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How To Write A Short Story: Rewriting The First Draft

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

A close-up image of a tarnished fountain pen on a sheet of paper written on in a beautiful caligraphied hand

In this second tutorial: How To Write A Short Story: Rewriting The First Draft, using examples from the author’s own work, you will learn how to identify your story from your initial rough draft and then rework it into a coherent and structured piece of prose fiction. And by the end, you will have something resembling an original short story that exists nowhere else on this Earth.

I’m going to start, then, by assuming you’re here because you followed my Chain-Link Method in the first part of these story-writing how-to tutorials: How To Write A Short Story: A Quick 3-Step Guide To Finding Ideas And Getting Started. And that from a single starter-link-sentence you have written a first draft consisting of several thousand words. And that you now need to know the next step in writing a finished short story.

If this is so, then please, read on.

If not, then I’d recommend you click on the link above and take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with the guide, so that we can all start on the same page, so to speak.

In front of you, then, it is likely you will have a chaotic draft of sentences and ideas that in all probability only very loosely string together from your single starter-link-sentence.

It is likely that your freely flowing ink or frenetically leaping cursor has led you into taking several unexpected flights of creative fancy, far, far from where you took off.

It is not, of course, beyond the realms of possibility that your story will be there on the pages, your characters waving back at you, clear as day and looking larger than life. If this is the case, then well done, congratulations, pat yourself on the back and skip ahead to part three (which, presently, is the still-to-be-written third and final instalment: How to Write a Short Story: Revising, Editing and Polishing Your Final Draft. So please, be patient, and I will post that in due course).

But in all likelihood, rather you will be scratching your head and thinking: How in God’s name will I ever find some sort of order – let alone a bona fide story - in this insane explosion of words?

Well, let me assure you, right now, you will.

Okay, admittedly, it may seem only the faintest pulse of light in a vast expanding universe of darkness, but that’s enough to provide you hope something is there and can be found and indeed used.

So trust me.

With example passages taken from a story of my own, written using the Chain-Link Method, I will continue to show you how you can create something from nothing.

But be warned.

This will not be a walk in the park.

You must be prepared to slog and sweat.

You must be prepared to endure.

You must be prepared to rewrite what you’ve already written.

You must be prepared to start again.

a plain pale blue background with the universal computer icon that one clicks on to refresh an internet page.

Rewriting The First Draft

All writing is rewriting.

I don’t know who is credited with coining that maxim, but that’s the truth of the matter right there.

Rarely, if ever, has a piece of writing been accepted by its author as perfect and complete upon the first draft: the brain simply does not work that way. Even brilliant academics with IQs through the clever-clogs roof will write, rewrite, revise, tweak, polish, and buff their papers a dozen times and more before publishing.

Likewise stories, fictional stories, never come to their author fully-formed. As an orchid thief must cut a swath through dense rainforest to find that bloom few have ever seen, a writer must go searching for their original short story in the jungle of words otherwise known as the First Draft. Yep, a writer must take a metaphorical machete and cut away the tonnage of tangled text that obscures their path in order to reveal their prize.

But how do you know in what direction to go and what to cleave away?

Well, largely, it's instinctual.

It is something that can less be explicitly articulated than something felt in the guts.

It is something mysterious that courses through the blood and flutters the heart and can never be seen through a microscope.

But the more you do it, and the more you train and stimulate these spider-senses, the more skilled you become at knowing what feels right and what does not.

A real life, unmasked Spiderman stood next to a masked, comic-strip version, the latter with illustrtive waves coming off its head, and the caption No Spider-Sense along the bottom of picture

First, then, as I already warned you, you must go back to the beginning.

You must revisit what you've already written.

You must print and read your first draft and familiarise yourself with your whole crazy, scatter-word, jumbled, piece. You must learn to see your first draft's every colour and shade and recognise what hides in the darkness between the lines. You must learn to know the glint of a diamond from the glimmer of cut-glass and to put in store only that which holds something of value.

And now you've read it once, read it again, and then again, but out loud, and listen for the parts that stirred you in some way, that caught your eye and pricked your ears and keened your imagination.

And keep those spider-senses switched on for such things as:

  • Small details that distended your pupils and let in the light.

  • Tiny clues that hinted at a plot.

