Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Rewriting Blues

You get to the end of your story, you start rewriting. You show it to some people who all think it has promise, they like this and that about it. It’s not perfect, but you already knew that. You keep working on it. You trim, you hone, you tinker. Weeks, months — it’s slow going, but it’s improving. One day you finish. Hurrah!

Most people are encouraging. Some people point out flaws, but they aren’t really getting what you’re going for. Not everyone’s going to like it — horses for courses. You stick to your guns. Still, there isn't  an overwhelming tide of publishers knocking down your door, and to be honest, there’s something about your story, now that you look at it after six months, that doesn’t seem quite right...

Then, someone rips it apart. 

They think it is full of problems. Slow, dull, meandering. What's this guy’s problem? Axe to grind? Bitter and jaded about his own lack of success? Just a dick? Thing is, some of what he says makes sense to you. He could have put it a little more tactfully (i.e. less like an A-hole) but he sort of touches on things you were beginning to suspect yourself.

You have a moment of clarity. Of course it doesn’t work. You should cut the start, move the bit about the child who died to much later, switch chapters 4 and 5, expand the bit when she lost her job. It will not only still make sense, it will make better sense. And be more exciting and funnier and sadder. You work all night in a state of frenzied enthusiasm. You finish as the sun rises, read it over and feel fantastic.

You give it to the guy who eviscerated the last version. He reads it and gives you the thumbs up. You’ve dealt with all of his concerns.  You feel even better. You show it to the people that have been supporting and encouraging you from the beginning.

They hate it. 

It just doesn’t have the heart, the flowing language, the beautiful imagery that it used to have. It was so much better before, you have to change it back, they say, otherwise it’ll just be another cookie-cutter story off the production line. Yes, it is a stronger start, a faster pace, a more thrilling read, but now it has no soul.

What to do?

This scenario is one I come across surprisingly frequently. The writer goes into a spiral of self-doubt. The readers are adamant things are headed in the wrong direction. Accusations fly, conspiracies are outed, African nations riot...

The thing about rewriting a story, especially when it’s a drastic change, is that it’s hard to keep an objective perspective. You spend all that time working on the first draft, getting things polished and sounding just right. It isn’t the finished article, but it feels 90% done. The final destination is in view.

However, just because you can see your destination from where you are, doesn’t mean you can get there from here.

Sometimes, you have to go back to the last fork in the road and try that other route instead, because the way you went didn’t have the bridge you expected, just a yawning chasm. Yes, you will end up further from your goal then you were, but you’re now going in the right direction. Or maybe you still aren’t and you’ll have to retrace your steps again — at least you’re learning the routes to avoid. As long as you don’t give up, eventually you will get there.

But you should be prepared for that feeling after a major revision of your manuscript, when it feels worse than it did before. Of course it does. You spent all that time polishing the last version and now you’ve just chopped and changed and stuck bits together, it’s not going to read as smoothly as before. Remember all those times you thought the previous version was done and then you found extra typos and errors and better ways to say the same thing? You have to go through all that again. Yes, again. And again. And again.

It’s tedious and soul-destroying and a lot of hard work — you thought you were at 90%, now you’re back at 60%. But the truth is you never were at 90%, you were at 60% with a brick wall in front of you which you thought was the wall of the magic castle, you just needed to find the door... but turns out it was just a wall blocking your way. So, you’re still at 60% but the road is wide open again. And isn’t that the magic castle on the horizon, that tiny dot? Hey, at least now you’re on the right path. Most probably. You’re approaching it from the side the drawbridge is on, right?

In summary:

1. Every major revision will make the story read worse than before until you work on smoothing over the cracks.

2. If you wrote wonderful, flowing language that captures the imagination before, then you can do it again. If people tell you they liked the old version, then you have the ability to make them like the new version.

19 comments:

Frankie said...

Always save your early drafts. Then if you fuck up in the revision, you can at least go back to an unmolested version and try again.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm with Frankie. :D

I did the same with the project I'm now querying, only the rewrites did make a huge difference. And the person who loved it before still loved it. Yay!

Julia Hones said...

Editing is a complex process, but sometimes we don't need to rewrite everything. We simply add paragraphs to dig deeper into certain aspects, and we discard sentences and words that are not needed. These changes can have a huge impact on the quality of the writing. I think after all the feedback, we have to focus on our intuition. Intuition will guide us to decide what suggestions to take and what suggestions to discard. Sometimes, the suggestions are used in unexpected ways...

Luke Raftl said...

Hear, hear.

