Rewrite or Edit? What is the right way to go?

It’s an interesting dilemma that I’ve been faced with the past while.  When should I rewrite a story and when is an edit the correct choice?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the choice should be entirely dependent on the the story itself.  Having said that, I realize such an on-the-fence answer doesn’t really help to make the decision any easier.  Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had when considering the topic.

  1. When I read the story, am I happy with all the major elements? (character, setting, plot, etc.)
  2. How many times has the story been rejected and did I get any useful feedback?
  3. Does the story fit any particular publisher’s requirements?
  4. Have I had anyone read the story (i.e. first readers) and provide me with feedback that I can act upon?
Not too many questions, but all important.  In my mind, the first is probably the biggest.  I’ve got two stories I’ll use as examples here.  The first is my fantasy novel.  It actually fits both question 1 and 4.

I wrote the story and was pretty happy with it.  Then I tried sending it out to publishers a few (three) times only to have it rejected each time.  I decided to get another opinion so I gave it to one of my writing friends to critique.  He never actually did a critique and only commented on the story several months later after much harassment.  His comment?  “I can see why no one would publish it.”

As you can immediately see, the comment didn’t actually prove useful to me in any way except to make me doubt my own writing ability.  I promptly shelved the book for over a year before I had the nerve to read it again.  The good news is I had kept writing in the intervening time and had improved.  I was able to quickly spot many of the flaws with the novel.  These flaws weren’t with the characters, the setting or the plot.  It was more in how the story flowed.  I decided to keep everything and perform a rewrite.

This leads to an interesting side-discussion.  When you are doing a rewrite, should the writing be done in the original document or in an empty one?  When I started the rewrite process, I turned tracking on (in Word) and started typing.  It didn’t take too long before I found myself getting hopelessly addled.  That was when I cut the new text out and started a new document.  Keep in mind, there isn’t anything to prevent me from referring to the original story.  I just have a fresh slate.  I think I will leave the original where it is and write the story over completely.  It just feels like the right decision.

The second story I’ll use as an example is my most recently completed one:  Summer Camp Secrets.  I wrote the story very quickly (45 days, I think) and let it sit for a week before I reread it.  I also had a couple trusted friends critique it for me (yes they actually did it and no I didn’t ask the person from the first example).  The reviews came in very positive and I had a great feeling about the story when I read it.  I knew it wasn’t quite perfect based on the feedback so I chose to simply edit it.

The edit went very quick and the story is already out looking for a publisher.

There is one more story that could go either way for me.  My ‘Mik Murdoch’ novel has been edited repeatedly.  I’ve actually cut it down substantially from what it originally looked like.  It is currently out at a publisher being reviewed and I have some hope that it will be accepted.  If it isn’t, I have a plan to perform some selective surgery and put in a minor rewrite.

Why?  When I wrote it I put as much adventure in as I possibly could.  I finished knowing the book could easily be a series and when I looked at it several months later, I could see more than one story-line embedded within the greater book.  One publisher commented that I tried to do too much with the story and ended up not doing enough.  In other words, too much action, not enough character.

With that in mind, if it is rejected again, I plan to pull out one major story line (of approximately 14,000 words) and put it aside for a future book.  Then I will tighten the book up and increase the character development.  Call it a hybrid if you like, but once complete, it will be back out looking for a home.

I haven’t really touched much on questions 2 and 3 so let’s take a moment to talk about them.

In question two, I mentioned number of rejections and publisher feedback.  Arguably, ‘Mik Murdoch’ partially fits this one in the feedback category.  Aside from that, if your story has been rejected by every publisher (and/or agent) you have approached maybe a rewrite is in order.  It may also be time to search for outside feedback from a critique or writer’s group.  The story may need work (edit or rewrite) or it may need to be shelved.  A lot of early stories simply aren’t good enough to be published.

In question three, I mentioned finding a publisher who actually represents the genre you’ve written in.  Sometime a story is too different to fit under any one category.  In this case, involve outside feedback (either critique group or writer’s group).  You may find that the story actually does fit a genre (mostly), but it breaks a few fundamental rules that require rewrite or editorial changes.  You may find that it fits a genre you’ve never heard of or you may simply find that the story is too experimental for any market.  It may be that you need to shelve the story or try to create a market for it.

As you can see, there is no cut and dried solution to the question:  Rewrite or Edit.  In fact, there are other alternatives like shelving a story.  It all depends on your circumstances and only you can make the choice.

Personal Update

Summer Camp Secrets has been packaged and sent out!  Last Thursday it officially hit the mail.  I’m thinking of putting together and sending out a query letter to a few publishers in the mean time in case it is rejected.  Hopefully I’ll garner much interest and won’t need it, but a backup plan is important.

I am 2,700 words into the rewrite of my fantasy novel.  My goal is to have a minimum of four chapters (approximately 10,000 words) in the can by the World Fantasy Convention where I will be actively pitching it.  Depending on my success I may take November and use Nanowrimo to knock 50,000 additional words off on the story so I can be ready for any full-manuscript requests.  If I’m really lucky, I’ll have between 20,000 and 30,000 words down by WFC so a big Nano push would see it done before December.

No answer RE: Mik Murdoch yet.  The book is at the third publisher this year.  The first read the sample chapters and synopsis and promptly asked for more.  They eventually passed on the story but gave me actual feedback.  The second publisher sent me a form letter.  I still have hopes for this story.


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