Deconstruction of a Rewrite

EJmanuscriptnotebook Years ago, I asked one of my MFA mentors how to go about rewriting the novel I was then working on.  As I recall, she told me to sit down with the manuscript and re-read it.  Um, not the most helpful of advice.  Yes, it is imperative to reread a manuscript when you are going to rewrite it, but what are you reading for?  What should you be looking for?  How do you figure out what to do?  It is incredibly daunting to hold a 350 page manuscript in your hands and try to decide what to do first.

As most of you know, I've set to rewriting my novel this summer.  This after I was convinced that the 8 rewrites I had already completed would be enough.  But then an agent read it, said she was interested, and gave me comments on what she would look for if I cared to rewrite it.

Key word: comments.  Because hers gave me a way with which to begin the rewrite.  They fell into two areas:

1.  The main character, while funny, kick-ass and brash, is also bitchy and difficult to take at times.  (She's a woman who does what she wants, when she wants, and of course, if she were a male character, her behavior would not be an issue.  But that is a topic for another time.)  The agent felt that she would have better luck presenting the novel to editors if Emma Jean were more reliable.

2.  Some of the secondary characters are not fully developed.  Because Emma Jean is such a powerful character,  the others exist as sort of satellites to her.  While I understand Emma Jean intimately, I never pushed to truly get to know some of the res of them.  

So that is my charge, to make Emma Jean relatable and develop the most important of the secondary characters.  Before I began, I also kicked these comments around with my writing group (who have read the book every time I rewrote it) and other writers who've read part or all of it.  And here's how I have proceeded so far.

First of all, I took a trip to Office Depot. (Brief aside: when I was working on my MFA, after each residency I would take part of the money from my student loans and go buy supplies at Office Depot, so it is a bit of a ritual for me.) I bought a ream of three-hole punched paper on which to print the novel, and a pretty pink binder to put it in.  Then I languished in the journal aisle and eventually, after much pondering,
bought two small spiral-bound notebooks, one red, one black and white.  One became the journal I
wrote about the characters in, and the other became a place to take random notes that occurred to me as I worked on the characters and reread the manuscript.

Next, before I did anything else, even read the manuscript, I returned to the characters, specifically the three the agent mentioned as needing development.  I started by putting each of them through the Ordinary Day exercise, which I found incredibly revealing.  In some cases, that was enough.  In others, I did a bit more work, whether through time lines of their life or writing specific bits of backstory.  All of this proved so helpful that I did it for everyone of the characters, though some only got a few pages of effort.  I wrote it out in longhand, in one of the new journals.  For me, writing longhand seems the more direct route to my deepest self.

A note here: for reasons unknown to me at the time, I felt it important to work with the characters before I reread the manuscript.  It just felt like the right choice, and also I was a bit daunted to face reading the 350-page tome.  It proved to be a good move, as I was able to come up with fresh insights that would not have occurred if I already had evidence of what I thought they were like in front of me.

By the time I finished with the character work, my little red journal was starting to get lots of good notes and ideas in it, all written as they occurred to me, without making an effort to categorize them at this point.  Now it was time to read the novel.  But first, I pulled out as many colored flags and post-it notes that I could find (should have bought more at Office Depot) and made a key.  I used pink for Emma Jean's lover, orange for her husband, purple for the throughline about her bitchiness.  The point was to be able to track the characters and themes I really needed to focus on in this rewrite.  
EJmanuscriptopen

Finally, basket of flags and post-its at hand, I began reading the novel.  I made notes on the manuscript pages and in the little red journal, and flagged character arcs and throughlines madly, as you can see in the photos. (Interestingly, most of the flagging happened in the first two-thirds of the novel, which is where most of the rewriting will happen.)  I also made a list of chapters and what exactly happens in them, because I know from past experience how easy it is to forget.  (Does she meet Ava in Chapter One or Chapter Two?  Oh that's right, I made Chapter Two into two chapters, so now it's actually Chapter Three where they meet.)

So now I'm ready to actually rewrite, right?  Not quite.  Because my notes are a mish-mash of thoughts and ideas, scrawled as I read and wrote bios. 

In the final step before the actual rewriting, I spent a pleasant morning at my neighborhood coffeeshop with my friend and web designer (my website will be up soon!),making sense of my notes.  With legal pad, little read journal and list of what happens in each chapter, I began.  Going through the legal pad, I wrote #1 on the first page, #2 on the second, and so on, for 23 pages, which constitute the 22 chapters and one epilogue in my novel.  And then I went through my notes, and when something had to change in chapter one, I noted that on the #1 page, and so on through the book.

So now I'm ready to do the actual writing.  Which, I must say, will be far and away the easiest part.  I've done the heavy lifting already.  The pondering, figuring out, and conceptualizing are what is tough.  Now all I have to do is flip through the pages and add stuff in.  Easy, right?  Well, if you believe that I have a bridge for sale that I'd love to talk to you about.

