Rewriting and editing and rewriting
Nothing is precious, kill your darlings, avoid DEEP LORE
I write and publish as I go, one chapter per week, and have worked this way since about 2015. It works well for me, bringing me back to the table and making sure I get the words down. It doesn’t seem to matter if there’s a handful of people reading online or thousands - either way, the box is ticked in my brain and I stay productive.
It’s all about forward momentum, and means that a lot of my output is very raw. There are a couple of exceptions: I’ve had two projects now which have seen extensive editing and re-writes, and the process for both of them I thought would be of interest and possible use to other writers.
No Adults Allowed started life as an online serial in 2020, and over the last couple of years I’ve edited it several times into the polished version which is now available as an ebook and paperback. Meanwhile, The Mechanical Crown began as a novel manuscript back in the early 2000s, and then was entirely re-written from the ground up for an online serialisation in 2017. Opposite trajectories, then.
Let’s start off with the more recent one.
Editing No Adults Allowed
The story of NAA was always tight and concise. I’d just come off the back of a very long project and wanted this one to be a smaller book. It uses a countdown chapter numbering, starting at 29 and reducing to zero. It was a fun constraint for the initial writing, and helps to add tension for readers.
When it came to the ebook and paperback, I wanted to retain that core structure while expanding and improving what was there. This required figuring out where to add and remove, and which themes and character moments needed more work.
I’d used a Trello board to write the book in the first place. This became useful for the edit, as it was already colour-coded to indicate character balance across the narrative:
Looking back at the finished first draft manuscript, I could examine the balance of characters from chapter-to-chapter to see where I might want to adjust. Which characters needed more space?
I knew that I wanted to create stronger character arcs for the leads. As an ensemble piece, balancing the needs of all the characters in the first serialised draft was a challenge, with the edit being the perfect opportunity to tighten up those threads. I created a new list with cards examining what I wanted to achieve in the edit:
You can see my brain working in real time from card-to-card - I like to keep older ideas even if I move on, as it’s useful to see the process. Some of the abandoned ideas might return in other forms, too, if I leave them to percolate for a while.
I do all my writing in Scrivener. Prior to the major edit I created a copy of the first draft project file, which could be archived. From then it was a matter of tracking what needed work. Scrivener has a useful way of marking chapter status:
This was a simple way to track which chapters had been revised and which still needed work.
There were three layers of editing:
Structural edit: this is the big one, whereby large changes are made to the narrative. For No Adults Allowed, this meant changing some character arcs, adjusting when character entered and exited the story, and making certain themes clearer.
Line edit: going deeper than the structural edit, this is making adjustments to sentences and paragraphs as required. This could be to improve pace or tone, to make action clearer, to better capture a character’s voice, or simply to improve a clunky sentence.
Proofing: the final edit, which isn’t about making creative changes and is instead solely about quality checks. This is the most tedious but is really essential - it’s also on-going. If readers report errors, I fix them for future customers (ebook readers can even re-download the updated versions).
As it turned out, the proofing was only really made possible by ordering an actual physical proof. Once I had the book in my hands, I found it far easier to spot errors, which on screen my brain was auto-correcting.
In this case it was about creating a finished product that I’d feel comfortable selling. If you’re interested in an optimistic take on the end of the world, which a reader has kindly described as “perfect for fan of The Maze Runner”, you can grab a copy here:
Rewriting The Mechanical Crown
Back in 1999 I was a bit all over the place with my creative output. Was I going to be a filmmaker, a novelist, a games designer? I dabbled with all of them, never really finishing anything or properly committing. The one thing that emerged out of that time was a fantasy novel. Back then I called it Evinden (before realising that naming a book after a made-up place was silly) and it became the first novel I ‘completed’.
That initial manuscript took about ten years, all told, and it was absolutely, positively rubbish.
It wasn’t a consistent ten years, mind you. I’d go months and months without writing anything, then have a burst of creativity for a bit. I had no discipline and it was all a bit hopeless. The book was troped up to the gills, heavily influenced by the stuff I happened to be consuming in the late 90s - Final Fantasy games, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and so on. The writing was bad, it was thematically wonky and the characters were cardboard cliches.
The core world building and central plot, though - they were kind of OK.
In 2016 I’d finished my first online serial over on Wattpad and needed a follow-up project. “I know,” I thought gleefully, “I’ll whip out that old Evinden manuscript, tart it up a bit and publish that. It’s already written, so it’ll be easy in comparison to A Day of Faces.”
Then I re-read the Evinden manuscript and discovered it to be an enormous, smelly turd. Rather than abandon the whole thing, I decided to do a ground-up rewrite, binning the entire manuscript but keeping some of the plot, most of the world building and some of the cast.
Over the course of three fricking years that notion turned into The Mechanical Crown, the longest online serial I’ve attempted so far. Some readers stuck with it from the beginning to the end, which is rather amazing.
The interesting thing about a total rewrite is that you’ve already spotted what works and what doesn’t work. As bad as Evinden was (I should release that manuscript at some point for comparison), it was essential for identifying which ideas were the ones to keep. It was a beta test in which I found all the bugs. Nobody ever read Evinden, either, as I never put it out anywhere (thankfully), so The Mechanical Crown was the public debut of the story.
