Rewriting a novel: self-critique

A nice reader told me my previous post How to rewrite a novel using scene cards, was more about “why” than “how”, and I agreed. I wanted to show everyone my new technique, thinking somehow that everything surrounding it was a matter of course… which it isn’t. So I went and renamed that post and will make this a series as I progress in the rewriting process.

In this post, I’ll focus on the first step: rereading and filling my scene cards, then critiquing each scene and the story as a whole.

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Rereading

girl-5-copieWhen reading my first draft, I like to pretend I’m a creative writing teacher providing constructive criticism to their student. This accomplishes two things: 1) it allows me to focus on what’s wrong rather than going straight into problem-solving mode and 2) it puts some distance between me and the draft.

The first point helps me move forward and not get stuck on individual scenes: at this point, the goal is to see the story as a whole, not to troubleshoot each individual scene. That’ll come later.

The second point allows me to see the scenes as they are written and not as I first imagined them or as I remember them. For example, I can see then that even though my narrator doesn’t notice her surrounding much, with next to no setting description she and all the other characters are just talking heads.

For some reason, it also allows me to judge my main character mercilessly. I love her, so I tend to be too compassionate towards her… like a mother who doesn’t see their kid’s flaws. I muffle her harsh words, soften her acts… like her being perfect could somehow make me closer to perfection. It can’t. All it does is make her unreal and boring. It’s not that I didn’t give her flaws; she has plenty of them. But she never acts on an impulse; she’s never conflicted about her own actions; she never let her flaws get in her way. She’s nonhuman.

Distancing myself from the book also helps me tell whether the plot works or not. I had a fairly solid outline for this book, but… either I never looked at it as a reader, or I couldn’t tell before writing the thing that it wouldn’t work.

I kept on throwing obstacles on my MC’s path, not realizing that I shouldn’t have made it so straight and clear to begin with. The result was that she had it too easy AND the obstacles looked like I’d stolen them from a B movie.

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Filling scene cards

After I’ve read each scene, I fill the corresponding card. As an example, here’s my first scene (featuring Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and my terrible handwriting):

Scene 01a

The notes in the margin were written as a quick-reference. I wasn’t sure whether I should rewrite the thing or delete it, but either way, I knew it didn’t work.

Most boxes are fairly straightforward, but I’d like to add a word on scene goals. A scene must always have at least one concrete goal, and one more abstract. For example, in my first scene I want to introduce my main character (concrete) and create empathy, i.e. make the reader care about what happens to her (abstract). For this, I’ll have to set the stage, introduce my MC’s external and internal conflicts, thereby hinting at some of my story’s themes.

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Critiquing

Right after I’ve read the scene, I go ahead and point out its faults in free form. It’s actually halfway between critique and brainstorming. As an example, here’s the back side of my first scene:

Scene 01b

Because it was the very first scene to be reviewed, I didn’t want to come to the conclusion I had to delete it. I tried saving it as much as I could… in vain. It simply didn’t fit in the book anymore. It had value all through the drafting process, because every time I had interrogations about my MC I’d go back and reread this scene to remember who she was, but that was it: it belongs in my MC’s character sheet, not in the book proper.

That being said, some issues relate to a whole bunch of scenes or even the entire book. For those, I have a separate binder divided into as many sections as needed. Currently, it contains notes and improvement ideas on story structure (especially “beats”, i.e. opening image/hook, inciting incident, first plot point, etc.), character development and 2 particular story arcs that don’t work.

It’s important I detach myself emotionally from my draft and not think in terms of how long or hard it would be to change this or that, which would only discourage me. I focus on what’s in front of me, what works, what doesn’t, whether a passage is too long and boring or whether it feels rushed, etc. Then I’ll have to focus on the baby steps I can take to reach the goal, which is a structurally sound and entertaining manuscript. Of course, I probably cannot avoid some degree of emotional ups and downs, but I want to avoid the downs to go so low I get writer’s block (which in my case is almost always due to performance anxiety).

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Notes for the rewrite

Now, this step is about finding problems, not fixing them. But if, while tossing and turning in bed at night or while reading a book on writing I suddenly see how a scene should be, I take notes.

