Redrafting: what I’ve learnt so far

The thrill of completing the first draft is a heady one. I remember dancing around the front lawn and babbling to friends and family for almost a week about how amazing it was to have finally reached the end of this manuscript. Because in truth, this manuscript has existed in various forms for the last ten years—started on, abandoned, rewritten, ignored, deleted, restarted, despised, adored, gutted and reborn until that very first kernel of an idea is unrecognisable in the finished (hah!) work.

Having stepped away from it for a few weeks and gorged myself on books, blogs and beloved authors, I returned to the manuscript in October feeling ready for anything. I printed out the manuscript, read it through and knew that the bones were good. The direction of the story made sense. What a relief!

Then it was time to acknowledge what needed work. In September, I was fortunate to undertake a spec fic masterclass through Writers Victoria with Aussie writer Marianne de Pierres. The masterclass focused on narrative drive and world building, and I came away armed with the knowledge that my manuscript could do with a bit more of both—thanks, Marianne!

Upon reading the complete manuscript, however, I realised that perhaps I had been a bit naïve about the task at hand. Of the two main characters, one seriously lacked motivation and narrative drive. By that, I mean I could not answer the questions ‘What does he want?’ and ‘What are the consequences of him not getting that?’ They’re kind of important story questions.

Immediately, I set to work. I read multiple books and excerpts about character development, mined the net for gems and set up a lengthy questionnaire to which I diligently came up with the answers regarding who my main character was and why he was that way. Then I did the same for my other main character. Then the two key sub-characters.

Feeling good about myself, I returned to the manuscript and redrafted the first three chapters (my manuscript had started in the wrong place, so the first 15,000 words were to be completely new… but that’s another matter).

Reaching the end of the third chapter, something felt wrong. Yes, I knew the characters intimately now, knew their pasts, their families, their motivations, who they hate and love, all their wants and whys and wherefores.

But I didn’t really know where they were or what was going on around them and how that would affect their adventures. Or, at least, I didn’t know enough to carry me through the redraft. Time for world building.

Now, anyone who has built their own world knows it’s not simply about drawing a map and proclaiming the existence of a kingdom/empire/province/planet. World building is about the physical landscape, countries, cultures, religion, politics, history, agriculture, magic, trade, food, city life, rural life, and a myriad of other things. Plus the consequences of these things. For example, perhaps there are no birds in your world. Do insects have run of the place? Are there new apex predators like spiders or aphids? How does this affect everyday life? As the writer, you have to know the answers.

My manuscript involves four kingdoms—a main character comes from one kingdom, a threat comes from another, the story begins in a third kingdom, and 90% of the story takes place in the fourth kingdom. It would be easy to concentrate on the fourth kingdom and rely on peripheral knowledge for the rest. But my manuscript will suffer for it, and I’m pretty sure readers will catch me out on my laziness.

I headed to the hallowed Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) website ( and took advantage of their very comprehensive set of world building questions. Do yourself a favour and give it a shot.

It took almost three weeks of full time work to discover and explore my four kingdoms. Now, you might think over a hundred hours of world building is excessive. It isn’t. I could probably do more work on it, and as I get further along the redraft, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I’ll do. If you want your world to ring true, you have to know it intimately—well beyond anything the reader will ever know. It’s exhausting and time consuming but invigorating, too.

Having created a newly complex world, I then went back to the characters and re-did the questionnaires. Why? Because their culture, history and landscape informs who they are in the manuscript.

I’m now back on the manuscript itself, armed with the knowledge gained from all of this background work. In a nutshell, here are the key pointers I’ve discovered since starting the redraft:

  • Step away from your manuscript once the first draft is complete. Give yourself a few weeks to relax and let new ideas germinate.
  • Read the whole manuscript. I recommend printing it out as you can put notes in the margins about things that need to be addressed later on.
  • Do not line edit! The second draft is not about going line by line and creating beautiful sentences. It’s about the wholesale slaughter of scenes and characters, worlds and plots. You have to be merciless and inventive on a macro level. Pretty words are for the third draft, or fourth, or fifth (you get the idea).
  • Create a comprehensive and complex world. Don’t be lazy. Take the time to know your world in ways that no one else ever will.
  • Revisit your characters and analyse their motivations and who they are. Know them intimately. Again, laziness will kill the manuscript.
  • Be fearless. Redrafting is hard work, and a lot of it never shows up on the page.

I admire writers who do the development work before writing the first draft. Perhaps it saves them time in the redrafting stages. Obviously I’m not geared like that and the benefits to me are obvious. I’ve fallen in love with my characters and world all over again.

And I cannot wait to make them suffer.

What have you discovered in the redrafting process?

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