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6⅔ Things I Learnt from Rewriting my Book

It now starts here, in Colorado.

It now starts here, in Colorado.

Last week it was a real pleasure to be asked to write a guest post for Writers’ Workshop on the much hoped-for outcome of my rewriting mission – getting an agent. Literary Sofa regulars have followed the process, given me invaluable support and shared their own experiences here (see Writing section), but the WW post gives an overview of the task which has occupied a large part of my year. After all the hard work and excitement, I’ve now had a chance to reflect on what I’ve learnt and how I hope to build on that when writing my second novel.

Just in case the tongue-in-cheek title passed you by – this is not a writing advice post. I’m sceptical about generalised writing advice, especially the kind that tells you what you shouldn’t do. (My novel contains references to the weather in the first chapter and it has people looking in mirrors!) Fortunately rewriting presents such specific issues, different for every book, that I haven’t heard much said about it at all.

I’ve done this the hard way but I’m really happy about that. I’ve learnt far more from screwing it up than if I’d miraculously managed to get it right in the first place. These are the things which made the difference (I think):

The Words

My radical quest to cut wordcount resulted in a whopping 22,000 being axed (now down to a svelte 86,000).  I could almost feel the manuscript heaving a sign of relief.  It’s no coincidence that between finishing the original and embarking on the rewrite, I developed a love of reading and writing short fiction. The discipline of challenging every scene, paragraph, line of description and dialogue – every word – to justify its existence had a positive influence on the new version. It also helped me find my real voice. Turned out I was only whispering before.

The Hook

The pressure to write an insanely gripping opening which grabs the reader by the collar is notorious amongst those chasing an agent. Foolishly I resisted it for too long, thinking it was more appropriate for crime or psychological suspense. (As an aside, I’m still puzzled by how many published novels get off to a slow start!) I rewrote the first five chapters over and over before I caved in to the need to write a genuinely – as opposed to artificially – dramatic new beginning, hinting at secrets which had previously been revealed much later. The novel used to start in London; now it begins in Colorado with the other character. Doing this made me look at the whole story in a new way and energised me to tackle the restructuring.

The Building Blocks

I’ll always love reading and writing novels with a complex structure, but in future I will use my trusty Post-It board, or Scrivener, or make notes in my own blood – whatever it takes to keep tabs on the story strands and the structure as I write. I never ever want to have to take a book completely to pieces again. That is all.

The Hours

Too bad Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours theory doesn’t apply to writing. When you start out, it’s like being an artist or being in a band: no matter how hard you work there’s no guaranteed outcome and luck frequently plays a part in success. Halfway through the rewrite I heard Lionel Shriver acknowledge this at a Word Factory salon. It was exactly the right time for me to hear her say, ‘Write what matters to you. It’s the only way you can be sure your time is not wasted.’

The Pain

With that in mind, I decided I had nothing to lose and threw off my inhibitions, which stemmed from various kinds of fear: of upsetting or offending people, of being judged and having assumptions made about me. The whole act of writing fiction is very exposing but I’ve come to terms with that – as an author I can only determine the output, not the response.  I wrote in scenes I’d shied away from because the story didn’t work without them.  Sometimes this hurt far more than I would have expected but above all, it was exhilarating and liberating. I’m officially done with cautious writing. The biggest breakthrough has been the one in my head.

The Polish

I wrote the original book as a member of a workshop, taking a new chapter to each meeting. It was motivating to have those deadlines and to benefit from feedback. I don’t regret anything because it was all great writing practice, but I did spend ages polishing vast amounts of material which was subsequently cut. Next time I’ll use the more common method of getting the story down in a first draft, putting it through the various stages it needs and saving the finessing for later. I’m very excited about working with Diana on future books and having the benefit of her insight and editorial experience.

I’ll finish with my nomination for:

Best writing advice
Enter the scene at the latest possible moment and leave at the earliest. I found that this ups the intensity and gives the reader something to think about.
And the worst…
Write what you know. If I’d listened to this, my novel wouldn’t exist. Discovering new places, subjects and experiences is one of the reasons I write fiction.

What lessons have you learned from editing or rewriting? Is there anything you would or wouldn’t do again? And what are your most loved (if any) or hated pieces of writing advice?

