Writing Process 3: Rewriting

This is part four of a continuing series of the writing process.  For the previous articles in the series, see the end of this post.

What's there to say about rewriting? You just get in there and do it, right? So what's there to write about?

Well, plenty.  For starters, let me make one thing clear: I make a distinction between rewriting and revising. 

Rewriting is what you do after you've written a rough or discovery draft, glumping everything onto the page.  You've written the rough draft, which is you figuring out the story for yourself.  And now you have to figure out best to present the story to your readers.  So you work on things like character arcs and ways to show theme and plot.  

Revising is what you do after you've rewritten that first draft a gazillion times and finally feel you've gotten all the big picture stuff down pat.  Revising has to do with word choice and making sure you have lots of different kinds of sentence structures, and grammar and punctuation.  (And its the subject of next Monday's post.)

So, here's the deal about rewriting: at first, its hard.  Because at first, especially when working on a long project, there's puzzlement about how to find a way back into your work.  The logical place to start is with reading it again, but that can be confusing, also.  Because, what are you supposed to be looking for while reading? How do you know what to change?

This is when giving your rough draft to trusted readers  (critique group or a mentor) can be incredibly helpful, because they can give you a starting point.  But what if you don't have access to such readers? Or if you're simply unwilling to yet show your draft to anybody(which is your right–follow your intuition about when to share)?

Here are a few tips:

1. Begin with reading.  Because, really, you've got to go back to the beginning and remind yourself of how it all starts.  I don't know about you, but by the time I've written some 350-odd pages, I have a hard time remembering every single nuance of the start.  Or even the middle.  So, print out  your manuscript, grab a pen and notebook, and go sit in your favorite chair.  The one where you sit to read books (of the sort written by other people).  Read through your manuscript and take notes.

2. Find a way in.  Your entry point might be something you notice about a character–how, for instance, he talks about his desire to become king in chapter 10 but really needs to inform the reader of this vital point a bit earlier.  Or maybe you realize that a crucial plot point is misplaced.  Or perhaps it is something small, like a description that you think could be rewritten.

3. Expand on your notes.  When you're finished reading the draft, go back over the notes you took.  Between the notes and the reading of your draft, you should now have a better idea of things you want to work on.  Turn your notes into a plan for rewriting, even if its just a to-do list.  This will help you enormously.

4.  Look for places to go deeper.   Rewriting is most often a process of adding to, not removing, contrary to popular opinion.  Far and away the biggest problem I see in scenes is that they are not developed enough.   There's not enough description, not enough scene-setting, not enough of the viewpoint character's thoughts.  As an experiment, choose a paragraph at random from your draft and pull it apart and add to it. You might hear this referred to as unpacking.

5.  Remember that rewriting begets more rewriting.  Because once you've changed certain areas of the story, other areas are revealed.  You've gotten the character arcs straightened out, so now the parts of the plot that need work are evident.  And so on. 

Those are my tips. By the way, an excellent book to use as a guide for rewriting a novel is: Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass.  (The companion book is Writing The Breakout Novel, but I don't find it as helpful.) Another, more general title, is The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell.

What are you best tips for approaching the rewrite?  Do you find any books especially helpful?

Previous Posts

The Writing Process, Again

5 Guidelines for Critiquing the Rough/Discovery Draft

Writing Process: The Three Ps of Glumping

The Value of (Groan) Structure

Structure_building_sunset_237219_l So, it was a weekend spent mostly away from the computer.  Two days spent celebrating my birthday with family and friends.

And suddenly it is Monday morning again.  Besides numerous manuscripts to read for people and a bunch of unfinished assignments, there's the novel rewrite to get back to once again.  And despite the fact that I'm feeling just the tiniest bit unfocused this morning, I am on it.  No really, I am.  On it.

Or at least I will be once I finish meandering about the internet writing this post.  But here's the deal–when I do get back to the rewrite it is going to be simple to ease right back into it.

Why?

I'll tell you why: structure.

Because I have a structure for rewriting in place.  Because when I finished up on Friday, I reviewed what I had already done (five chapters!) and looked ahead to where I would start after the weekend.  This was easy to do because of the structure I've created for myself.

Here's the deal: as writers and creative types, we resist structure.  I know I do.  I want to be wafty and spontaneous and free.  And yet this resistance has led me astray on several occasions.  Jumping into writing a novel without having the vaguest idea where I was going, for instance (I'm not talking about my current novel here, but an earlier one I wrote).  Or starting a knitting project without figuring out a pattern.  And don't even get me started on how many times I've headed off for an appointment without finding the address ahead of time.
Dome_structure_teatre_237225_l

Even though we resist structure, it is inherent in writing.  For instance, just by choosing a genre, you're imposing a certain amount of structure on yourself.  Say you decide to write fiction over non-fiction, you've already narrowed things down.  And then you can choose even further, if you want to write romance, mysteries, thrillers or literary fiction.  Each of these has a certain structure that you'll need to follow in order to get published, or even have a novel that makes sense.

It is easy to embrace the romantic notion that all you have to do is start writing, and voila, after a few hundred pages you'll have a novel.  Go ahead and try that and see what you come up with.  I've done it myself and gotten only pages of writing on yellow legal pads to show for it.

So, don't resist structure, it is your friend.  That being said, it can be a wobbly friend, or a rigid friend, or a fair-weather friend.  You can create a loose outline of events in your novel that is more like a list (what I did for this current novel), or you can create a very rigid, OCD-type outline, complete with roman numerals and all that.  But come up with something. 

And after you've created a structure for the actual novel, come up with a structure for how you will approach it.  Will you start at the beginning of one draft and go all the way to the end of it?  (My preferred method; actually I think it is the only way to write a decent novel for a variety of reasons I don't have room to go into here.)  Or will you be one of those writers who has to polish every word and every sentence before moving onto the next?  (The mere thought of working this way makes me cringe.)  Again, it is your choice.  But choose something.  Because once you have a plan, a structure, in place, it is so much easier to proceed.

And then when you come back from a weekend away and say to yourself, now where was I on that rewrite? you'll know the answer.  And you can get right back to work.

What are your favorite structures for planning and for doing the actual work?  Do tell.

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.