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The redrafting adventure

Redrafting a novel reflects a radical rethink of the narrative.

It’s perfectly normal for a writer to have an early concept of their story and their characters. If everything is open to change, they wouldn’t be able to write a first draft. They wouldn’t be able to discover and explore their characters and the conflicted relationships that form the bedrock of the narrative.

Writing a first draft is a lot like meeting a group of people for the first time. The writer will have some initial impressions of who these people are, will know their social and geographical context, know what they look like, and so on. Then as the characters go off on their journey, they reveal more about themselves. If the draft is going well, these characters will surprise their creator.

 And then at some point, the narrative will turn a corner and change in some fundamental way. When I say this change will be fundamental, I mean it will be volcanic. Plenty of apprentice writers think revising is redrafting. It isn’t. If it doesn’t involve a shattering upheaval in the narrative, it’s only tinkering.

Redrafting is revolutionary. It changes huge parts of the story, to the extent that the whole manuscript has to be written again, from scratch. Characters will stop being the writer’s creations and will be their own creations. They will speak with their own voice, not the writer’s voice. Often, they will change their names and their appearance because they are no longer the characters of the first draft. Always, they will create a new plot through their efforts to get what they want.

The first draft is vital to the development of the novel in the writer’s mind. Their imagination has to work through its first ideas in order to get them out of the way. It's like archaeology. The archaeologist has to remove the top layer of the ancient city before she or he can reach the next layer. If the writer clings to that first layer, afraid to go deeper into their characters and their drama, the story will remain superficial. It might have charm or it might not. But it will not be the vital narrative experience readers look for.

Redrafting seems dangerous to apprentice writers. They aren’t sure what will happen if they set aside the first draft and embark on a new version, with altered characters and their altered plot. Julian Barnes has likened writing a novel to setting sail in a tiny boat across a vast ocean. It is daunting. It’s also one of the great adventures of the writing life.



Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She has written The Architecture of Narrative, soon to be published by threekookaburras. She offers writing tips at If you have a question on any aspect of writing, please visit her blog.




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