When I last posted two weeks ago, I’d done lots of thinking and planning for this gargantuan re-draft. I hadn’t started the actual rewriting at that point, but was hopeful about the progress I’d make while on a writing retreat in the Forest of Dean. Here’s a picture of the balcony outside my room, bathed in golden afternoon sunlight.

Part of my revision process has involved getting rid of a character who’d had quite a substantial part in the novel. What I’d realised, though, was that while he did have some important work to do, the storyline that sprang from him was complicating matters, and wasn’t really relevant, so he had to go. Here’s the fun post in which I gave him the sack! The home for redundant characters

But as I say, he did have an important role, so I then went through every chapter that featured him and identified what was essential to the storyline, the things I just couldn’t afford to lose. I decided that most of those areas could be covered by another character, so her role has now become much more important. I’ve essentially combined two (possibly three) characters.

I marked the bits from the original character that  I wanted to keep and the rest, even the good stuff, had to go. Before I left for the retreat, I’d cut 36,000 words from the draft, and I did it (almost) without flinching.

I then printed out the remaining 59,000 words. First, I identified chapters that I thought (in my foolish naivete) could be kept with minimal rewriting. I went through the rest with a highlighter pen, marking out what to keep rather than what to cut. I didn’t start deleting at this point, though – I’m brave, but not that brave! I knew there would be a lot more to go, but I didn’t think I could take seeing the word count plummet much lower until I had some new words to replace them.
Off I went on my retreat with the chapters I’d decided to keep – about 30 of the original 50. I wrote a new opening chapter, then rewrote what I’d decided should be chapter 2, and that was the point at which I realised that, because of the changes in character, location, the year in which it’s set, and the order in which I’m telling the story, I need to rewrite virtually everything. Yep, everything. Because even the events that are staying, even the conversations, even the characters’ thoughts – will all be at least slightly different because of the other changes.
At this point – understandably, I’d argue – I muttered a few choice expletives. Then to calm myself, I opened the doors to the balcony, took a few deep breaths and feasted my eyes on the lovely morning sunshine before returning to my laptop.

It was good that this realisation hit me on the first morning of a four-day retreat; if I’d have been at home, I think I might have gone back to bed or hit the gin or something. But I cracked on. If I’m going to make this novel as good as I think it can be, then twiddling about with paragraphs I’ve grown fond of is only going to cause me more problems in the long run. So I wrote new chapters, I rewrote existing ones to the extent that often only a tiny part of the scene remained.

I’m still struggling with the structure, because although, like my first two novels, this story is about how the past can affect the present, it’s a more complicated timespan showing two characters’ lives over a number of years. I’ve started in the present, and need to gradually reveal the past. I tried planning the whole thing, but found that impossible, especially as so much has changed, but I’ve planned the order of the first few chapters and will continue to write a bit, plan a bit, write a bit etc. By the end of my four days, I’d ditched more than half of the original draft, and had written just over 15,000 words, about half of which were completely new.

Now I’m back home, I’ve printed out the ‘to keep’ chapters – these are chapters with an important message or emotion, but which may still be set in the wrong place and time, and may still contain redundant characters. I’ve written a couple of lines at the top of each one explaining why the chapter is important, and this is helping me to rewrite as I go along.

Despite the huge changes, the heart of this novel remains the same, and despite the mammoth amount of work I have to do, I’m feeling passionate about it. Please tune in in two weeks to see where I’m up to!

In the meantime, if you fancy coming to a one-day writing workshop in Sheffield, there are two coming up – check out the workshops page of my website

To keep an eye on what I’m up to, you can like my facebook page or follow me on Twitter  @sewelliot


  1. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Thanks, Carlie – you're right, it is utterly terrifying. Feels a bit like jumping off the top diving board when you're ten! Glad you'll be popping in. My progress (or lack of it) is very public, which should spur me on!

  2. Jo says:

    Oh my goodness! You're so brave. I've been in a similar place with my novel and I'm still fiddling, trying to get the structure right. It's an invaluable lesson that it's usually pretty impossibly to shoehorn in scenes you've loved writing and which you know are good. It's heartbreaking to have to let them go and so hard replacing them with new scenes. I can't wait for the next instalment of your blog!! It's as exciting as reading a novel.

  3. Rachael Dunlop says:

    Terrifying, but it has to be done. I knew almost straight away after finishing the first draft that I had to just the damned thing again from the ground up. It too me another three months to get up the courage to do it. Rather than cutting, I put the original WIP to one side and started over from word zero. At least this means the word count goes up and not down.

  4. theothersidetoessex says:

    Sometimes it just has to be done. We have to learn not to be too precious about our words. And who knows, some of those that end up being cut might find a new home some time in the future. Of course a glass of wine helps us maintain sanity through the editing process (well coffee in the morning, wine in the evening!)

  5. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Yes, it can be very difficult to let go of scenes you know are good, but if there is a little voice in the back of your head saying, 'this scene isn't really relevant', then the sad truth is…
    Good luck with your structure, Jo, and thanks for your kind comments about this blog.

  6. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Yes, you sort of know, deep down, don't you? That's a very good way of looking at it, though – that the word count goes up and not down. I hadn't thought of that! I've sort of done it half way, so I'm cutting then adding, cutting then adding. But I think I'm going to do the same as you, now – makes much more sense!

  7. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    I used to have a writing tutor who said, 'never discard anything' – he maintained that whatever you lose from one novel or story will quite likely find a place in a future work. And anyway, nothing is wasted, because everything we write makes us better writers in the long run.Yes, it's better to wait until the evening for wine. I try…

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