I generally don't rewrite. When I'm writing academic papers, short articles, stories, or basically anything else, I can decide what I want to say and it just flows. Usually, I'm all about getting things right the first time.
But I've never written a novel until now, and after I finished the first draft, it was a little hard for me to accept just how much work my story needed in order to be better.
But I did. And I'm happy to report that my novel has grown tremendously from that first skeleton draft, by a whole eighth of its initial length (we're now hovering around 93,000 words) and by what I hope is a whole lot of emotional and thematic depth that will only increase in subsequent edits.
Here are some things I've learned along the way, which I will unapologetically try to apply to life as well as to writing.
1. Writing is a layer by layer process.
There's no way that I would've been able to tackle all the issues facing this book in one edit. There were times when it seemed less painful to call it an irredeemable mess and give up.
But I spaced things out. First I rewrote it from the bottom up, and then edited backwards for word choice. I'll probably read through it a couple more times too.
There's no pressure to get everything done at once, unless you put it on yourself. Or unless you're on a deadline. Deadlines are scary.
2. Balance feedback with your own judgment.
I can't expect everyone to love my book. I can't expect everyone to agree with my choices. Suggesting otherwise is ridiculous. It's important to consider readers' opinions for big stuff like the general story and character development, but hey, I really liked the verb "snapped" in a particular sentence, so too bad that someone else didn't agree with this relatively minor choice.
3. You have to do what's best for the story, and sometimes that means cutting your favorite lines/characters/scenes. Even if it hurts.
I have an entire file filled with what I thought was beautiful dialogue and description that I ended up cutting just because it didn't fit. For the sake of efficiency and not boring the reader with repeated details, I changed some elements. But it doesn't mean they were bad ideas. I'll store them away for future use, and who knows, maybe they'll show up in a future story.
4. On a similar note, you have to work the work that works for you. (What?)
There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and they will all tell you that their way is the best. Some outline beforehand, some feel that planning constricts creativity. Some edit as they go, some swear that would kill the work before it got a chance to breathe. Some prefer hard copy and writing outside, some swear by apps like Scrivener. Personally, I love editing with a paper copy, but it makes for that extra step of transferring my notes to the Google Doc where my novel lives.
The truth is there's no magical formula, and if you find that you're most productive at midnight when the rest of your house has gone to bed (my personal experience), then that's what works for you. I will say that like anything else in life, you have to make the writing part of your routine, or else it won't stick and you'll end up with a half baked draft on your computer, like I did for three years.
And most importantly…
5. The best writing reveals truths about its writer.
There were some eerie thematic parallels between this book and my personal life, allowing me to learn a lot about myself. Not in the sense that I'm a glorious author-goddess who's going to drive to San Francisco to prove a psychiatrist wrong (please never), but that sometimes I have trouble showing myself to others. So does everyone else. I saw things in the characters' relationships that I need to work on in my real life. The funny thing was, I didn't deliberately take inspiration from my life.
In that way, writing was like going on a subconscious journey to learn more about me. If you want to learn about yourself, your work habits, your attention to detail, your values, I recommend writing a novel. On the lighter side, I learned that I'm a pro at making elaborate playlists for my stories.
Author and writing mentor K.M. Weiland tweeted a while back that one of her favorite things about writing is the opportunity to grow along with her characters.
I wholeheartedly agree.