Tuesday, March 26, 2013

6 The Art of the Rewrite by Heather Anastasiu

I’ve made no secret that writing OVERRIDE, the second book in my trilogy, was crazy tough. I’d heard other writers talk about have to start a book from scratch several times over because it wasn’t working, but I’d think, nah, that will never happen to me!

Ahem. Yeah. Famous last words. I wrote one complete draft of OVERRIDE, then half of it over again, and then I had to scrap all of that and start over AGAIN. The good news is, I’m really, really happy with the final product.

When do you know that you need to do a rewrite?

Usually, you know because of feedback. Also important to note here is that you need critique partners who will be brutally honest with you. Or you need to read between the lines about the critiques you are getting. I recognized I’d need a rewrite when all of my beta partners, my agent, and my editor seemed less than enthusiastic about the draft. Nobody came out and said it was horrible, but there was a lot of beating around the bush about how bad it was. I think I probably scared my editor with that first draft. I imagined her in the office reading it and being like ‘why on earth did I ever buy this trilogy?’

Eventually, though I balked and balked and balked internally, I finally looked at the draft again myself and realized the problem—it had no soul. Which is a flowery way of saying I hadn’t connected to my main character emotionally as I was writing, so she was just like this lifeless puppet I was swinging around through various plot points. The thing is, when you as a writer don’t connect to a character, the reader isn’t going to either. Which you know, is kind of a big problem—the kind of systemic problem that requires you to chuck everything you’ve got and start over. Usually you also need time away from a draft, maybe a month or more while it’s out with critique partners, to be able to have the perspective to see your own work clearly enough to see the problems.

Commence freaking out and screaming, no I don’t WANNA!!! But alas, the bad draft is still sitting there staring at you. Now what?

I’m not one of those crazy people who just starts a new document and begins over at page one. That’s far too daunting and scary. So what I do instead is take some time to outline the book as it is currently. I’ll re-read sections and decide what the big problems areas are. Then I brainstorm possible fixes to the problem. In OVERRIDE one of the biggest problems (in addition to the lack of voice) was the first half. Nothing really happened in it. There was no tension, no cause and effect to keep pulling the reader along from one chapter to the next, just a bunch of people kind of sitting in one place being boring.

A lot of times with a rewrite, I’ll find my favorite part and start working there, to give myself incentive to actually start (usually for me this means working on the romantic storyline and scenes), but because of deadlines with OVERRIDE, I had to dive straight into this problematic first half. Instead of having my characters sit still for a hundred pages, I found ways to make them be on the run. In almost each chapter dramatic things happen to push them from one location to the next. And as I worked on making them move, I tried to also key in on the bigger voice problem. At every step, I kept asking myself, what does Zoe want? What are her motivations and her worst fears? This is key to figuring out voice. It’s the most basic question writers should always be asking themselves: what does my character want and then, what obstacles can I throw in their path to keep them from getting it?

I finally realized that what Zoe wants most is family, a safe place where she can protect the people she loves. This was key to unraveling her character for me so that I finally firmly knew who she was.

After I’d gotten the beginning fixed, then I moved onto the other big problem areas (aka, the middle and the end!), both of which centered around action scenes. As you write more and more, you’ll discover your own strengths and weaknesses. One of my weaknesses is writing action scenes. There’s so many moving parts and people you have to keep shifting around like chess pieces and there’s so much going on at once. For me action scenes can too easily turn into a boring list: this happened, then this and this. And on top of all the moving parts, you also have to weave in emotional stakes in each action scene.

So here’s the key: knowing your weaknesses, you can work around them. Some people are excellent at writing huge tableau battle scenes like Scott Westerfeld did in his Leviathan series. I am not like that. For me, the solution lay in cutting a few characters off from the melee and focusing in on them. I could keep track of two or three important characters at once.

Another trick was to change the nature of the battle. In my first couple drafts there was a huge all-out fight with everyone there at once at the end. In my last rewrite, I made the conflict a lot more intimate—it’s Zoe alone going in to search for something, and the main obstacle I threw in her way forces her to face her worst fears. That way I brought both the action plot and the emotional plot to a climax at the same time, which is the best way to pack an emotional wallop for your readers.

