Monday, August 23, 2010


We are now going to tackle the vast subject of rewriting.

And before I even start, please remember that taking time off from your first draft before you jump into revisions is far more important than anything else I’m going to say here today. One week is the bare minimum, two is better, three is even better. (This is advice I have to force myself to take, but it ALWAYS pays off).

But once you have taken the time off… how the hell do you proceed with the second draft?

Well, first you have to read it. All the way through. Not necessarily in one sitting (if that’s even possible to begin with!); I usually do this in chunks of 50 pages or 100 pages a day – anything else makes my brain sore.

(And yes, if you’ve been following the posts on The Three Act Structure and The Eight Sequence Structure, that would mean I’m either reading one sequence or two sequences a day).

I picked up a tip from some book or article a long time ago about reading for revisions, and I wish I could remember who said it to credit them, because it’s great advice. Grab yourself a colored pen or pencil (or all kinds of colors, go wild) and sit down with a stack of freshly printed pages (sorry, it’s ungreen, but I can’t do a first revision on a screen. I need a hard copy). Then read through and make brief notes where necessary, but DO NOT start rewriting, and PUT THE PEN DOWN as soon as you’ve made a note. You want to read the first time through for story, not for stupid details that will interrupt your experience of the story as a whole. You want to get the big picture – especially – you want to see if you actually have a book (or film, if that’s what you’re writing).

If you are like me, there will be large chunks of absolute shit. That’s pretty much my definition of what a first draft is. X them out on the spot if you have to, but resist the temptation to stop and rewrite. Well, if you REALLY are hot to write a scene, I guess, okay, but really, unless you are totally, fanatically inspired, it’s better just to make brief notes.

When you’ve finished reading there should - hopefully! - be the feeling that even though you probably still have massive amounts of work yet to do, there is a book there. (I love that feeling…)

Once I’ve read through the entire thing, I make notes about my impressions, and then usually I will do a re-card:

The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

I will have made many scribbled notes on the draft to the effect of “This scene doesn’t work here!” In some of my first drafts, whole sections don’t work at all. This is my chance to find the right places for things. And, of course, throw stuff out.

I will go through the entire book again – going back and forth between my pages and the cards on my story grid - and see where the story elements fall. There is no script or book I’ve ever written that didn’t benefit from a careful overview once again identifying act breaks, sequence climaxes, and key story elements like: The Call to Adventure; Stating the Theme; identifying the Central Question; Central Action and Plan; Crossing the Threshold; Meeting the Mentor; the Dark Night of the Soul - once the first draft is actually finished. A lot of your outline may have changed, and you will be able to pull your story into line much more effectively if you check your structural elements again and continually be thinking of how you can make those key scenes more significant, more magical.

(For a quick refresher on Story Elements, skip down to #10 at the bottom of this post, and the links at the end for more in-depth discussion.)

Also, be very aware of what your sequences are. If a scene isn’t working, but you know you need to have it, it’s probably in the wrong sequence, and if you look at your story overall and at what each sequence is doing, you’ll probably be able to see immediately where stray scenes need to go. That’s why re-carding and re-sequencing is such a great thing to do when you start a revision.

Now, the next steps can be taken in whatever order is useful to you, but here again are the Top Ten Things I Know About Editing.

1. Cut, cut, cut.

When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.

Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”, and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! Then if you do, fine. But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will. It's okay if you bitch about it all the way to the trash file, too - I always do.

2. Find a great critique group.

This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. Editors don’t edit the way they used to and publishing houses expect their authors to find friends to do that kind of intensive editing. Really.

3. Do several passes.

Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is. Then give yourself a break — a week is good, two weeks is better, three weeks is better than that — as time permits. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.

4. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.

For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.

I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.

5. Know your Three-Act Structure.

If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your climax. Each of those scenes should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.

6. Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE pass in which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”

7. Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass, in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene, what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?

8. Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.

