalvageable?

    Props to you for not giving up though! Do kids still use “props” these days?

    1. Props on that excellent question.

      No, that wasn’t quite right.

      I’m discontinuing props for my personal use, effective immediately.

      I knew the draft was too bad to save because nothing really…happened. I was way too caught up in my characters’ heads and emotions in the first draft, which is all well and fine for me. But I’m trying to create a series that people will actually like, and for that I needed a more complex plot, more conflict-driven chapters, and more complex interplay between characters.
      The story is the same, generally, but the entire thing needed restructuring. And sadly, that meant rewriting. Lots and lots of it.

      1. Why discontinue props for your personal use? I’m pretty sure you used it correctly.

        Hmm, the creating a series that people will actually like seems like it’d be rather hard…and never guaranteed. Having a solid structure always helps though. I’m really not in a position to give you advice, since I’ve never written a novel, but I always find that creating a general outline of whatever piece I’m trying to write is a great way to make sure it has structure before I even start my first draft.

        1. Outlines come naturally to me when it comes to non-fiction work. I don’t think I could write most of the articles I write without an outline.

          But fiction is more of an exploratory process for me because I don’t have much of an agenda when I start except to make it a) enjoyable for me and b) readable by others. So my first draft is just following my writing and story instincts. And I always get something out of it – the shape of a ship, the disorganized bones of a skeleton.

          It’s actually really fun! It’s probably the most enjoyable thing I do in my day-to-day life, creating fiction without a clear idea of the outcome. It’s just then there’s the not-so-fun part of organizing it afterwards so it makes sense for other people. And even then, once I get started with the second draft, it’s very enjoyable.

          It’s just that tipping point, that moment of realization that there’s a lot of work ahead? Ugh. That’s what I was writing about in this post.

          All in all, the pleasure of writing sloppy first drafts outweighs the sting of having to start all over again with a more clear direction. Fiction is weird.

          Props to anyone who can figure it out 🙂

          1. Oh my, the unpredictability of beginning to write without a semi-clear idea of how you want the story to develop terrifies me. And by “terrifies” I mean that I feel slightly nervous. Perhaps that means I need to start writing fiction, to become more comfortable with ambiguity.

            Ugh, the “ugh” moment of realizing how much work lies ahead is the worst.

            Perhaps the pleasure of writing sloppy first drafts comes from the flow of pure, unbridled creativity?

          2. There’s something truly magical about that sloppy first draft! Especially when I first started my series and I had NO IDEA where it was going, or that it was even going to be a series, it was just this incredible feeling. This real sensation that I was making something out of nothing.

            I think for some of my future fictional endeavors, I’ll try to go in with a little more planning. But I hope I always pencil in some unbridled fiction time. I think it’s good for me.

  4. It’s not a waste of time- these things happen when it comes to art! Sometimes books just don’t work and have to be rewritten- it’s happened to me and while it can be a pain I realised that sometimes it’s just a part of the process and there was fun to be had in it anyway. Incidentally I was watching a video the other day about how the author vlogging world (and I think some authors in general) paint a picture that it’s easy and that there’s a right way to do things- when in reality I can think of *so many* stories about authors who struggled and had to scrap things. I think having to do something like this is probably a lot more common than we think.

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! It’s so helpful to hear about other writers who struggle with this same thing. It’s so frustrating (and frankly heartbreaking) in the moment that you realize everything needs to be redone…but it almost always leads to something better down the road.
      Do you remember what the video was? I’d like to check that out.

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