You finished writing something! Congratulations! All your time and sweat and inspiration and maybe even some blood has contributed into a new idea and a powerful work you feel some measure of pride for. Yay!
Now go rewrite it.
Any writer who’s actually worth their ink will tell you that you’re an idiot if you think the first draft of anything is worth reading. I mean, yeah, you have good ideas, interesting characters, some cracking dialog, and maybe even a powerful theme or two, but let’s face it, after tens or hundreds of thousands of words, you’re at a very different place at the end of the story than when you were at the beginning. Once you reach the end, you can go back to the beginning with fresh eyes and start pulling out things that don’t work. Use a scalpel in some places, a hatchet in others, and the rubber cement of new words in between.
It’s arduous at times, and takes time away from the fresh new ideas dancing like sugar plums in our heads, but it’s ultimately rewarding.
Rewrites make our stories better. As we smooth out rough passages and form more coherent connections between the events in the story, we make the read more enjoyable. Taking the time to rewrite means refining our story more and more. Sometimes this means losing words left and right, and other times you’ll find chapters growing or splitting to accommodate more text. Either way, once you’re done with the rewrite, you get to feel accomplished all over again.
The way I see it, every rewrite yields something new, and there’s always something that can be touched up a little. So if your writing is out there, and nobody seems to be picking it up, keep rewriting until someone does. Find your rewards in this process, and the rewards of actual recognition will be all the sweeter as a result.
Even as I write this I’m debating putting it off. I need to go to the post office and the library, the little voice says, the blog can wait. Who reads this stuff, anyway? Oh, and it’s about time for a fresh cup of tea. Wasn’t scratching behind the kitten’s ears fun? Yeah, let’s do that some more, then sort some Magic cards. Screw the job search and the writing, that stuff’s just depressing.
Allow me to give that sentiment – and maybe yours – a mental steel-toed kick to its metaphorical balls.
I wasn’t a fantastic student in university. Of the many papers I wrote, only a few were heavily researched and edited before turning them in. Most of them were dashed off based on scribbled, Ramen-stained notes the night before. Still managed to pass, though.
Having milestones, deadlines and checkpoints always helps. They can be major or minor, but like achievements in video games, they’re something to work towards. Sometimes I’ll make it, other times I won’t. But how does one hone a work ethic when there’s no set work to be done?
You set the deadlines yourself.
And you stick to them.
A couple weeks ago I hemmed and hawed about my to-do list. Since then I realized I do, in fact, want to write a sixth story for my anthology. But Red Hood took a lot longer than it should have to put together and a little reading of Revenge of the Penmonkey (available on Amazon and Nook, review later this week, short version: YOU GO BUY NOW) helped me realize why. I’d given myself no deadline. I spent mornings on Monster and Jobfox and whatnot, letting the best and most active period of time for my brain dribble away in a drab, seemingly hopeless and endless search for a new dayjob while Unemployment jerks me around.
Resolved to fix this after last night’s unfortunate turn of events with Building New Worlds (reschedule pending), I jotted down some titles and dates on a Post-it and stuck it onto my desk, opposite my StarCraft 2 reminders and the big one saying I need to write 1000 words that aren’t in the blog every day. I consider that a bare minimum.
Now I’ll be doing it in the mornings because dammit, I have deadlines to meet.
Specifically I’ve given myself until the 11th to finish this last short story. I’ve set Halloween as the date to send the veteran his edited manuscript, and while that’s going on I have until Thanksgiving (almost two months) to tackle the rewrite of Citizen in the Wilds. And after that, Valentine’s Day 2012 is the drop-dead date to complete the first round of edits and second draft of Cold Iron.
See, the thing is, if you don’t establish deadlines, especially if you’re doing something where they’re not established for you, the ‘dead’ part of the word rises from the rest and may very well choke the life out of your endeavor. We get distracted. Important things get our attention. Kitchen appliances explode. Earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, smog. Cats rubbing on our shins. Spouses, too.
I’m not saying chain yourself to your desk, glue your wrists to the bottom portion of the keyboard and type until your fingers bleed. Unless you have to. What I’m saying is impose some sort of structure on what you’re doing. Make promises to yourself about the amount of work you’re going to do, and for the love of whichever muse you think visits you in the night to whisper sweet writerly nothings in your ear, do not break them.
When you do, it’s not the deadlines who have the upper hand. It’s you. And when the deadline arrives and your work is done, you’re the one pointing and laughing at the deadline’s postmortem twitches and spasms, rather than being the victim of your own procrastination.
The truth that every novelist has to face is that you’re not going to get everything right in the first draft. Nobody does. It’s likely that George Lucas wrote a single draft of his prequel scripts, and look how those turned out. No, multiple drafts is more than just a means of editing out grammar mistakes and adding missed punctuation. If that’s what you’re looking for at this point, by the way, let me direct your attention over yonder to the Writing Haus of Wendig.
What I want to talk about is rewrites.
I’m not saying you’ll need to rewrite your novel, but you will almost certainly need to rewrite part of it.
As you write, your characters are going to grow and change. At least, they should. I’ve talked about this before. The tricky part is, you don’t want that growth to be spontaneous and unexplained. A character’s motivations should begin somewhere in the story. If you trace the character’s plot line from the end to the beginning, and lose track of where a change happens or don’t see it happen at all, it’s time for a rewrite.
Now, the prospect of a rewrite can be intimidating. But the good news is, it’s very unlikely that you’ll have to rewrite the entire work. Chances are, there are one or two areas in the narrative that just need some restructuring, a few conversations that need to be reworked, etc.
Of course, if you do find yourself rewriting great swaths of text, you may want to step back and take a look at the story as a whole. Why was this such a problem? Are you fixing it in the best way? What else will need to change as a result?
Whether you need to rewrite a little or a lot, don’t be afraid to do it. The end result is always going to be better than what you began with. Characters will grow more smoothly, plotlines will advance and complicate organically and your readers will be drawn in further to the world you create. I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing about those prospects I don’t like.
I’m glad that the writing competition I mentioned yesterday has a deadline in August instead of its original, which would have been tomorrow. I think I have more work to do than I thought.
Creative people in general, and writers in particular, need to take care when it comes to their own hype. It’s one thing to be confident in one’s abilities, but it’s entirely possible to be over-confident and believe you have a project in the bag right up until the point you show it to somebody else. On the flip side, criticism – even at its most constructive – can trip up the flow of one’s planned work schedule to the point of making you want to scrap the whole project and start over.
We (or at least I) do these things because they’re easy.
It’s easy to think that you’re awesome. And it’s just as easy to get down on yourself, toss out the decent baby with the dirty bathwater and begin again. The part in the middle, having the confidence to salvage the best parts of your story and the humility to admit something you might like in said story doesn’t work and needs to make way for more things that do work, is more difficult. Hell, just typing out those few words was hard.
We have to killourdarlings. We have to turn our work over and make sure everything stays put. We have to throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. Or breaks the wall entirely.
Here’s an example. I like my characters deep. I like knowing where a character comes from, what shaped them, what makes them interesting enough to keep a story going. The problem is, when they first come forth from my head onto the page this depth takes the form of exposition, backstory, setup. The thing is, when people come to see a play, the set’s already up and painted. Nobody comes to watch the false walls get nailed in place or the stage crew bicker at each other while the painting’s going on. Writing’s the same way – it’s fine to write out this backstage stuff, but do it someplace the reader doesn’t have to read it if they don’t want to.
Especially in short fiction. Get in, tell the story, get out.
And be very, very careful of how much you buy your own hype.