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What I’m learning about rewrites

I am 65K into my rewrite.  I woke up this morning, thinking about what I am learning about myself and my writing as I rewrite.

1.  Why am I rewriting this?  Knowing the purpose of the rewrite helps me to focus on what it is that I am trying to fix, so as not to make fresh muddles.  Every rewrite you are just trying to make it “better”, of course, whatever better is.  Better, faster, funnier, whatever.  I mean, know what you are trying to improve. You’re not polishing or editing, after all, you’re rewriting.   My first rewrite was mostly working on point of view, who was telling the story, how many characters and when; I was working on how the backstory would be revealed and worked through in the present tense story, because I wanted everyone to feel somehow haunted, but I didn’t want big monologues of memories.  My second big rewrite was specifically looking at narrative arc, at how the story was structured and delivered, so that it was a better read.  Both rewrites created very different feeling books, so it’s also probably helpful to know what it is you are trying to write as well, so you don’t lose track of yourself.  This rewrite?  I am going deeper into characters, reordering and sorting story elements, and cutting a lot of back story scenes, so that I have more “room” in the present tense story, and more ghosts that you can feel than scenes that you can read, if that makes sense.  I’m reminding myself what my themes are and trying to tell a better story. That’s all.

2.  Give it time.  Leaving a big gap between rewrites helps you see what you’ve got.  Nothing novel in that.  But going away and writing something else in the gap – in my case, the first draft of a new piece, helps you shift your obsessions.  With something new and different in your head, you really can see what you wrote when you get back to it, because you’re somehow a little less invested in it.  You’ve already started the process of letting it go and leaving it alone.  I don’t know if you can ever see it “with fresh eyes”, but perhaps you can see what it was that you meant to write before you did all that writing, and you can see the gap between them.  Whether you want to tackle that disparity in the rewrite or not is up to you.  Maybe you carry that old obsession of what it was you were trying to write into the next novel, and you let this novel be what it is.

3.  What am I rewriting?  In other words, how do drafts evolve from first drafts?  Perhaps the real question is – what kinds of first drafts do we write?  Do you write big soggy drafts that will need to be cut and shaped and made sense of?  That’s what I thought all first drafts were supposed to be like.  But my first drafts (all two of them, so far) tend to be an account of what characters do and say.  The draft puzzles out why they’re doing it, who they are, and what they will do next.  I’m sure this comes from being a playwright, but I just want to get characters in a room and talking, so that I can see who they are and what they want and what they’ll do to get it.  I have a broad stroke of structure and what I think will happen, so that they can actually get into other rooms, but it’s only broad.  I have rough character plans and lists, but they aren’t hard and fast.  Any new character could walk in at any time and take over.  In any draft, anything is possible, but with a big white page and no fixed map or floor plan, anything might happen at any moment.  And that is thrilling, even if you write yourself off a cliff.  Go down the cliff.  See what happens.  In later rewrites, I impose myself more on the story, I suppose.  I try to go deeper into the story and the themes and what I’m trying to leave a reader with in the reading.  I’m trying to ask the story and the characters essential questions, and pushing the what-ifs and the consequences further than the characters themselves might like, if they were solely in charge.  There is no right or wrong about it – it’s just a process.  But if you know what your process is, it might stop you panicking and reaching for a how-to book.

4.  I can’t read.  Oh, I can read blogs and blather.  Books, I can only pick up and start, toss down again.  They aren’t what I’m looking for.  What I’m looking for is what I’m writing, of course, and while you can’t physically rewrite all day every day, your mind can.  And will.  If you could find something to read that would reinforce the jangle in your head and keep you in the feeling of what you are rewriting, that would be a comfort, I would imagine.

5.  Every time you rewrite something, you have changed.  You are changed by the writing and the rewriting, of course, but you are also changed, in and of yourself, especially if there is life happening in these gaps between rewrites.  You bring that changed self to the rewriting.  It’s up to you whether or not you let those changes into your writing or if you try to keep the “feel” of it as it was when you started, or something somewhere in between.

6.  You probably can rewrite something too many times.  But as I am rewriting my first novel, I have had a huge journey to make on it.  The learning on a first novel is huge.  You can read all the how-to books they can throw at you, but ultimately you are learning how YOU write a novel.  There’s nobody else in the room with you. I think you have to rewrite something until you know that it is the best way that you have of telling that story through those characters.  If you keep looking at it and thinking – no, that’s not quite it – then it isn’t.

7.  Scrivener is amazing.  I wrote my first novel before I knew about Scrivener.  I wrote my second novel straight onto Scrivener, and I know that in the rewrite I will be grateful for it.  It’s a brilliant tool for organising raggedy bits of text and not losing anything.  It makes the moving around of scenes – which I do quite a bit – so easy.  In Word, you have to cut and paste, and, invariably, you will cut twice and paste once and lose something and not know you’ve lost it.  Scrivener makes that impossible.  Everything you throw away is sitting in there in a little trash folder, ready to be pulled out and used.  And things that you write that you don’t know what to do with can go into an “unplaced scenes” folder, which was David Hewson’s marvellous idea.  You can download his Scrivener template from his site, as well as buy an e-book download to learn more about how he uses Scrivener.  We Mac folk used to be all smug about Scrivener, but there’s a version for Windows now, too.

8.  There are no short cuts.  If I wanted to work on my first novel in Scrivener, I was going to have to type it in.  88K of typing.  There was nothing to do but do it.  I knew that if I just imported the whole thing and spent all my time cutting and pasting and ordering, I would, eventually, stop seeing what I was working on.  The typing of it, each word again from scratch, means that no sentence is escaping me.  We all have bits that we glaze over, we say, ooh that’s fine, but at some point we do stop reading it.  Typing it again makes you look at everything.  And it means that, now that it’s in Scrivener, I can move all my backstory and present tense chapters around with great ease.  I feel like this is the first draft of the book that I can really SEE, if you see what I mean, and that’s all due to how it’s laid out in Scrivener.  Sales pitch over.

9.  You can rewrite a play in a day, but not a novel.  Darn it.  You really can rewrite a whole play in a day – a long day – but it can be done.  And I thought, well, I’ll never be able to hold a whole novel in my head like I can hold a play, and turn it around and look at it and rethink it.  But the more time you spend on a book, the more you can hold it up and turn it around and see it, to tease out its possibilities, to look at its themes and metaphors and see what it was that you were trying to do with it in the first place.  You might not be able to rewrite it all at once, but you can rewrite with the whole of the book in your head so that you are working on the ending and the beginning and all the beats of the novel at the same time.

10.  I’m not good company.  Sorry about that.  I’m not much interested or interesting.  I’m listening, but I’m really somewhere else.  I’m in the back of my head, turning things over, digging things up, and moving things around.  But, no worries.  I’ll be done soon.

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