Rewriting Helps a Book Stop Sucking

I haven’t blogged much recently, because all my writing efforts have been aimed at The Sword and the Sorcerer.

That’s good, right?  Well, sort of.

What I’ve really been doing is rewriting. And by “rewriting” I mean “totally tearing things apart and putting them back together again so they won’t suck anymore.”

“Suck” is actually a pretty strong word. I think, overall, The Sword and the Sorcerer is a strong novel.

But the first several chapters just didn’t want to come together well. I really labored over getting them right, and, since, if the first few chapters aren’t very good most people will stop reading, “suck” is a word I had to come to terms with and act on.

Show; Don’t Tell

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard the old maxim, “Show; don’t tell.” In other words, let the reader see the action, don’t tell him or her about it.

The original first chapter was all about the tell. My protagonist is a poet. He was unveiling his latest epic in court. And I told the reader how much people enjoyed it and how successful he was. To save my poor ego, I’ll stop short of calling it bad writing, but suffice it to say it wasn’t good.

In the first rewrite, I wrote a portion of the poem, and then showed the patrons reacting to and commenting on it. Much better. We get to experience  the scene instead of hearing about what happened.

Don’t Bury the Lede

On the next read, though, I discovered something else. The beginning of the book was dull. That’s not a good way to get people to buy or keep reading it if they did buy.

There’s an old newspaper adage that goes, “Don’t bury the lede.” In other words, whatever the thrust of the story is should be in the first paragraph. Don’t make the reader wonder what the story’s about.

What gets the action going in The Sword and the Sorcerer is the murder of the protagonist’s father. He learns of it at the end of Chapter 2. Talk about about a buried lede!

So I wrote a prologue showing the murder. Now, before we meet the main character, we see the murder occur and already have an understanding of the incredible political ramifications. Much better start!

Pacing is Important

But on the next read-through I discovered something else. That poem I composed was waaaayyy too long. Now what I had was an exciting beginning followed by two long, boring chapters of learning who the main characters were. Zzzzzz.

I cut a large portion of the poem. I just needed enough of it to show the scene, establish the main character as a poet, and introduce the themes in the poem that would come back later in the novel. It was important to establish certain plot points in that scene, but after that it was time to move on to the action.

Know Your Characters

I also discovered as I was editing Chapter 2 that the main characters were saying things and behaving in ways that wasn’t consistent with things they knew or did later in the novel. This was easy enough to figure out — obviously, I didn’t know who the characters were when I first sat down to write the book. They evolved on me.

But it still meant I had to rewrite a large portion of Chapter 2.

And I discovered too that Chapters 1 and 2 really needed to be together. There wasn’t enough material in Chapter 1 for it to stand on its own, and the material in Chapter 2 was stronger when it was connected to the things in Chapter 1.

There were also some issues about rearranging the order of some chapters and writing a brand new one to fill in events the reader hadn’t seen.

What I’ve got now is a much, much stronger book. I’m pretty sure it stopped sucking.

If you’re writing a book, hopefully yours isn’t sucking in the first few chapters the way mine was. But you’re not done after your first or second draft. A good novel, an engaging read, requires careful study. You’ve got to make sure you’re giving the reader the right amount of information in the right flow.

The Sword and the Sorcerer is behind schedule. I planned to release it months ago. It’ll be out soon, and it’s a much better book because I waited and made sure I had it right.


2 thoughts on “Rewriting Helps a Book Stop Sucking

  1. Sounds good, John 😀 Is The Sword and the Sorcerer the next Dasher novel, or a new one? (It’s also a b-or c-fantasy movie from 1982 that looks like it was made in 1975, but you already knew that, I’m sure 😉 ).

    One thought re: “I cut a large portion of the poem.” I have no idea if you’d be able to do this, but one of the things I’ve loved about Herbert’s Dune, Moorcock’s Elric, Howard’s Conan, and David Gerrold’s Chtorr novels is each authors’ use of quotations from various in-milieu works of lore, myth, history, etc. to open a chapter. Herbert wrote commentaries from Princess Irulan, Fremen sayings, and Exceprts from the Orange Catholic Bible or the wisdom of the Bene Gessarit. Howard and Moorcock quoted the Scrolls of Skellos or the Chronice of the Black Sword. Gerrold created his “Solomon Short” Yogi-isms. Anyway, in addition to building up each world’s verisimilitude, the quotations also provide commentary or alternate perspectives to the chapter at hand and the action to date in the plot, and I’ve always liked the technique. Herbert was most deft with this, as he used the quotations to foreshadow later events (Paul’s marriage to Irulan, Leto’s Golden Path, etc.), as well as to more-richly develop some of his characters, peoples, the setting, etc., as well as to offer some ironic or “historical” “perspective” on events happening in the moment.

    So, I don’t know if it would work for your novel or not, but you might consider using parts of the long poem in such a manner if the poetry is relevant to the story as a whole, and its use in each chapter wouldn’t be distracting.


  2. Allan,

    THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER is outside the Wolf Dasher series. And, yes, I am aware of the C-grade 80’s film. I’ve seen the movie AND read the novelization! 😉 My book is nothing like either for whatever that’s worth.

    I too loved the way Herbert began chapters of DUNE with Bene Gessarit wisdom. I am going to write a book one day that employs that technique.

    I don’t think it will work for this one, though. The poem at the beginning of the book is a comic one, and the novel is quite serious. However, as you might expect of me, there are vague literary references embedded within it. It has the comical voice of Byron’s DON JUAN while being structured more like CHILDE HAROLD’S PILGRIMAGE. I haven’t read either in a long time, so don’t look for point-by-point comparisons. But my love of Byron’s poetry was definitely working on me as I crafted an excerpt from my protagonist’s comic epic.

    Thanks for the comment!

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