9. Read your book aloud. All of it. Cover to cover.

I wouldn’t recommend doing this with a first draft unless you feel it’s very close to the final product, but when you’re further along, the best thing I know to do to edit a book — or script — is read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.

10. Finally, and this is a big one: steal from film structure to pull your story into dramatic line.

Some of you are already well aware that I’ve compiled a checklist of story elements that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story on index cards, and again when I’m starting to revise. I find it invaluable to go through my first draft and make sure I’m hitting all of these points, so here it is again, for those just finding this post.



* Opening image
* Meet the hero or heroine
* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.
* Hero/ine’s problem
* Hero/ine’s ghost or wound
* Hero/ine’s arc
* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
* Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
* State the theme/what’s the story about?
* Allies
* Mentor (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
* Love interest
* Plant/Reveal (or: Setups and Payoffs)
* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)
* Sequence One climax
* Central Question
* Central Story Action
* Plan (Hero/ine's)
* Villain's Plan
* Act One climax



* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
* Threshold Guardian (maybe)
* Hero/ine’s Plan
* Antagonist’s Plan
* Training Sequence
* Series of Tests
* Picking up new Allies
* Assembling the Team
* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
* In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.


* Completely changes the game
* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
* Can be a huge revelation
* Can be a huge defeat
* Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
* Can be sex at 60 — the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems


* Recalibrating — after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the Midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.
* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive
* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)
* Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).
* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)
* Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn't it?)
* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)


* Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is
* Answers the Central Question



The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence — the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:

1. Getting there (storming the castle)
2. The final battle itself

* Thematic Location — often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
* The protagonist’s character change
* The antagonist’s character change (if any)
* Possibly allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
* Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs you've been saving (as in BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE).

* RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

If these story elements are new to you, you’ll want to read:

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three

Elements of Act Three: Elevate Your Ending

Elements of Act Three: What Makes a Great Climax?

Act Climaxes and Turning Points

Part 1:

Part 2:

During the next week I'll be posting more about how to do different kinds of passes for particular effect.

And I'd love for people to share their own rewriting tricks!

- Alex


I have succumbed and put the Screenwriting Tricks workbook up for Nook and on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)


Jessie Mac said...

I've emailed your page to myself as I'm getting to editing soon.

Even though you concentrate on screenwriting, I think it applies to most stories.

Thanks for the post, Alexandra.

Debbie said...

I'm approaching the beta readers stage but I'm do you find a writer's group? How do you personally (at the beginnig) surrender trust? I took a synopsis writing course (huge leap of faith) that also tackled premis eight months ago and only yesterday wrote something that sounded even remotely compelling (thank you for your post What's Your Premise). How do you get the kind of feedback that's helpful?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jessie, that's funny, I think of myself as concentrating much more on novels. It's just a lot easier to use film examples because more people have seen certain films than will ever read - any - novel.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Debbie, I think a good way to find a writing group is to join your local RWA (Romance Writers of America)or Sisters in Crime or MWA or HWA chapter. These organizations have local chapters all over the country and they almost always have critique groups. Your local library or bookstore might also have writers' groups.

Trust is a tricky issue - some writing groups are just bad. You have to be able to listen carefully and discern what is of use to you and what's useless or even harmful. Some people just like to hear themselves talk.

N. R. Williams said...

I think that I could spend several days just reading all your post. They are educational and a good reminder of what we once knew and forgot. Since I enjoy this blog so much I gave you an award. Come pick it up.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Saumya said...

This is so incredibly helpful. I am about to start my editing (after taking a month off) and am using this as my guideline. Thank you so much for always giving such invaluable advice!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

This is awesome advice, Alex, and I've redirected several new and old writers to read for themselves. You are a treasure. Thanks for all you do and for all your help.

liakeyes said...

Alexandra, you're one of the best I know at explaining this stuff candidly, clearly, and without holding anything back to preserve mystique. You are my hero! Thanks for this. It's going into my "writing advice gems" file.

