Sunday, 12 June 2011

Rewriting: Longer Faster Harder

This post specifically relates to getting from the first draft to the second draft. This rewrite is key to the whole rewriting process. Further down the line changes in small details and polishing of the text become important, but at this stage the transition from raw material to story-worthy narrative is what’s going to keep you interested in coming back time and again in order to get the story told. By establishing exactly what the story is about now, you can save yourself a lot of trouble later.

At some point you will have a complete first draft. Whatever genre, style or approach you take getting it done one thing is for sure: It won’t be good. If you look at it and think, Hmm, not bad, ninety percent there, then you are either a genius like none before you, or you’re just plain wrong. It’s going to be all over the place.

But terrible is perfectly acceptable because it isn’t meant to be good at this stage. It just needs to have a beginning, middle and end, a good sense of who the main characters are and their roles, and as much plot development as you could work out.

What people are wearing, what the weather is like, how big the local town is, all this stuff can be in there, but that isn’t the focus. It might have helped you get an idea of the characters personalities and inspired you to come up with various scenes when writing the first draft, but that isn’t what you need to concentrate on. There’s no point picking out the paint colour for a wall you may decide to eventually knock down and build somewhere else. The focus should be purely on the action. What happens in this scene? Is it interesting?

Let's say you have come up with  a series of scenes (by whatever method) like this:

1. A man is released from prison. He travels from inside the dark oppressive innards of a hulking jail, to the bright, open sunshine of freedom. And he feels totally lost. Doesn’t know what to do, has no one there to pick him up.

2. He gets on a bus full of people. The way people are dressed, how they talk, it’s all alien to him. Talking on iPhones like they’re in an episode of Star Trek. He’s taking it all in but feeling hopelessly out of his depth.

3. He arrives home to find no one there. His family have gone. There’s a stranger living there now, no forwarding address.

I think you can see the kind of story I’m setting up. The characters, the vibe, the sense of dislocation is there. But each scene accomplishes its purpose in a very simple manner, and that purpose is pretty predictable.

This is also why many people find writing to an outline to be a painfully tedious task. But once you have your first draft down, what you are working with is basically a long, detailed outline. Everyone who writes, writes from an outline by the time they start rewriting. Every draft is an outline for the next. The reason you may not find it an enjoyable experience and end up bored is very simple: you’ve written a boring outline.

If you strip down my first scene, ignoring dialogue and description and internal monologue and just concentrate on action, what is happening? A man is walking out of a prison. Is that interesting? Could it be more interesting? What does it tell us about him? Because everything that happens in a story should tell us something about the people in the story. Actions reveal character.

He was in prison. Now he isn't. That seems rather basic for an entire chapter. All the other stuff is important and adds to the scene, but the foundation of the scene is what’s happening. Not how important it is to later events, or how well it reflects what it’s like to leave prison after twenty years, but what’s interesting/memorable/surprising/unexpected/emotional/suspenseful about it. Because if it doesn’t have anything like that going on in it you’ll be bored of it well before you hand in the final draft, never mind the reader.

The other thing to take into account when writing Draft 2 is that you now know where the story ends up. You know the ending. Things may change, but there’s no way to second guess that, you have to approach the rewrite knowing events as they are — and use them to make the narrative stronger.

Lets say my ex-con is a model prisoner who always maintained his innocence and doesn’t want to get into trouble again. But its going to turn out that he is a devious son of a bitch who although not guilty of the crime for which he was imprisoned is actually guilty of a number of other crimes. 

Now, in order for this first scene where he leaves prison to have some sort of resonance with the themes I have in mind and to be interesting in its own right, just having him walk out the prison with the warden waving him bye-bye isn't really going to cut it. I may know he’s faking it, and the end of act one switcheroo will blow the reader’s socks off, but most readers are going to glaze over well before then. At the same time, I don’t want to show my hand too early and ruin the reveal.