  • The thrum of a conflict – internal or external (the primary element of any story).

  • Remain hyper-aware for whom the story belongs, who the central character and (if any) secondary characters are.

  • Heed the timbre of their personalities - whether they're honest or deceitful, benevolent or malevolent, happy or morose, likable or unlikable, whether their cup is half full or half empty, etc., etc.

  • Be vigilant for relationships between characters – are they good or bad, new or established, harmonious or fractious.

  • Use your writers' facility for empathy to recognise any peculiar behaviours your character or characters might exhibit, any habits and idiosyncrasies unique to them, those things that make them individuals and stand them apart from their friends and antagonists.

In each instance, it may be a mere word or two, but that might be enough to help you see the possibility of a story.

And more pertinently, who your characters are, who you will be writing about, and how they might respond to a given situation as your narrative develops and expands, which are not mutually exclusive.

After all: character is story, story is character, so said F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And so now you should know your first draft as well as you know what every room in your house contains, all the artifacts that stand in their corners and sit on their shelves, the secret objects hidden away in drawers.

An open-fronted dolls' house revealing several rooms furnished with modern and largely white decor

Therefore, without having to think about it, you should be able to go back and strike a highlighter through those words and sentences or parts of sentences that caused a tingling on your skin, glimmered in the corner of your eye, made your heart leap.

And once you're done, what you will have are all the useful threads that you can begin to string together in order to reimagine the weave of your story.

Which will resemble my example below:

A short excerpt of typed text from blog author's own rough first draft of a story with certain specific words and parts of sentences highlighted in yellow as considered useful to create a more coherent rewrite

Right off, then, you’ll probably have noticed two things about the excerpt:

First, how little I did NOT highlight - that is, how little my gut instincts decided wasn’t useful - at least three-quarters of the whole, rejected.

But that’s okay.

It’s part of the creative process.

For every masterpiece that hangs in the world’s galleries, there are dozens of preliminary sketches and discarded attempts that preceded them, which the general public never sees.

To boot, all great scientific discoveries are measured by the failures that led to the Eureka moment, not by the Eureka moment itself.

And anyway, those passages unwanted? They’re only words.

Second, is that I highlighted my starter-link-sentence - Nothing remained but a few charred stumps of timber and a soft quilt of grey-black ash - which I had jotted down in a notebook after watching a news report featuring an Australian woman wandering among the burnt ruins of her house after a bushfire had swept through it.

The reason I highlighted that is, I want to show you a direct example of how something came from nothing. For when I hooked out that sentence and rewrote it on the screen in front of me, I had absolutely no idea where it would lead me or what my story would be about (just as you would have had none when you committed your starter-link-sentence to the page or screen.) I couldn’t even have predicted what my second sentence would be, let alone any other. Nor where the story would go or how it would end.

And when eventually I stopped writing, I had somewhere around 7000 words and only a vague notion of what I had written.

What you see above, is the opening 360 words, a great portion of which (as already iterated) would not be used again. And what I did retain, is only remotely recognisable in the finished piece (which you will be able to find a link to in the third and final part of these How To Write A Short Story blog posts).

Rewriting The First Draft: Applying Theory To Practice

So now that you will begin to have an understanding of how the process works in theory, I will break it down practically, and demonstrate the journey of my thinking:

In the first instance, you will see how I started off writing from the POV of a female character (probably because it was a woman rather than a man I had seen in the news clip and that image had seared itself into my imagination). But, by the end of the short example above, I had introduced her husband, and without consciously thinking about it, I saw I had carried on with his story through the messy first draft, and to some degree, left hers behind.

Obviously the story was his story, then: Dominik, rather than his wife, was my principal character. And therefore it followed that, for the rewrite, I had to change the POV. And thus, baring this in mind, all further ideas must now inevitably relate back to him, to Dominik.

Here, then, is an expansion on what my gut identified and my pen highlighted as being potentially useful, irrespective of this change of perspective.

  • That the fire was started accidentally and one of the characters was probably responsible for its causation.

  • That the fire had destroyed everything my characters owned.

  • That there was a child and that the child was possibly in the house when the fire started.

  • That the female character harboured some suspicion regarding her husband and that he might somehow be deceiving her (while at first I thought he was committing adultery, the deceit would, in the end, arrive in a most unexpected way).

