Existential Terror and Self-Editing

Rewrites.  Yeah, I know I said Wednesdays were going to be about marketing, and lately they keep not being, but the first step to marketing something is to have something that agents and publishers will want to represent.  So…rewrites.

It’s like pulling out your own teeth – it’s painful, frustrating, and messy, you’re not sure if it’s really a good idea, and it seems like the process will never end.  Unlike pulling out your own teeth, though, rewriting generally produces good results.

It’s interesting to examine the evolution of a story after you’ve had some time away from it to gain perspective.  Sometimes it’s funny to see how things ended up coming together, sometimes it’s frustrating that you ended up working in the wrong direction for a while and now you have to correct your mistake.  I try to think of rewrites the way I think of personal regrets – the things I like about who I am now would not exist if I hadn’t had the experiences I’ve had or made the mistakes I’ve made…nor would my book have come to this point of potential if I hadn’t gone down a few wrong turns here and there with it, finding a few surprise solutions along the way.

I don’t think there are many writers who don’t have a pang or two when they realize drastic changes are needed to a manuscript they’re mostly very happy with.  It’s hard to really believe that something you’re mostly very happy with could need so much work.  For me, it’s initially disheartening, then I’m irritated with myself for not writing it “right” in the first place, and then there’s a phase of infantile whining about not wanting to do the hard work of fixing it.  I suppose it’s a sort of grieving process for the words that will be lost in the process.  After all, we work hard to put those words down in the first place, and hone them to some semblance of perfection in the next few drafts, and yanking them apart feels like letting chaos spill into our carefully crafted manuscript and risking complete destruction of the story.  Of course we’re resistant to major changes to our novels!  All these delicate threads woven together, and SNIP, and now they’re all loose, and what if they never connect right again????!  Existential terror!

So how do you stop freaking out and rewrite with gusto and unabashed ruthlessness toward your own words?  First, you have to have three things in place beforehand:

  1. Separate copies of every draft of your book.  You do NOT want to alter your previous documents for a new major rewrite.  You’ll cut stuff and then realize you need it, make changes and then realize you need to refer to information that’s no longer there, and generally confuse yourself.  Also, you won’t be able to go back to the previous version and start over if your rewrites go terribly awry, which can happen.  Having the old draft is both a comfort and a practicality.
  2. A notebook and various ways of color coding stuff.  Trust me.  Or, if you work at the computer exclusively, a file for notes to yourself in a program with highlighting and text color capabilities.
  3. Coffee.

The point at which I shift from existential terror to excitement about rewrites is when I can really see how the story can be better.  I don’t have to have all the answers, just a clear view of what’s holding it back and some ideas about how to help it shine.  I think it’s vital, too, going into big changes, to have a clear sense of what you want the book to be, especially what you originally wanted, above all, for this book, right from the beginning, that made you want to write it.  In fact, I even wrote myself a note before I started the second draft of The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, reminding myself what the heart and soul of the book was to me.  Many things have changed about the book…characters have come, gone, changed, etc.  Events have been cut, added, altered, moved around.  Tone has been tweaked.  Setting and concept have shifted or explained differently.  But the story is still what I wanted it to be all along – a crazy adventure with an un-self-pitying and funny protagonist determined to come back from the dead.

And it helps to see that, and know that no matter whether I cut or condense or reorganize, I can still keep the heart of the book in place, and that anything I change is just freeing the book up to be closer and closer to its full potential.  That is when I start to be excited about rewrites.

Oh, and I wrote this entry a while back about staying organized and maintaining structure during major rewrites.  This method has helped me more than I can express in words.

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3 thoughts on “Existential Terror and Self-Editing

  1. That’s some great advice, but what do you do if you don’t drink coffee? I hope I’m on the final draft of my novel before I start to query it, and so far most of my rewrites have been time-consuming, but kind of enjoyable too. I think it will be fun to look back at my first draft in a few years and see how my story has changed.

    Thanks for the good advice!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked the post! As for coffee, well, I guess tea is an acceptable substitute…or possibly Scotch. Whatever fortifies you for the task at hand! LOL!

  2. Thanks for this advice, particularly Rule One. I can imagine a bread crumb trail will be vital if one expects to find one’s way out of the woods.

    PS I recommend chocolate as an alternative to coffee.

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