In this case, I realised I didn’t want my book to start in my MC’s head, nor did I want her to introduce herself through narration. I wanted to introduce her by showing what she endures to make her dream of being a professional musician come true (external conflict), and how her issues with appearances and gender identity and double standards have an impact on her life (internal conflict). I might even hint at her total lack of social skills while I’m at it. “Show, don’t tell” as they say. A good example of what this might look like would be the short story Programme by The Loyal Brit.

With that in mind, I printed and filled a new scene card, which I stapled on top of the old one:

Scene 01c

Now I have a place and a date and even a mood, implied in “rough conditions of life”. We get to skip the introduction and go straight to the action and, shortly after, the hook. The card mostly serves as a reminder, so it’s okay if it’s a bit vague. I’ll figure out the details when I rewrite the thing.

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The next step will be to fix the story and fine-tune my characters. Only when that’s done will I actually start rewriting.

First post in this series: Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

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9 thoughts on “Rewriting a novel: self-critique

  1. Well detailed and full of fantastic examples, Ida! Wow. I’m impressed at your in-depth details you continue to provide on your blog as well as the process you use. In fact, it has made me realize that perhaps I ought not drag my feet about returning to novel length writing. Because I think one of my fears about returning to novels is the revision process. My problem tends to center around to once I start deleting and fine-tuning, I can’t stop. It’s not always a bad thing; but I do tend to be my harshest critic. I like your example of envisioning yourself as a creative writing teacher in order to take a step back; that’s a brilliant idea to remove one’s self from the novel without compromising the need to tweak, cut, and move forward. I look forward to the continuation of this series.
    Also, I’m entirely humbled you used Programme as your example. What an honor you have bestowed upon me! 🙂 Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m glad you liked it! And even more glad if it made you this much closer to writing a novel. ^_^

      I get what you mean; I’m my harshest critique too. If I spend 2 hours writing the first draft of a blog post, I’ll spend something like 8 hours rewriting and editing it. I’d probably spend even more time on it if it wasn’t that I want to publish one post a week (I find blogging an excellent means of practising “letting go”). With my day job, and my kid, and my fiction, 10 hours a week on a blog post is already somewhat too much. ^^; Using the rule of three, that’d mean I could very well spend a whole twelvemonth rewriting my book before I can even think of having it beta-read and professionally edited, and then how much longer until I finally get it published, online or otherwise? And will I go and want to rewrite it *again* somewhere during that process?

      Whatever happens, though, writing novels (or rewriting them) is my favourite hobby and so far I’ve enjoyed it every step of the way. At this pace, I might never make it pro, but there was a time when I was convinced I’d never be able to complete so much as the first draft of a novel (I had failed so many times), so… anything’s possible.

      Aaaaand, you’re welcome. “Programme” inspired me a lot.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think the trickiest part of writing (whether it’s novel writing, blogging, etc.) is overcoming the hurdles to get one to write. So like you said how much time you set aside and then how much time goes in to the editing process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard other people say they’ve done two to four revisions after the first big edit. I’ve done it too, but of course it’s never been anything so official (if one overlooks my multiple revisions for writing for school). But we persevere. I believe in you and think you’re doing a spectacular job of it!! Just be sure it stays your favourite hobby, okay? As long as you love it, that’s the most important part! 😄 Anything is possible!
        The fact “Programme” inspired you is just…wow, so incredibly motivating and touching. Sincerely, you have my thanks! ❤️

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks so much for this! Very interesting and helpful sounding technique! I also write and have a novel going right now that I am re-editing for the eighteenth time, but I have not gone in with a specific technique I just sort of read with a critical eye, this sounds like a great advice and like a might cut down on some of the time I waste.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Love your analogy of our love for our characters being like a mother’s love for her child. Of course, we know we’ve got to place all kinds of stumbling blocks/slam doors in our characters–whatever analogy you like–in order to see what they’re made of and help them grow. As a writer currently revising a novel (a process that seems never-ending) I’m with you! Just keep plugging away. Thanks for the detailed procedural tips!

    Liked by 4 people

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