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How to Rewrite a Novel: The First Three Steps

August 7, 2016 by Diane

hand opening red curtain on white.

In junior high school, I had a math teacher who was part hipster, part geek. He wore white dress shirts, skinny black ties, black glasses, and always had what he referred to as “a plan of action.” I don’t recall what his plan was, or what action it required, but a plan of any kind appealed to my need for control.

When I write a novel, I plunge in without a plan of any kind. I’m like a detective on a mission of discovery, following a character to see who she is, what messes she gets into, how she gets out of said messes, and how she changes as a result. It makes for an exciting first-draft experience.

Then—groan—comes the rewrite.

Here’s where a plan of action would come in handy. My “plan” in the past has been to read through the manuscript, rearrange parts willy-nilly, make a mess of the whole thing, and stuff it back into its cardboard Kinko’s box.

I have no clue how to tackle a rewrite. Oh, I’ve read books galore on what’s needed plot-wise, character-wise, theme-wise, and every other wise. I’ve strapped on my monster backpack like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, weighed down by all the knowledge I’ve crammed in, and forged ahead on the long trail to rewriting glory, stumbling down roads many have gone before:

  • Resistance Highway
  • Distraction Detour
  • The Avenue of Doubt
  • The Street of Avoidance
  • The Rearranging Roundabout
  • A pit-stop to ask for directions
  • The Valley of the Critic
  • What looked like Plot Paradise but was really a pothole
  • Recharge Vista Point
  • Busyness Boulevard
  • Quitting: a dead end

On I’ve stumbled, hither and yon, ending right back where I started: with a pack of knowledge and a manuscript snipped into pieces and stuffed into a cardboard box.

Not this time.

This time, as I rewrite my novel behind the writer’s curtain, I’ve got a plan of action. I’m mapping the journey step by step. Starting with the first step.

Are you ready?

(Drum roll, please)

Step One

Set the manuscript aside.

Whaaat? That’s a step? 

Believe it or not, it is. A step back. We need the perspective, and our writing needs some breathing room.

What do we do while it’s breathing? Well, we can do any of these fifteen writing exercises, or work on another writing project, or catch up on our reading, or tackle any of those household chores we’ve put off—if we haven’t already done them as a way to avoid rewriting that novel.

When the month is up (or whatever time we’ve allotted), we’re ready for:

Step Two

Read the manuscript.

Oh, this is just too easy.

Not really. When we hunker down and read the thing we might find ourselves groaning, or thumping our forehead with the flat of our palm, or throwing the pages across the room, or eyeing the paper shredder.

But at least we know where we are on the map. We have some idea of how hard the journey might be. And we start thinking about getting the tools we need to sally forth. Which brings us to:

Step Three

Pack yer gear.


You know, the stuff we need for the trip. Here’s a list:

First aid supplies: supportive family, friends, and blog readers to prop us up

Maps: Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, or whatever plotting device we choose to use. Guides, like books, experts, and internet sites to provide the details we need to flesh out the story.

Food: whatever sustains us when the going gets tough, like inspirational quotes, and treats.

But let’s not load ourselves down, or spend too much time packing. After all, we’ve got miles to go before we submit.

This time, I’m better prepared. I’ve read my manuscript. I’ve spent time delving into additional research. Now, with Beat Sheet in hand, I know where I am, and which direction leads to the Land of Publishable Novels.

Off I go!

Stay tuned for more action plan steps as I report from the trail.


  1. Sounds like you have a good plan! I especially like your first aid supplies. 😉 Best of luck with the rewrite!

  2. Joan says:

    Sounds good!!! Wishing you a successful journey!

  3. I am both a procrastinator and an eager writer: I will furiously edit every chapter I’ve written before beginning the next. If I’m averse to writing more, continuing my story, I have the dreadful habit of reading my work from start to finish (or close to) and simply making a million changes.

    • Diane says:

      Ah yes, the old Editing Detour. I used to get caught in that trap; now I just plow through blazing a trail as I go. Or, I put the half-finished manuscript back in its cardboard box and walk away until it screams at me to come back.

      Some novelists write a chapter and then edit it before proceeding to the next. I suspect these are authors who don’t write by the seat of their pants. Otherwise, how can they edit something if they don’t know how the book is going to end? They might need to chuck that whole first chapter they’ve made all nice and shiny, and, reluctant to do so, try to force it to fit somehow. But hey, if that method works, then all I can say is: I envy you!

  4. Bun Karyudo says:

    It’s good to hear you have a plan of action to hand. It sounds much better than just hoping for the best or panicking, which is almost certainly what I would do if I ever got to the stage of having to rewrite a novel.

  5. Riley says:

    I love your plan and these ideas–very helpful! Excited to follow your journey and see the destination 🙂

    “Resistance Highway
    Distraction Detour
    The Avenue of Doubt
    The Street of Avoidance
    The Rearranging Roundabout
    A pit-stop to ask for directions
    The Valley of the Critic”…..

    HEY it sounds like you’re in my neighborhood. LOL

  6. Pearl Allard says:

    Everything is better with food! 😉 Loved the supplies analogy. “Hoping for the best and panicking was my initial plan of action. I was successful at both, but it didn’t get the novel rewritten.” I had to clamp a hand over my mouth from laughing so I didn’t wake the sleeping in my household! Glad you have a plan. Can’t wait to read your novel. 🙂

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