Revising Old Writing Part Two: The Betas are Circling – Alma Boykin
So, when we last left the Dissertation/Draft (DDraft), the old work had been cleaned up, improved, had material added and some deleted, and in general was a bit tighter than when I started, thanks to the passage of time and two Alpha Readers suggestions. Much like revising old fiction, I found things that needed to be polished, language tics that really did not improve the book, excessive detail here and not enough backstory there. My Alpha Readers had advised some pretty major changes, which I made some of. Others I thought hard about and decided not to try and do, because they would, in essence, change an epic fantasy into a steampunk novel. OK, not quite, but the changes would have been pretty major. So it was time to look at the Beta Reader comments.
(Quick aside. I call the second and third commenters Beta Readers, even though they had some comments closer to Alphas. In general, their suggestions were closer to what fiction beta readers look for, so I consider them the equivalent. Carry on.)
Again they were a mixed bag. Both encouraged more trimming of jargon and trying to tighten things to make the story flow faster, to grip the reader better. Beta Reader 2 loved what Alpha Reader 2 had hated, so I rolled my eyes and decided to let the editor decide which version of that chunk she liked better. I was still too in love with the original to want to change. One of the suggested changes left me a bit flummoxed, because the Beta Reader suggested that I try to change my writing style in order to make the book more like a very famous and incredibly readable history. Sort of as if someone had suggested that I re-write the next Cat Among Dragons novel into the style of Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Sterling’s Prince of Sparta. I took the suggestion to mean “tighten up, get rid of jargon, and focus on story here and here.” And my transitions needed work still.
You are looking at the screen and saying, “OK, at this point, why are you bothering? Just how much work are you going to put into this beast, Alma, and why don’t you just self publish?” Good points, and if this were fiction, I would. And if this were an independent project and not the DDraft, I’d seriously think about it. But in the world of academia, you really should not do that. And the publisher still wanted/wants the book, just revised and polished. We are now looking at a far better, more readable, smoother, and probably about 90% improved version of the original. Large repetitious chunks are gone, the story flows better, the title reflects the contents, some things have been brought to the front of the book, and a lot of undergrowth has been trimmed. And keep in mind that I’m still reading lots of non-fiction and writing fiction, so I’m trying to work in what I’m learning as I re-write.
At this point a style editor got involved. You probably do not need this sort of service, but after four or five (it seems like twenty-four or twenty-five) pretty major re-workings, I can’t see all the problems of flow and other things anymore. Think of this as having an advanced Beta Reader look over DDraft. Some of my fiction style had leaked into the non-fiction and not in a good way, another reason for a cold pair of eyes. And this individual can also flag problems that have crept in. He’s caught some things I missed, recommended some things I’m still mulling over, and generally helped smooth the wrinkles. The DDRaft is now about to go back to the publisher for an up/down decision.
How is this all like re-writing fiction, old fiction? Some thoughts.
First, you will probably find that some of what you wrote stinks. Some was good even then, but other portions will leave you cringing and wondering how it ever escaped your pen/keyboard.
Second, you may need to be a little ruthless about killing your deathless prose, if the situation warrants it. This is especially true if you are going back into a universe where you have been writing since then. Re-writing the Cat novel feels a whole lot like re-writing the DDRaft in places. I loved that scene, I really did, but it no longer fits. There’s been new developments since I wrote it, and I need to incorporate them, which means taking out Lovely Scene.
Third, your Alpha Readers may knock you sideways. One certainly did to me, and it took a while before I could go back and sift the useful bits from the frustrating bits.
Fourth, do not be afraid to chop and change if necessary. I’ve created new chapters (fleshed out backstory as it were), plumped up others, turned overly long sections into shorter ones. Let’s face it: no one is going to read a 300-page book of only four chapters, unless you are releasing a set of novellas.
And it may be that you discover that bits of Ye Olde Work can be saved, expanded, or used elsewhere, but the guts are dead. You may have 150 pages of description and no plot. The characters may refuse to cooperate and you realize that the tale of a modern liberated woman as wife in early Imperial Rome absolutely will not work, not even if you hold your nose and try to pretend. Or the magic system you cobbled together has collapsed now that you’ve read more and learned how to and how not to arrange such things. If rewriting the beast means taking the character names, a little of the setting, and the McGuffin into a different book, you might be better off holding a lovely memorial service for Ye Olde Work and writing the new book. Take the good bits as you need them and leave the rest to decay. I ended up doing that with part of the Cat novel. Even after major rewriting for continuity and flow and to eliminate a major authorial pity party, the chapter still went thud to the point of detracting from the book. So out it came. I had something similar happen with a different history book, because the material dragged the story in an out-of-the-way direction, literally. I’ll probably use the excised chunk for an academic article some time.
In conclusion, rewriting can be a little painful. It can also be very educational, especially if you have good Alpha and Beta readers who are willing to point out the oopsies and continuity problems. Yeah, that stream does not reverse flow and go east, then west out of the state. It flows north and only north. Big oops. If all goes well, between how you have developed as a writer since you started the Olde Project, and some helpful suggestions, you can rework what was rough into something much better. You will learn a great deal in the process, some good, some bad, and possibly some “things not to do to people I read for.”
Some of what I described is exactly what Amanda talked about earlier. Some is different. Re-writing is personal and varies from author to author. But I hope you find my experience helpful (or cautionary).