From a former student...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips!

I'm definitely going to read through this again and again every time I rewrite a piece.

This is some awesome advice and write on!

Gayle Carline said...

I have a digital voice recorder and record sections of my novel, then listen to them while I'm driving. It's an entirely different experience than reading aloud.

Unknown said...


Just wanted to say this website inspires me to do my best work.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Nancy! You said it exactly - this is stuff we know and forget in the brain freeze that a first draft is. But c'mon - how many movies have we seen in our lives? How many books have we read?

Of course we know all this.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Saumya, it seems like everyone needed a post on rewriting just about now, me included. Good for you for taking a whole month!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thank you for checking in, Joylene, Lia and Vatche! It always helps to know I'm being of some use.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, that's a really interesting way to hear your book. Isn't it scary, though? I guess I should try it!

Largo Chimp said...

I think the idea of reading your draft for specifics like suspense, sensory details and emotion is innovative.

I'm on what I hope is the last draft of my novel, but I may have to try some of these techniques.

Thanks for helping us writers out there.

Gayle Carline said...

Alex - it's no scarier than recording your outgoing message on your phone. I find that, when my mouth isn't involved, my brain processes what I'm hearing differently.

laughingwolf said...

i agree with you, alex... and find doing an audio tape of my tale, rather than just reading it aloud... then playing it back, some time later... really shows - all the flaws - in their pristine glory! lol

most of the time i can't believe those gremlins got into my stuff, again, and screwed up my tale :O

T. B. Wright said...

Wow, this post came along at the PERFECT time. I Just finished the first draft of my novel THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BURNE about a week ago and have been gathering as much information I can regarding editing and revising.
Thanks, Alexandra. Your posts have always been so enlightening!

Robert Burton Robinson said...

Alexandra, I recently discovered your blog, and have been thoroughly enjoying and learning from every post. I've made some very nice improvements to my WIP as a direct result of the wonderful, detailed tips you've given here.

Thanks so much. Please keep it up. :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Largo Chimp (love it!) - I'm really just stealing the technique from TV writer rooms. At least, there's always that comedy awareness going on in comedy series rooms. But why not steal the idea for suspense, horror, romance, etc?

A genre is a PROMISE to the audience that they're going to get a certain sensation, or experience. What could be more logical than making absolutely sure you're delivering on that promise?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

LW, now that's a great idea - recording your reading of the ms and playing it back later when you have more distance.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

T.B., Huzzah!!! on finishing that first draft!

Everything else now is cake.

Glad you're finding the ideas useful. Anything that helps. Anything.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Robert, thank you for saying so - I'm so glad you're finding this stuff of use.

Better books, is what we're after. However that can happen.

laughingwolf said...

thx alex... to make it really bizarre, videotape yourself reading it, including the gesticulations you think belong there... then hire/fire that goofball! ;) lol

Anonymous said...

Impeccable timing Alex as I am also nearing the end of my first draft. I must admit, until I get a innate feel for this process I reread and study your posts over and over again. I am so looking forward to doing a horror pass to amp up my story even more. I am very lucky to have found a critique group of passionate writers. Two of the writers in our group do substantive editing and have been remarkble in my process thus far. You are sooo on it about the writing process. -ACE ANTONIO HALL

Ed Love said...

Thanks for the post, illuminating as usual. As a huge Fawlty Towers fan (recovering ex Brit), I can also recommend him in Clockwise, where the ticking clock is the basis of the whole thing. Very entertaining!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Ace - excellent that you found the right critique group. It's all the difference!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ed, there's nothing to recover from. BE a Brit. Love you guys.

But esp. John Cleese. Will have to check out Clockwise, hard to believe I haven't seen it.

Margo Berendsen said...

Fantastic advice about letting yourself think about a cut before actually forcing yourself to do it. And the pass-throughs focussed on specifics such as suspense, emotions, etc. Definitely gotta do this.