The thing is, the complexity I have now added to the mix will make my writing job harder. To make him appear Johnny Nice Guy, and not make it feel contrived when he turns, and not lose the reader’s sympathy for him, that’s going to be tough (good thing I have no intention of ever writing this story). But that’s the craft of writing. Not in coming up with fun characters you want to hang out with no matter what they do, but in making those characters do things so interesting you want to find out what happens next even if they aren't so fun. And man walks out of prison is only potentially interesting. By Draft 2 the time for ‘potentially’ is over. Now you have to deal with ‘actually’.

1. A man is about to be released from prison when a new inmate loses it and attacks the guard escorting our man out, holding a shiv to his throat. The kid is new and can’t take it anymore, even though he’s only been there for a month. Our guy talks the kid  down using humour and charm to calm him down and convinces the guard to not report him. So we learn our guy is a cool customer. He can talk his way out of a bad spot. He has some kind of good in him.  However, what we learn later is that our guy was only really interested in avoiding bloodshed because it would have delayed his leaving prison. He saved the guards life because the guard is on his payroll and later they hook up for nefarious reasons. And afterwards he kills the guard himself.

I’m making this stuff up so don’t pay too close attention to it, but that’s the level of detail and complexity I would expect in any scene, probably more so if I was really working on this story, in order to keep me interested through the thirty or forty drafts it would take to get a polished manuscript.

However, that doesn’t mean every scene needs violence and physical conflict with the threat of death to make it interesting.

2. Outside the prison is a bus stop. Our man waits for the bus, while a black SUV with tinted windows sits across the street. Is it watching him? The bus arrives. Our man gets on and is perplexed by the weird clothes and conversations. He sees the new fangled phones and lifts one from someone’s pocket (I think I could get away with making this work if the guy he stole it from was an ass). He also hears words like Facebook which he doesn’t really understand and ends up using incorrectly when trying to chat up a girl. He is embarrassed but handles it with good humour. But he also keeps an eye out for the black SUV that’s following the bus.

What I’m doing is establishing him as a criminal, but also as a (seemingly) good guy, while at the same time not squeaky clean. He still experiences the new world through the bus journey as in the previous version, but now he isn’t just observing, he is interacting. Taking what is being observed and finding a way to turn it into action is the slight shift that can make a dull scene an engaging one.

Before you find you have an extremely polished but boring manuscript, take some time to go through each scene and ask yourself what is happening here? What would be a more interesting way of conveying that? What else could be happening? How can I add something unexpected? It doesn’t need to be any of the things I’ve mentioned, but it does have to be more than Jack is hungry so Jack eats a pie. 

The earlier you do this the better.

Once each scene has something at its core that isn’t straight forward, that doesn’t seem obvious or predictable, it still won’t be perfect, but you’ll find even on Draft 56 you’ll enjoy going over it one more time.

What's your approach to rewrites? If you're a pantser, how do you deal with working within the confines of the previous draft?


Uva Be Dolezal said...

interesting post. I had to look up the Dutch word pantser. pantser or plotter? to know if I was a pantser or not hm..?

I find the story does hold my interest from draft to draft. very true. I like the idea of the first draft being a long detailed out-line. Something you sculpt into a shape, twist around a bit and see if it still stands up, to then polish and add details to later.

very fun change of character motives in your examples. reminds me I need to work on that. It's always a challenge, how few details can you get away with to move the story along, and still have it make descriptive sense to the reader.

great blog post.

P.s. I'm overly critical of symbols and there is something very sexual about the title and the tools icon that may or may not be intentional but ... never mind. It's probably just me.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great post. Fortunately my first drafts aren't as painful to read as the first draft of my first book. But they still have a long way to go.

I use Donald Maass's workbook for my revisions. It helps you deepen your characterizations etc (though it's even better if you use some of it BEFORE the first draft).

Marion Sipe said...

Good post! And I love the examples you have here. Makes me want to read that story!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

A first draft is a long detailed outline - now that is aptly put!
I enjoy revising. I like to see it go from crap to better.

AllMyPosts said...


You are really trying cool to establish him as criminal and as human!! cool work!!

All the best

CatchyTips for Writers

L.G.Smith said...