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


27 thoughts on “6⅔ Things I Learnt from Rewriting my Book

  1. Loved this, Isabel. And I completely agree. The worst piece of advice I have ever been given and (was told on numerous occasions) was write what you know. I can’t think of anything worse. I think it was Sebastian Faulks or someone like that who once said ‘don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.’ Writing a novel is a great opportunity to learn something new and it has to retain your interest over the God knows how many months and years it takes to write. I don’t know about you, but if I was only writing what I knew I would never write anything. I can’t see the point. Plus, I’d never reach the end – I’d die before of boredom.

    Posted by Jason Hewitt | November 20, 2013, 13:44
    • Thanks, Jason and apologies to all for delay replying to all these lovely comments. I agree, I’d have nothing to say worth reading if I stuck to that advice, which it seems to me is universally hated. Of course some people write what they know very well but the rest of us should have a choice!

      I’m taking on oceanography and art history in my next one and it’s set in Paris (although I do know Paris well already)!!

      Can’t wait to read yours. Another title imposed itself after Donna Tartt so you’re off the hook there…

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 21, 2013, 20:06
      • Don’t worry at all, Isabel. There are so many good books out there, and if you’re anything like me you’re probably constantly snowed under. If you’re around on Twitter tomorrow you might catch a glimpse of the cover though. Its kinda out and about there already but thought I might actually post it up on a tweet. I feel like a new father! Oceanography and art history? Wow! That’s sounds amazing, and I LOVE Paris. It oozes charm and atmosphere. Perfect for a novel. I shall wait with eager anticipation. I’m learning Czech for my next novel which might be taking research to an extreme. I’ve made two trips there and to Germany too, this year, in aid of research. I think you win with oceanography though. Brilliant. And congrats too on such a well-received blog! Good stuff!

        Posted by Jason Hewitt | November 21, 2013, 20:29
  2. Agree – I write to find out. (I think CS Lewis said the same!) And Lionel got it right! – there’s no point writing a book to meet a perceived gap on someone’s book shelf. Unless you write the book only you can write, you’re wasting your time. And as you’ve done a great job of showing, Isabel, that’s a LOT of time! Well done on your re-write!

    Posted by Sarah Hegarty | November 20, 2013, 14:19
  3. Absolutely agree. If it isn’t meaningful for you, it certainly won’t mean anything to the reader. And as for characters looking in mirrors, Angela Carter breaks this ‘rule’ in glorious fashion in the first chapter of The Magic Toyshop. Anything can be done, I think, if done well.

    Posted by lynseywhite | November 20, 2013, 15:25
    • Hi Lynsey, couldn’t agree more with your final point: of course it depends how it’s done. It depresses me when I hear people express prejudice against mentioning the sky, etc. (and obviously I’m not defending clichés).

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 21, 2013, 20:10
  4. Great post, Isabel, and I shall definitely be applying some of what you’ve learnt to my editing process. In my first novel I’m writing what I know and what I don’t all mixed up together. My second is set in the future so it’s definitely what I don’t know but what I imagine. I read and I write to learn something new, to gain a different perspective on things, and because I just can’t stop! Look forward to seeing your book on the shelves and to reading #2.

    Posted by Amanda Saint (@saintlywriter) | November 20, 2013, 15:29
    • Thanks Amanda. I think your mixing the new and the familiar is probably what most writers do (it would be impossible to write a novel if you knew nothing about any aspect of it!) and it seems that many find that a very stimulating approach.

      Good luck finishing your novel and how great that you’re already thinking about the next one!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 21, 2013, 20:27
  5. Great post, Isabel, one I’ll be bookmarking for future reference!

    I have three mantras that stay constantly in my mind as touchstones for writing: the first, which was the first piece of advice I was given when I started writing seriously, is ‘always start on the day something changes’.

    The second is something my father taught me thirty years ago: ‘Don’t scatter commas through the copy like currants in a currant bun!’ (I still do!)

    And the third is something I learned from you and this blog, a line that resonated so powerfully for me that I have it stuck up on my wall: ‘It’s not that my best wasn’t good enough; it’s that this wasn’t my best.’

    I think you’ve cracked that one now, though, hun 😉 xx

    Posted by janeide2013 | November 20, 2013, 23:32
    • Thanks, Jane. I like your mantras and am both honoured and slightly freaked out that something I said is one of them! But as I found out the hard way, it is madness to send out anything less than your best effort.