Ah, nobody said writing a novel was easy.  And that is what makes it so much fun.  What about you?  What are your methods for rewriting?  Do you do as much pre-writing as I do?  Have a great tips to ease the process?

Rewriting: Its All in the Plan

Facing a rewrite can be difficult, if not downright daunting.

You've written a draft (or two, or three), gotten feedback, and now you're ready to make the changes in your manuscript.  So you open the file on your computer….and sit there and stare at the words on the page.

Let's admit it, sometimes confronting a manuscript page that needs rewriting can be as dreadful as facing a blank computer monitor.  How to make room in all those words for what you need to do?  What to cut?  What to add?  Where to begin?  Wouldn't it just be easier to shut down the computer?

What I've found is that I can just discover a way into the work, everything else will follow.  And often I end up tricking myself in order to find that way in.  So here's how I do it:

1.  First, I ponder.  I review the critiques I've gotten or the notes I've taken.  Sometimes I do this the night before I know I'm going to work on my novel in order to give my subconscious time to play around with the ideas.

2.  Second, I insert.  This is where the tricking myself begins.  I open the file and tell myself that all I'm going to do is insert notes–in all caps–places where I am going to make changes.  Then I go through the entire chapter and insert away.  This is not difficult because I already have the notes.

3.  Third, I rewrite.  By now I've reviewed and inserted and not only do I have a good idea what I'm going to change, I know where I'm going to change it.  The notes are all in place, ready for me to roll with.  And best of all, I can open the file and start anytime, knowing that I've marked up the manuscript and I know what I need to do.

I think its the not knowing how to proceed that stops me.  So I try to find ways to know ahead of time how I'm going to proceed.  It works for me.  By following this plan I'm generally able to convince myself to hop right to a rewrite.

Note I said generally, not always.  But I'll take whatever I can get.

The Writing Process: Digging Deeper on Trees and in Writing

I took down my Christmas tree on Thursday night.

I know I'm a bit late in getting this done, but I've had good reason.

I developed a bit of a system this year.  First, I removed the soft ornaments, home-made stuffed fabric Christmas shapes and gingerbread men, as well as furry bears from various sources.  Those could all be stored in a plastic tub without a lot of wrapping.  And, many of them sat on the tips of the tree's branches.Snow 031

Then the ornament removal got more complex.  The next round were glass bulbs, which needed to wrapped in tissue and placed in the big ornament crate that had partitions.  Included in this round were the most precious ornaments, funny little things my kids made through the years that never fail to make my heart skip a beat.

After these two rounds I'd  gotten most of the ornaments off the tree.  Or so I thought.  But as I started to walk away from my finished job, I noticed another one hiding amidst the pine needles.  And when I looked harder, I saw another, and then another.  There's something terribly sad about the image of a forlorn ornament getting tossed out with the tree, so I started beating the branches, looking for more.

And throughout all this, I couldn't help but think about writing.  Looking for more ornaments, even when you think you've found them all, is similar to the writing process.

As a refresher, here's the writing process as I see it:

1.  Write a rough draft, also known as a Shitty First Draft (or SFD) in the world of Anne Lamott, or the Glumping it All on the Page Draft (GAPD) in the world of Word Strumpet.

2.  Rewrite the draft.

3.  Rewrite the draft again.

4.  Revise the draft.  (I think of revising as having more to do with removing commas or adding them, fussing with words and so on.  Rewriting is for the big stuff–character arc, plotting, and so on.)

5.  Rewrite and revise the draft one more time.

6.  Read it again, decide it needs another rewrite, finish the revision.

7.  An impatient editor or other pressing deadline such as old age or senility finally forces you to send it off.

So it is easy to see how this endless rigorous writing process is much the same as ornament hunting.  Just when you think you've found the last plot problem, suddenly a light goes on and you realize that Jimmy didn't go to jail but Bobby did, and then the whole story has to change.  Or, after numerous rewrites, it may suddenly occur to you what the theme of your story actually is, a eureka moment if ever there was one.

Have you ever completed a rewrite, certain it was your last, only to discover almost to the end that you have to go through it one more time?  And even though your civilian friends think you are nuts and that you should just submit it already, you know that making the changes will make the book into the book that you see in your mind and feel in your heart.

Writing is, above all else, a process of digging deeper and discovering what lies hidden amidst the branches.  When first we begin writing, we tend to fall in love with our work, just as we fall in love with a newborn baby, and we don't want to do a thing to change that lovely creation we've brought into the world.  (Anne Wayman wrote a great piece on falling in love with your work this week which you can read here.)

But it doesn't usually take long as a writer to start to appreciate the wonders of rewriting.  I know you've heard it a million times–writing is rewriting.  It's true, to the point where many writers begin to prefer the rewriting phase to the hard work of writing a GAPD. 

And then the problem becomes how to get yourself to stop rewriting.  But that is a topic for another post.