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Ajay Chowdhury headshot with books. How to rewrite a story.
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Ajay Chowdhury on How to Rewrite a Story

February 13, 2022
February 13, 2022

A truth many writers would rather not acknowledge is that the editing process is a big part of the writing process. And – what’s often even scarier – the rewriting process is a huge part of the editing process. That being said, looking at an entire story – even if it’s still a rough draft – and contemplating redoing the whole thing needn’t be daunting; think of it as exciting instead!

Of course, judging your own writing isn’t always the easiest proposition, which is why it’s a great idea to have a writing coach or writing community to provide valuable feedback (although be wary of who gets to see your first draft!).

And we would definitely recommend building a few weeks’ break into your writing process after you finish off that first draft. It’ll be much easier to assess your own words when you’ve had a bit of space from your written work, and let your story breathe. When you come back to it, try reading your work aloud, and imagine someone else is listening. That can help you see whether the story makes sense, and whether your word choice flows well.

One writer who knows all about rewriting is Ajay Chowdhury, the award-winning author of crime thrillers The Waiter and The Cook. As well as being a novelist, Ajay is a theatre director and tech entrepreneur who founded Shazam and Seatwave.

Here, Ajay tells us how he writes and rewrites his novels... With these tips, you’ll soon feel like a better writer, whether you’re reworking entire sections, one chapter, a single sentence or even short stories.

The impulse to rewrite my own writing is strong

As I write this, I’m just about to send my publisher the final edit of The Cook, the sequel to my debut crime novel The Waiter, and I've been warned it will now go for typesetting so I can’t make any more changes.

I take this news with a mixture of relief and trepidation – relief because I can finally give the book up after having worked on it for over a year, and trepidation because I have to finally give it up.

As my finger hovers over the ‘send’ button, I wonder whether I should give it a last read – what if I get a brilliant new idea and don’t get a chance to put it in? Will I regret that forever?

No. I ignore that voice in my head and press send. With the whoosh of my Mac it’s gone.

Rewriting is built into the writing process

Ernest Hemingway famously said:

All writing is rewriting.
— Ernest Hemingway

I hadn’t thought much about this quote when I wrote The Waiter. I’d been lucky enough to win the Harvill Secker/Bloody Scotland award for a debut crime novel and blithely plunged in, bringing to life the idea of a failed detective from Kolkata becoming a waiter in Brick Lane which I’d had for over a decade.

I sent off my first draft thinking that was it, I was done and could move on. Maybe my editor would come back correcting a few typos but I was happy with the book. What more could be done to it?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I realised I was just at the foothills of the mountain, not at the peak. And rewriting was far harder than writing.

My brilliant editor sent back pages and pages of comments. It was only then that I realised I was just at the foothills of the mountain, not at the peak. And rewriting was far harder than writing.

I had to turn this old version into something new, breathe new life into my story.

It was four Ps – plot, pace, place and person – which were my biggest learnings. To other writers, this may be old news. But it was immensely helpful for me, and if it can help someone else feel brighter about the prospect of rewriting their stories, I’ll be thrilled.

Plot

First, I had to kill my darlings in the service of plot (‘Loved the ten-page description of the post-mortem, but does it really move the plot forward? Maybe you could just say the victim was killed by a blow to the head and that would be enough’).

The fact is, sometimes rewriting is a lot about unwriting, so to speak. Editing requires us to look at our manuscript ruthlessly, and excise anything that doesn’t really, really need to be there. That includes characters, descriptions, or even what once felt like a crucial plot point that’s no longer integral to the story.

Pace

Then I had to really tighten the story to bring in pace (‘You really don’t have to describe everything Kamil does during the day, the reader will take it for granted that he had a shower’).

To reiterate my point, a lot of my rewrite was about removing things that weren’t driving my novel forwards or developing my characters.

Place

I had to bring the place to the fore (‘The restaurant is such a brilliant locale, bring it to life’). It’s such a quick note, but it’s one of the great tips I got for my rewrite. A stronger sense of place would bring my readers much more decisively into my world.

Person

And finally, most importantly, make the personalities real (‘It may be a thriller, but the reader has to really identify with Kamil and Anjoli’). Ultimately, we read stories because we care about the main character (and hopefully a minor character or two!). We don’t have to want to be their best friend, but we do need to be invested in their story and their development.

Look closely at your characters and their dialogue. If they don’t feel true to life and engaging, consider a rewrite.


Rewriting is deeply rewarding

Many, many rewrites later, the book was finally ready and seeing it on a bookshop shelf was a magical moment.

When I started The Cook, I spent time focusing on the four Ps and discovered it became easier the second time around. If you keep them in the forefront of your mind for every chapter, the rewriting becomes far less onerous. Perhaps one day I can add a fifth P – poetry – to make the book really sing, but for now I am happy with the four.

But the word ‘easier’ in the paragraph above is doing a lot of heavy lifting. I’m currently working on the next book in the series – The Detective – and it’s all about getting the ideas on the page without worrying about anything else. Just get a few thousand words a day done. Forget the foothills; I can barely see the mountain through the clouds of conflicting ideas bouncing around inside my head.

Perhaps the hardest bit is not the rewriting after all – it is transforming typing into writing. Do that, and the rest will follow.



Someone writing in a notebook
Members of The Novelry team