  • That the conflict might be an internal one – guilt that the fire could have been avoided.

  • That there was possibly an investigation that might reveal culpability.

  • That Dominik was engaged in some way with engineering drones for a military agency.

Regarding this last, while I had written at some length in that first outpouring of words and ideas about Dominik’s involvement with building drones (and I couldn’t tell you why I went with this idea, only that I did, strange though it was to me), and that his involvement was possibly for nefarious purposes, I decided I didn’t like this, and would finally delete all references.

But that is not to say this long exposition was wasted.

On the contrary, towards the end of the first draft (not featured here), I found a small, relatable detail that I thought might be relevant and useful. I saw I had suddenly made Dominik’s job more specific and had him working on the lenses for the drones’ cameras. Given some of those ideas I’d previously highlighted, I realized that such a lens, absently left outside under the rays of the sun, could start a fire. Which in turn could provide the story’s conflict: the guilt Dominik would feel when he understood he might be responsible for the fire starting, and in which a child had probably perished.

So when it came to the rewrite, I changed his occupation. He became a bio-engineer working on perfecting the biomechanical complexities of the eyes used for AI robots. Which in itself provided a new thread, a new opportunity, my first Eureka! moment.

Close-up of a human eye with a lightly pinked iris and a camera lense for a pupil

You should now see that from a single starter sentence casually scribbled down in a notebook, I had generated more than a dozen interlinking ideas. that I had a better idea of who and what my story was about. And so, with more to go on, with more understanding and more direction and more purpose, I began to rewrite, to reimagine, the first draft.

The Rewrite

A short excerpt from the rewritten short story earlier featured in a rough first draft

If you were paying close attention, there are a number of things you will have noticed about the rewrite, or reimagining, whatever you prefer.

You will have noticed how different the piece now looks and reads - a short excerpt though it is - noticed how and what has changed.

You will have noticed that, rather than being a block of rambling prose and scattered ideas that needed highlighting and pulling apart into useable little short strings of words, it now has a common thread running through it.

You will have noticed how the opening paragraph is an exposition of the original starter-link-sentence.

You will have noticed how I have begun to incorporate some of the ideas highlighted in the first draft.

You will have noticed how the whole is much more considered and coherent, how it now has structure, well-thought-out sentences, and paragraphs separating scenes and ideas.

You will have noticed how it is more recognisable as a short story.

None the less, at this stage, it is still a work in progress, it is still a story evolving and open to further changes and digressions.

In this way, then, you’ll see that I changed the sex of the child: Kiri became Oskar.

What is more, the child, Oskar, was now disabled. This was not something I had predicted, but once I wrote it down, I realised it made perfect sense: a physically disabled child may be unable to escape a house fire on its own.

And what if his parents were unable to reach him? This idea was new, but one I went with.

And when I quickly introduced an insurance investigator (remember I mentioned the possibility of an investigation into the fire's causation?) searching for clues among the ash and ruins - together with the plot-idea that a clumsily abandoned glass lense was possibly the catalyst - these things welded together to provide not only an internal conflict of guilt for the primary character but also a tension throughout the piece as the reader wonders if the child is indeed dead and if Dominik is inadvertently culpable.

The Rewrite: Conclusion

Okay. I'm now going to make my second assumption.

I'm going to hazard that you must by now have got the gist of how you can rewrite your first draft and that I needn't go on explaining the process as I have, one tiresome point at a time, and proving myself guilty of boring you with repetition.

To wrap up, then, I want to remind you to never give up. Hard though it may be, you must never give up. While the reward comes when you reach the end, learn to enjoy the journey, too.

Besides, writing isn’t a race.

Writing is a slow process, a considered process - writers are clever little tortoises, not big rash hares.

And as much of the work is done off the page as on it. That is to say, thinking about your story takes up as much time as writing your story. For me, when I'm writing a new story, it is never far from my mind as I go about my daily routine. And the whole story writing process, from beginning to end, well, I can take as long as three months to finish a short story. Sometimes longer. And even then it's never truly done (more of which in the next part).

In the final part: How to Write a Short Story: Revising, Editing and Polishing Your Final Draft, I will show you how to revise and edit your rewrite it until your short story is in the best possible state it can be, ready for submission for publication.

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