I'm a pantser who works at a very slow pace. I don't fly by the seat of my pants, I plod, and I'm very careful where I put my foot next. My first drafts are fairly clean, though far from perfect. When I revise I find the structure doesn't really change much, but certain scenes need to be rewritten to capitalize on stuff that happens later (stuff I didn't know when I was writing). Always, always, always, the opening scene has to be rewritten because, of course, I had no idea what was going to happen after I started. :)

Greg said...

I wholeheartedly agree. I always view the second draft as the first "real" draft. It took me a looong time to get to that point, but once it's in mind, it makes everything easier.

I really like the way you illustrate your point, giving us a scene and changing it around to make it potentially more interesting. Very effective. You went in directions I wasn't anticipating. Example or not, I was along for the ride.

Suze said...

I actually quite love revising. It isn't until you've combed over a completed manuscript for the fifth or sixth time that you get a sense that you're really nailing it-- and nothing compares with that feeling. I rather like trimming the fat off in order for what's really good to emerge and take center stage.

Revising rules.

And as a bona-fide pantster, you really captured it beautifully by stating that a draft is essentially a very long, detailed outline. I don't feel constrained by a draft. I feel set in space with a landscape in which to go about making improvements. Making sure the cake is baked all the way through before adding the tiny royal icing ornaments. Hell, before even rolling out the fondant.

Sharp post.

Arlee Bird said...

I wish I'd get that far! I need to finish some of my first drafts first and stop starting new projects. Focus! Focus!

Tossing It Out

mooderino said...

@Uva - you have a filthy mind, madam. I like it.

@Stina - I agree, it's taken me a long time to realise it's best top sort things out before you start. saves a lot of wasted paper.

@Marion - thanks. If I ever finish it I'll let you know. Have to finish the ones I'm actually working on first though.

@Alex J - I'm at the point where it's not to upsetting to have a crap first draft, at least it can't get worse.

@Allmyposts - cool!

mooderino said...

@LG - that's one of the things that put me off pantsing, you aklways have to do extra rewrites to put stuff in the front end you only discover at the back end.

@Greg - I read a lot of stuff in online workshops and the thing I notice most opten in stories that don't go anywhere is the lack of the unexpected. Too simple and straight forward just becomes predictable, although there is a market out there for people who just want to buy the same thing over and over.

@Suze - what you describe is also how a plotter writes, exploring within a set landscape, the difference being by establishing the landscape a lot earlier you don't have to go over it five or six times before you've got something to work with.

@Lee - Go on, Lee, you can do it. I really think if people did a little more work on their scenes early on it would make the later revision more fun and focused. They should do a Octoberplotfest before Nanowrimo every year. 30 days of sorting out an interesting story and 30 days to write it. More people might actually keep working on what they produce instead of sticking it in a draw and forgetting about it.

Ciara said...

I write four drafts. First is more of a GMCD outline of events with dialogue. Second, fill in missing information/descriptions/context. Third, develop better prose. Fourth, final draft. Just my insane process. :)

Lydia K said...

Well said! I love finishing the first draft but dread the revisions because I know how terribly imperfect it is!

Suze said...

Hmmm. I rather like going over a manuscript five or six times because I like being in the world of my manuscript.

My experience with manuscript writing has been thusly: I wrote a novel with a fair idea of the story arc beginning to end. Then, I revised it. Then I wrote another novel with no clue where it was going and submitted it to an agent who said it was 'too innocent' and 'too long' for YA. I cut that novel in half and rewrote it and now have two drafts requiring reconciliation. Then I wrote most of a novel but didn't finish it, feeling I needed to grow into the shoes of the narrator. (That was three years ago.) I recently revised the second draft of the first-- it is on submission with a single agent, at the moment. I wrote the end of the third, knowing even three years ago where I wanted to take it and then having executed to my deep satisfaction with a twist that really surprised me as I wrote it. The second lies awaiting surgery.

After this 'trilogy' is complete-- I should think I would likely go about pantsing the next book. Unless you would have a suggestion on how to integrate some elements of plotting?

As I've said before, advice on writing really grates on me. But, here I am. Asking. Feel free to take it as a compliment.

