I’ve been so frustrated with the process of rewriting that I decided to head on over to Dean Wesley Smith’s page to see what he’s talking about these days. He had a number of posts about rewriting, so of course I was drawn to them like a lamb to the slaughter.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that good ol’ Dean says that all the hell I’ve been putting myself through isn’t necessary. In fact, it might even hurt my book and my chances of getting published.
Of course, as the man himself would be quick to say, all writers are different. But all I have to do is look at how unhappy rewriting makes me, how much I dread it, and how much I procrastinate to suspect I’m one of the writers he’s talking about.
His point is simply this: when we write a first draft, we’re using the creative side of our minds. And when we rewrite–unless we’re really, really experienced writers–we’re using the critical side. Here I am, killing myself rewriting the first chapter, and why? Because another writer told me it was too “light”. Because her agent told me the voice wasn’t strong enough.
What if they were the only two people in the world who felt that way? What if there were tons of people who liked it the way it was? What if I’m actually making it worse by trying to add more voice and darkness?
I do think I have some work to do on my novel. I need to flesh out my protagonist and not be lazy. I need to add more to the setting without turning it into the modern-day version of a Dostoevsky novel, because that’s not what I write.
But somehow, I need to tune out all the well-meaning voices that worry my protagonist isn’t likable when she says this, or that ending is too fluffy, or the voice isn’t strong enough in the beginning.
How can you tell if rewriting is hurting you? Dean had a good suggestion. If your rewritten work isn’t selling, send out a first draft–checked for typos and factual errors only. See what happens. You may get your answer. This is how I write all of my journalism articles, and I make a good living that way.
I think how I approach my writing is going to change a lot with future books. We don’t learn to be a better writer by rewriting–we learn by telling stories. After all, as Dean says, we really are the worst judges of our own work, so going over it ad nauseum isn’t doing us any favours.
And that I believe.
Lately, I’ve been trying to go with the first organic thought that I came up with, even if it doesn’t make sense at the time.
If it just feels natural singing it (I’m a songwriter), I keep it.
If a better idea comes along later, I replace it with the new, improved idea.
I also try to see anything I write as being a living, breathing thing that will inevitably change – and is meant to change.
Is it ever perfect? No.
Is it perfect in that moment in time? Yes.
At a recent book launch by Robert J. Sawyer, he said he absolutely hates writing first drafts. And he absolutely doesn’t rework and edit as he writes that first draft. He says he is a strange breed that totally enjoys the rewrite stage – he can hack and slash. And once it is all out, then he can see what works and what doesn’t. For myself, a good rule of thumb to base rewriting on the thoughts of others is the Stephen King method: If 10 people come back with the same problem(s), then you need to look a that part. If 10 people come back with 10 different problems, then maybe you can pick and choose, or ignore them altogether.
Thanks for your comments, fellow writers! I love you both. Wait…I actually do love you both. I’m not just grateful for the company.
@ Lisa – that’s a very interesting way of looking at it. I like the idea of thinking of writing as something organic that will evolve. The problem with changing books, however (besides the fact that you can fall into a trap of rewriting forever because it will never be perfect) is that if you change one thing, there are millions of other little things throughout the next 400-500 pages that will be affected. And you have to be brighter than I am to catch it all.
Ironically enough, almost every criticism people had of my book was due to another change I’d made based on someone else’s previous criticism. It gets hard to keep track.
@ Perry – You know that stage you get to where you’re too close to your own stuff, you’re starting to hate it, and you think everything sucks? That’s where I’m at. When you’re there, even the weird comment that only one person made seems like it’s worth changing the entire novel for. (I suspect King is past feeling like that, although there was a time he threw his manuscript in the garbage.)
I also weigh some voices heavier than others. There was a semi-successful published novelist who looked at this book, along with a very successful agent. Every time I try to rewrite, I keep hearing their criticisms and feel hopeless, banging my head against the wall, even though I completely didn’t agree with them the first time I heard their feedback. They are only two people; I don’t write like this author and I don’t aspire to. But in this rewrite process, those voices have become larger than life.
Does that make sense?