A Complete Rewrite (Or: How a Pantser became an Outliner)

By Sarah Billington

Over the years, I have heard what I consider to be horror stories about some people’s experiences revising manuscripts. Whispers in the wind of a friend of a friend who completely rewrote her novel, when revising it. All sixty, eighty, all one hundred thousand words of the original draft were completely scrapped and they started again. Just thinking about all that work sliding through the paper shredder makes me wince. This couldn’t be true, that can’t happen to writers, can it? Those people obviously aren’t organised enough, they have to be really bad at writing to reach the end of a novel and decide there’s nothing worth keeping. I mean the first draft is supposed to be bad, but it’s never going to be that bad, that unsalvageable.

Then I heard that John Green scrapped Paper Towns and started again, keeping a mere fifteen thousand words of the original draft.

And then it happened to me.

And let me tell ya, peeps. It’s terrible.

Two years ago, I wrote my second ever novel about a girl called MJ. It started off being about this highly opinionated blog she wrote that caught the attention of local kids who started asking for her opinions and suggestions about what was happening in their lives. There was a romantic subplot in which something she posted quite frequently about was her ex-boyfriend and the slutty girl who stole him from her.

Halfway through writing it, I became more interested in the relationships between her, the ex-boyfriend and the slutty girl. So I kind of dropped the blogging plot completely toward the end and focussed on the other stuff.

Dropping the main plot halfway through the book? That makes for a bad book. An unsalvageable book.

So I chalked it up to practice and left it alone. Except for the past two years, I haven’t been able to get MJ out of my mind. Her friends, the ex-boyfriend. I knew I needed to find them a different story.

So I came up with a new plot, which had already been snaking its way into the original book as a subplot and decided that this was MJ’s story. I printed out the original book, figuring I’d go through it, cross out everything to do with the blog and I’d still have a good 150 pages I could work with, it would just be a case of slipping new material in. This was going to be a piece of cake.

I was delusional.

I ended up with about 30 pages with scenes I could use for the new book. I had to write around 200 brand new pages. Holy hell.

After about two weeks of writing, I stopped even looking at the old material and was writing from scratch.

I’m in two minds about whether or not this book is a brand new book, or a rewritten version of the original one. Because the plot is brand-spanking new, but the characters are the same.

It was a wretched experience, holding in my hand thirty useable pages out of two-hundred and thirty of the original draft. But I have most definitely come out with a better book (I finished the draft last week!). And that original book wasn’t a waste. I learnt a lot from this whole experience.

I was a Seat-of-the-Pantser, but from this experience, I have defected from the pantsers and am now a hardcore Outliner before writing. I am officially Team Outline. I need to start making buttons I’m that dedicated to the cause. Mind you, I don’t mean detailed chapter summaries and knowing every exact thing that is going to happen in the book because quite frankly, where’s the excitement and joy in that? I’m more of a road map kind of outliner. I know where I’m going, but how I get there is still the fun part, and I figure that out in the writing.

So there we have it. Rewriting from scratch *shudder*. All in all, it’s been good. More bearable and educational than expected. But it better not happen again!

Sarah Billington

Sarah Billington’s fiction, feature articles, reviews and interviews have been published in newspapers, magazines, literary journals and online publications. Recently the Star newspaper in Australia profiled Sarah and followed her world trip through regular articles. Ponto Combo Productions commissioned her to write a short film for production. She was a quarter finalist in a Hollywood screenwriting competition for her TV Pilot, Playing Grown Ups, which also had a successful screenplay reading and was responsible for her nomination as Screenwriter of the Year by Light My Candle Theatre Productions. She was honourably mentioned in the 2008 Writers Digest Competition, screenwriting category for her screenplay, The In with Santa, out of 17,000 entrants and most recently she won the Gippsland Award in the Fellowship of Australian Writers competition. Sarah was born and raised in Victoria, Australia.