So these are the big things to keep in mind when you do a re-write:

Take some time away from the draft. Get feedback and then try to look at it with fresh eyes. And be brutal with yourself—not the self-defeating kind of brutal, aka, ‘I suck and will never be successful at this writing thing!’ Instead, you need the productive kind of brutal, acknowledging that this is a work in progress, that all writers (both published and unpublished) are facing these same problems, and gearing yourself up to dig in to do the work that needs to be done.

What does my character want and what do they fear? Am I crafting the plot to really push these desires and fears to the forefront so I can get a full emotional arc for my characters? Your characters are what stay with a reader, not clever plots. Your character’s emotional arc is what will make readers laugh and cry.
Do I lose tension during any section of the book? Do I keep the stakes high? Usually this ties back into the first point—does the reader genuinely feel like the main character has something important to lose, that their wants and desires are challenged in some way in each chapter? Don’t be afraid to hurt your main character or take them scary places. Being a writer means being willing to gut your main characters and then kick them while they’re down. Conflict is what stories are all about.

What are my strengths and weaknesses as a writer? How can I key in on those weaknesses and what do I need to change to work around them? Often this means figuring out a way to be tricky and use your strengths to hide your weaknesses. Good at writing lively characters but have difficulty with plot? Brainstorm obstacles to your main character’s happiness by having them challenged by another character and let the personality sparks bring on the conflict. Good at plot but weaker on characterization? Craft plots that will threaten your main character’s wants and desires (I realize I’m kind of a broken record on this point, but seriously, it’s the single most important way to create an emotionally powerful story!!!).

And at the end of all that work? A book I’m very proud of, and one that almost across the board has garnered more critical and popular acclaim than GLITCH did. That’s the real magic of the rewrite—you can create something truly special, a book that others will want to read and then think about for weeks after they finish it.

About the Author

Heather Anastasiu recently moved to Minneapolis with her family, and when she's not busy getting lost exploring the new city, she spends most days writing at a café or daydreaming about getting a new tattoo.

She is the author of GLITCH, OVERRIDE, and the forthcoming SHUTDOWN.

Find out more on Heather’s website 
Check out her blog
Follow her on Twitter

About the Book

Zoe lives in a world free of pain and war. Like all members of the Community, a small implanted chip protects her from the destructive emotions that destroyed the Old World. Until her hardware starts to glitch.

Zoe begins to develop her own thoughts and feelings, but nothing could be more dangerous in a place where malfunctions can get you killed. And she has another secret she must conceal at all costs: her glitches have given her uncontrollable telekinetic powers.

As she struggles to keep her burgeoning powers hidden, she finds other glitchers with abilities like hers, and together they plot to escape. But the more she learns about beauty, joy, and love, the more Zoe has to lose if they fail. With danger lurking around every corner, she’ll have to decide just how much she’s willing to risk to be free.

Buy GLITCH on Amazon
Buy GLITCH on Indiebound
Find GLITCH on Goodreads 


  1. This is excellent advice. I haven't had to rewrite a book (YET), but those "big things to keep in mind as you rewrite" can be applied to any draft. Thanks very much!

  2. Thanks, this was a great post! I'm currently plotting a new book, but having similar difficulties. The plot seems like a random series of events and I haven't fully tied it in with what my main character wants. Now I know what to tackle!

  3. I'm so proud of you!! The final draft is just amazing <3

  4. Thanks so much for the advice, Heather. I've had to learn to listen to those CP's and be more brutal in my revisions too. I'm weak on characterization so you're advice is going to be really helpful there. I really appreciate it. And glad Lenore liked your final draft.

  5. Thanks so much for being on the blog with us, Heather! I love your tip about considering the nature of the conflict. Intimate conflict can be so much more powerful emotionally.

  6. I've read this article belatedly, but it's powerful and great stuff nonetheless! Excellent reminders.


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