These were where I focused my efforts on the planning and writing of the new version:
World building: The core setting remained as intriguing as ever (a huge valley cut off from the rest of the world a couple hundred years ago, where society has developed in microcosm. This is interrupted by the arrival of a traveller from ‘outside’), but it was fairly flimsy in the original. It was broadened and deepened, with particular focus on where the story took place (I’d wasted time previously developing DEEP LOREin areas the story was never going to go).
Character dev: The story has a huge cast. Reworking it for the new version required some interesting changes. I combined two characters into one, for starters. Major characters in the original became supporting characters, and vice versa. Motivations and backstories changed. The female lead stopped being a manic pixie dream girl (thank god) and turned into a Proper Person. The old mentor character no longer danced awkwardly around Wise Asian Master tropes. Critically, the cast was made more diverse in gender and race. In fact, race became a central theme and one of the co-leads was switched to a black man. Back in 1999 as a teenager I was very much stuck in a super white, super male understanding of storytelling, which in retrospect seems deeply weird. By the start of 2016 I was in a different place and the world had changed considerably - and was about to change even more in the US and UK.
Themes: That brings me to the themes of the book. This is where my writing had changed most significantly in the intervening years. The first book didn’t really have any themes, not consciously. It was a fantasy adventure romp, and that was about it, which didn’t make for a satisfying read. The rewrite needed to resonate and have thematic depth. It became about isolationism, about monocultures and societies that shun diversity, and about the prejudices that emerge from all that. On top of those Big Themes, there are also examinations of responsibility, sacrifice, loyalty and destiny. In other words, it became a considerably more interesting book.
Plot: The improvements to character and theme automatically required adjustments to the plot. An entire chunk involving a settlement on the other side of the mountains was nuked (along with the characters). Everything was extended, with the pacing shifting significantly: this was an inevitable consequence of having better characters and themes. The original draft was flimsy because it had no depth, and was therefore considerably shorter than The Mechanical Crown ended up being.
Structure: The book underwent fairly huge changes in its structure. The original version was split into six chunky parts, each narrated in 3rd person by a different narrator. It was a limited perspective, subjective narration (albeit not done with much sophistication), which heavily restricted how the story could be told. I was copying Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which I’d just read back in the early 2000s. I changed this entirely for the rewrite, with each chapter now able to have a different narrator. This enabled the story to hop back and forth as the story required, which for an epic adventure like TMC was useful and necessary. It also could be used to increase tension, play with dramatic tension and so forth, in ways that the old structure didn’t permit. Changing this also made the rewrite fun - everything felt fresh and new, rather than repeating the same steps and beats.
There were some other quirks I threw out, such as Isaac Asimov-style encyclopedia entries at the beginning of each chapter. These were unnecessary infodumps which were only there because of my love for Asimov’s classics. Again, a relic of my younger self’s obsession with DEEP LORE.
One aspect that stayed almost the same was the opening page. I mean, I rewrote the whole thing, so all the individual words changed, but the opening moment - the lead character chopping off his frostbitten finger - I’d always felt was quite strong. It’s interesting (at least to me) to compare the two versions.
Here’s the original first draft from the early 2000s:
Scowling against the gale, Tranton Seldon bit down hard on the hilt of one dagger and pressed the blade of the other firmly to the knuckle of the fourth finger on his right hand, which was braced against a small, flat stone. After an initial resistance there was a wet crunch and the blade sliced neatly through the bone. At first there was nothing and he stared numbly at the blood flowing from the truncated finger. This was followed almost immediately by a searing pain than lanced up his arm, as if somebody had shoved a knitting needle under his nail and forced it in all the way to his elbow. He swallowed down the first cry, jaw clenched around the dagger, then let out a bellowing howl as his arm spasmed and vision blurred through windswept tears.
And here’s the revised, published version from The Mechanical Crown:
The blackened finger lay in the snow, a spatter of leaked blood stark against the whiteness. After a few seconds the dead finger, swollen from necrotic decline, was covered with fresh fall carried in by the blizzard.
He stood, looking down at where his finger lay buried. “Never did like that one,” he muttered, his voice muffled behind layers-upon-layers of ragged, ice-laden fabric. Tranton Seldon was talking to himself more and more these days.
In my highly biased opinion, I think I improved upon it quite considerably. That old version was hyperbolic, overly descriptive and paced all wrong. The cadence is deeply unsatisfying. You also have no particular idea of character or what this character is thinking, and other than ‘a gale’ it’s not clear where he is or what the situation is.
The new version is shorter, to the point. The writing better reflects the character: in those two short paragraphs you immediately get a sense of who this guy is, but without it needing to be stated. The setting is also more clear. What description is there is more efficient and atmospheric. I was a more experienced writer by 2016 and I think it shows.
The challenge was to continue that level of improvement through the entire rest of the book. The story diverged considerably after those initial finger-slicing moments.
In terms of word count, that first draft of Evinden came in at 163,256. The Mechanical Crown, when it was all done, hit 260,260. That’s quite an expansion.
The book currently sits behind a paywall over on Wattpad. I’m looking into alternative options for distribution which I’ll get into once I wrap up Tales from the Triverse, probably around summer 2023.
I’d like to know about the major editing jobs you’ve done on your work. How much editing do you do? Do you do ground-up rewrites, or adjust what you already have?
I would generally argue that unless you’re JRR Tolkien, or running at TTRPG, spending lots of time on DEEP LORE is time wasted.