      You are very clued up and that’s bound to help. I’m very grateful for the fantastic help you gave me with the new pitch. Thank you for that.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 21, 2013, 20:30
  6. Enjoyed the post very much. Also much appreciated the remarks by Janeide2013. Yes, I too need to watch those commas.
    My problem at present is deciding whether to leave my MS at 65000 words which I am told is too few – have yet to meet someone with the same problem. I’ve added episodes but I dread padding or boring people.

    Posted by barbarahudson2012 | November 21, 2013, 09:29
    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Barbara and thanks. That is indeed an interesting dilemma re your wordcount. Have you had a professional editor’s opinion? Maybe that could help identify an element you could develop (clearly padding etc isn’t an option!) One of my lovely regular blog readers writes short in the first instance. Maybe I can coax her into giving you a few pointers…

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 21, 2013, 20:34
  7. “Write what matters to you. It’s the only way you can be sure your time is not wasted.”
    “Enter the scene at the latest possible moment and leave at the earliest.”

    Some excellent advice right there, and something I must try and think about much more often when I’m writing and particularly when I come to editing & rewriting. “Write what you know” can be a straightjacket if taken literally, and “write what matters to you” is a much more liberating and supportive interpretation.

    “My novel contains references to the weather in the first chapter and it has people looking in mirrors!”

    I’m truly grateful to hear that. I have weather in my first chapter (I really can’t avoid it!), and although I’ve no mirror yet, I won’t be afraid in the future when one pops up!

    It’s partly down to your guest post at the WW blog that I revitalised my WordPress account, by the way. And re-energised my awkward sprint down these last slopes toward the first edit. Engaging and encouraging, again! Thanks Isabel!

    PS – Colorado is looking quite lovely up there. I’m prompted to want to hike!

    Posted by D K Roberts | November 21, 2013, 09:47
    • I’m really pleased that you found helpful stuff in my post even if it wasn’t intended to be out and out advice. (Both of the things you pulled out came from other people anyway.) Good luck on the home straight!

      PS Sorry, I didn’t actually say thanks for saying those nice things!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 21, 2013, 20:38
  8. Great points here thanks! I am trying to teach myself to enjoy editing, to see it as another craft. Grrr. But on certain days I am attuned and incisive and it gets done fast. Agreed about arriving and leaving the story set as quickly as possible. Time and impact – they count. And yeah – if I only wrote about what I know I wouldn’t have written that story about Hong Kong last week. I had a blast! Over to read your agent-hooking article. Ciao, Catherine

    Posted by Catherine | November 21, 2013, 17:42
    • Hi Catherine, thanks for your comment. I won’t deny that my rewrite nearly drove me up the wall at times but overall I found it a very absorbing and satisfying exercise. I think I understand what makes a novel work much better now. Good luck with your editing and hope to hear you read at the Christmas Word Factory.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 21, 2013, 20:44
  9. Many congratulations again on your well-deserved success.

    I agree with the point about polishing work that subsequently gets jettisoned when you’re showing extracts of the novel every so often to a writing group or course. I’ve had to cut an awful lot of words that have had many more than one draft while I’ve been editing my novel.

    Also, I agree with the comments above about ‘writing what you want to know’. I started out writing a novel with a character who was an artist and after a while I realised I didn’t know as much I should about art or, more specifically, about how artists worked. So, using various means, I found out and I’ve got to know many of them, even meeting some with very similar stories to my imaginary character and had some read my drafts. In retrospect, it seems that writing the novel unlocked some curiosity that had lain latent — and hopefully that enthusiasm will come through on the page.

    Seems like you have a similar inquisitiveness about the subjects of your second novel.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | November 21, 2013, 23:12
    • Thanks Mike, that is very nice of you. We’ve had similar experiences re swathes of words that ended up getting cut. It pays to be philosophical about it but that said, I’ll try not to spend time on redundant sections next time now I’ve grasped how tight a good novel needs to be.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 24, 2013, 20:21
  10. BarbaraHudson2012, I am a “short” writer… in more ways than one… but height isn’t an issue, thank goodness! My MS was 62k words when I sent it to an agent, who became my agent on the strength of the MS. She thought it “too short” but still had enough faith in the project to take it and me on, thank goodness.