(And, yes. I know 'thusly' is 'widely regarded as incorrect,' but I like the look and sound of it.)

mooderino said...

@Ciara - as with any method, the one that works for you is the best one (insane or not).

@Lydia - i love finishing every draft. Finishing is good for the soul.

Michael Offutt said...

Are you saying that I'm wrong? I think that's what you're saying. And I'm seldom wrong if ever :P

mooderino said...

@Suze - you have indeed said you're no fan of writing advice, so not sure I'm going to come out of this exchange well, however...

Plotting will not make it easier to produce good writing. Imagination, time and effort are required whatever the method.

What plotting allows is a way to spot the bad stuff quicker, so you don't waste time up blind alleys.

As a pantser you may realise at some point that everything between Ch21 and Ch45 is garbage. After writing 200 pages.

As a plotter you too may realise Ch's 21 through 45 are not going to cut it. After writing two pages.

If you enjoy your process, whatever the results might be, and however long it takes, then that's perfectly fine. Depends what works for you.

If you do want to make the journey a little more efficient, then you just do it the same as you usually do, but you only write down the important stuff.

Don't bother with the fine detail, just keep going over the main action until every scene has something interesting going on in it. Not potentially, but actually, that you can actually specify.

And any scene that doesn't, don't think you'll sort it out later, change it or cut it now.

That's it.

btw this: but I like the look and sound of it is the actual key to good writing, not whether you outline or not.

mooderino said...

@Michael - I would never say that, but I should point out that I'm right nearly 50% of the time.

Alleged Author said...

Luckily I have a great critique partner to help me with rewrites. I get so involved with my WIP that I don't see the forest for the trees.

Suze said...

Thank you, mood.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Lots of great advice on redrafting here. I tend to have a read through my 1st draft with a sheet to jot down page numbers and short description of problems, I have a page for characters, storyline and consistency, background and world, pacing etc. I got this advice from the Holly Lisle course 'How to revise your novel'. I make my notes - then I type up my edits and call it 2nd draft and it goes to readers. At this stage I always convince myself it's done. Then the feedback comes in and I start again... :/
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

mooderino said...

@Alleged Author - never hurts to have a helping hand.

@Suze - you're welcome.

@Charmaine - but it always seems so finished... every draft.

Margo Berendsen said...

Great examples!!! Gosh I wish I had read this stuff when I was first starting out with painful first drafts that bored me to tears by page 50 and I never finished them :) Really good point about moving from observation to interaction, too.

Jennifer Hillier said...

I've been a panster and so the second draft is always the worst. The rest of the drafts are always better (fun, even). I'm hoping to turn myself into a plotter for the next book, but I'm not much of an outliner, so we'll have to see how that goes!

Michelle Teacress said...

I attended a class by David Farland at a writers conference, and he shared exactly what he edits with each draft. I liked that style - easier to edit for one thing at a time.
Great post. Have a good week. :)

Ellie Garratt said...

I'm a pantser but still adore the first re-write, because it's when I see what works, what doesn't, and what needs to be done to form a fully-fleshed story. It's my favourite stage of writing!

Ellie Garratt

Elle Strauss said...

"Everyone who writes, writes from an outline by the time they start rewriting"

So true. I loved your examples of how to add action to observation. Many good points for me to keep in mind as I prep to tackle my 2nd draft next week. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Margo - me too!

@Jennifer - just bear in mind that all your doing is pantsing a story when you outline.

@Michelle - thanks, you too.

@Ellie - it's my favourite when things have fallen into place, otherwise it can be quite painful as I chuck out one thing after another.

@Elle - if only it was as easy with my MS as it is to come up with examples for these posts *sigh*

Thanks for all the great comments (and for reading my long rambling posts).

David Jace said...

I admit it: the title and sign brought me in to this post, but the content kept me reading. It also tipped the scales on whether or not to follow you. (It was already kind of leaning way over.)

Wonderful post, with awesome examples. I often find that if I don't know where my characters are going next, if I don't know what action is supposed to be happening, then nothing will. They'll make breakfast and pour syrup over pancakes while I try to figure out my action!

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