No ones going to please everybody. I'm glad I kept my unmolested version (beautiful imagery, Frankie) just in case. I am trying to take feedback seriously only after proper contemplation. If you believe what someone says after reflection, it's valid; if you still think they're wrong, stick to your guns.

Brent Wescott said...

It's only taken me 20 years and countless revisions to get a manuscript I started in college to a point where I'm ready to start querying. I think I thought I was at 90% every time, until I started major revisions. It's frustrating and I gave up a lot of times. This is a good post. It helps me understand that I can go through it again if I have to.
It Just Got Interesting

mooderino said...

Good to see different perspectives on this. I've got to a point where I know my first draft will be miles away from what I want it to be, so I don't worry too much about it and just get it down. And then start rewriting.

I'm quite casual about chucking stuff out and trying it a different way — it's all on computer, I still have the old versions (often I use stuff discarded from one story in another). I see it as part of the process. But it isn't easy to not be precious about it, to just let things go.

And however you revise your work, there will be times when it feels like it's going nowhere and isn't working at all, and that too is part of the process.

Rachel Walsh said...

Excellent post. Your point of "you were never 90% done, you were at 60% with a brick wall in front of you" exactly encapsulates my experience. I'm hoping to start busting through that wall very soon, though. :-)

Frankie said...

All this talk about editing, here, Luke's blog (Luke up above there) and Judith Kinghorn's. I said on Judith's blog, I enjoy the editing. The creating in the first draft, making stuff up, I like. But it's more relaxed, I think, to have the story figured out, just have to shape it. Not too much; don't want to overwork it. (Also, "I will fix it later" is a mantra I use to help keep the forward momentum rolling.)

Jeigh said...

I can really relate to this. I did some major revisions and mentioned it to family members who had read the first draft. I heard a lot of, "Oh, just make sure you keep so-and-so," or "Don't change [insert favorite unnecessary scene here]." Ultimately, though, I'm the one who knows the right direction for my story.

And I love the 90% vs. 60% with a wall. So true.

Donea Lee said...

This rings SO true! I feel myself second guessing my gut when I get reviews that say one thing that I really didn't want to hear. But, you still need to listen. I've just started revising a complete 1st draft from 3rd person to 1st... working on smoothing those cracks! Thanks - :)

Lydia K said...

Wow, this totally rings true for me right now. I'm revising a lot of stuff based on my harshest CP, but I wonder if after the changes, my original betas will say, "Where'd the soul of this story go?"
Sigh. Nice to know I'm not the only one who goes through these feelings. too.

Diana said...

This is exactly what I needed to hear, at exactly the right moment. You've chased away my doubts and given me the courage to re-write (again). There was another voice in my head all along, but it was stifled. Now it's going down on paper. The story remains, but the characters are motivated by another force - one I knew about but tried to ignore to fit in with what I thought people wanted. Huge thanks for this.

Jan Brogan said...

Here's a solution that works for me. After I finish a first draft of a novel I let it sit a week or two then read it with a notebook next to me. I jot down what needs to be changed on each page - from word use to better character or plot development and I note on the manuscript exactly where this thought occurred. I divide the notes, according to what I decide are the four acts of the novel, and I write a revision plan for each "act" and for the novel.

Something in the handwriting experience accesses my brain in a different way and halfway through this process I understand what I'm trying to accomplish with this novel and how. I respond to my own critique rather than bounce around between other's view. Outside readers are still important, but this helps you evaluate what to listen to and what o discard.

It provides a cohesive, well planned second draft that has worked for me very time (four published novels)

Hope this helps someone!

mooderino said...

Thanks, Jan. You're clearly very well organised. I find I can't really see my own work that clearly until at least a few months have past and it's much quicker if I get feedback from fresh eyes. Good tips for those whose brains are wired that way though.

Carol Ervin said...

Well done - thoughtful and honest. Thanks for sharing.

Claudia Del Balso said...

I dread revising. However, editing my peers work has helped me hone my writing skills. I've had stories torn by mentors but I've been open to changes and the results were worth it. We cannot get too attached to our characters, dialogues, or plot. We have to understand what works best for the story. By the way, thank you for joining my blog. I joined yours as well. I'll see you in the blogosphere.
Cheers!

Suzie Quint said...

It can be hard to stay upbeat when you know you have to go back and rework a major portion of your story, so it's good to have a pep talk now an then, reminding you that it will turn out even better than you hoped. We all need that sometimes.

Misha said...

So true! I almost cringe at the amount of revising I'm going to have to do, but I'm at that stage of the process where I swear I will batter down the wall if it gets in my way. I'm just that tired of walking along it wondering where I'm supposed to go in.

>_<

Suze said...

Smiled through my tears at the bit about African nations.

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