    I think the problem is these days longer novels are in vogue, so it seems that 80 to 100k is the ideal length. So if you naturally get your novel written in around 60k, which I do, you have to scrabble around for another 20k words, trying to avoid padding. Various people have suggested solutions which I think have helped me: Is the story fully developed? Are the characters fully developed? (I think it was Debi Alper who came up with those!). I have put in more introspection and tried to explore motives further, and that added to my word count. A little bit of description helped too, but you can’t employ too much of that as it can get boring. A bit of backstory/flashback helps I think, if you can include it without it appearing contrived. I think it can be useful to see the characters in action in childhood or their younger years, if you can link it to their “now”. And, good old dialogue helps… as long as it’s not padding, agh!

    Hope you find a way through. I think the most helpful thing for me was to expand on the characterisation. My novel is now around 82k words.

    Posted by louisewalters12 | November 23, 2013, 20:07
    • Very kind of you to send these helpful comments. I’ll look at it again. I could portray secondary characters more clearly and maybe add some description.
      Have since been to a talk by an agent and asked her and she said 65000 was fine…so maybe I’ll try her in due course.
      Thanks again. And thanks to isabel too.

      Posted by barbarahudson2012 | November 23, 2013, 20:22
    • Louise, thanks so much for sharing your experience with Barbara and the rest of us. As your UK and nine foreign deals prove, your strategy works for you!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 24, 2013, 20:22
  11. It’s interesting what you said about your writing group, as I haven’t felt the need to go to mine at all as I plough through this first draft. Whereas, when I was writing short stories, I regularly took them to the group for a polish. But the first draft doesn’t need polishing, it just needs writing (although I do start each writing session by reading the previous day’s work and tidying up where I feel it needs it, just in case it gets to stay in!). I’ve also had the very good fortune to have Debi Alper as a very good friend (founder member of my writing group, as it happens) and she has been very insistent on my Just Getting It Done. And she’s right. No one but me has seen a word of this first draft, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.

    Writing with honesty is the only way – I think we all know when we are tiptoeing around what really needs to be written. The words sit there lumpenly, refusing to come to life. When we open the floodgates and write what needs to be written it is, as you said, exhilarating.

    It’s been fascinating to follow the story of your novel, which is quite dramatic in itself! Having been lucky enough to read the finished version, I can’t imagine it working any other way.

    Posted by Rachael Dunlop (@RachaelDunlop) | November 26, 2013, 21:29
    • Thanks, Rachael. It sounds as if our working processes are quite similar. I could never do NaNoWriMo as I’m hardwired to revise the previous day’s effort to get back into the flow and help me focus on what I’m trying to convey. Plus I write far too slowly.

      It sounds as if the getting the first draft down is working for you and I am actually looking forward to the freedom of this for my next one. I felt a lot of pressure to take a good polished chapter to every workshop and as a result the original version took two years to write (and then I had to rewrite it!)

      Good luck with your novel which sounds very compelling – and so pleased you enjoyed mine! Thank you.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 28, 2013, 09:13
      • I’m sure, though, those two years weren’t wasted. That was just the process you needed to go through. If someone had told you as you started on your novel to just write the first draft with no feedback, would you have been able to do it? I’ll trade you those two years for the seven years I’ve spent writing short stories and shying away from a novel. I learned my craft in those years, and got lots of feedback from other writers, as well as some modest successes in competitions. So when I was ready to write my novel, I had the confidence to write the first draft without worrying about whether it was any good or not. I know what’s good about it. I also know what isn’t, but I have a good idea how to fix it. I’m already making notes on how to reshape the second draft. These are all things that you learn ‘on the job’ and whether that’s two years spent on a novel that you ultimately had to rewrite, or seven years writing and submitting short stories, it seems like the same journey to me.

        Posted by Rachael Dunlop (@RachaelDunlop) | November 29, 2013, 08:16
      • You’re right: some destination, different route. Back then I wouldn’t have had a clue how to go it alone (and I won’t be now, I’ll be working with my agent’s input). As I said in the post, I have no regrets about any part of it. There’s no easy way to write a good book!

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 29, 2013, 08:45


  1. Pingback: ISABEL COSTELLO on THE YORK EFFECT – HOW I GOT AN AGENT | Write Edit Seek Literary Agent - December 2, 2013

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