Rewrites: Knowing what to throw away – and what to keep

“Every gambler knows/that the secret to surviving/is knowing what to throw away/and knowing what to keep . . .” – Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’ 

This is a line from Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.” The song is about a young gambler who meets up with an old gambler, who gives him some sage advice about life before dying on the train bound for nowhere. A very cheery song.

But, just as the young gambler ‘found an ace that I could keep’ in that advice, maybe we can, too.

As writers, we also have to know what to throw away and what to keep. Rewrites abound with these choices. We’ve all read books – especially debut novels – where we think hmm, couldn’t that line or paragraph or entire chapter have been cut without doing anything to the book? And in truth, we’re probably right.

Of course, when it’s you in the writer’s seat, and it’s your baby you’r taking a red pen to, those choices are much harder to make! Once someone – a beta reader, perhaps – suggests, ever so gently, that perhaps this paragraph could be cut because .  . . we tend to instantly launch into defense mode. Truthfully? We know they’re probably right. But admitting that is so hard!

It’s really hard to know what to throw away. I’ve been working on that dratted middle part of my novel for the past week, rearranging scenes, editing others for tension and pace, and yes, cutting some entirely.

Oooh. Yeah. I hear the gasps. What do you mean, you cut? Lines? Oh, my goodness. How could you do that? Wait. You cut – gasp! – scenes? (Horrified silence that drags out . . .)

Yup. Scenes. Entire ones.

How do you know if things need to be cut? Well, if you’re like me, you spend 9 years – off and on – making small edits and revisions and hearing a little voice inside telling you that something’s Not Quite Right, but being unwilling to make the hard choices because that will mean Armageddon.

Let’s think about that little voice for a second.

We are writers. We are readers. At least, we’d better be. We know when something feels ‘off.’ We may not be able to pinpoint precisely what that is, but we know it, deep down. There’s a little hesitation when we read certain paragraphs. We gloss over some sentences, unwilling to look them in the eye. We frown over the transitions from one scene to another, or one chapter to another. We scrunch up our faces at character motives and don’t even get me started on how much we dread reading some dialogue! That’s the little voice writers have. It doesn’t magically appear. It’s developed over time, as we write, edit, read, write, edit, read, write . . . We get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, what our voice sounds like, when we’re imitating others.

In short, listen to the freaking little voice. You may not know what’s going on exactly, but stick a Post-It note on that page anyway. Put a frowny face on it. Just remind yourself that Here Be Something To Work On. Because that little voice? It’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell you how to make your novel better.

Another thing to keep in mind is the issue I’m having right now:  scenes that no longer fit. What do you do when you’ve revised and edited, and suddenly that pivotal scene in the middle, the one that once changed the entire thing for your characters, isn’t needed anymore? This is what I did to myself. I had a scene that – okay, let’s be honest. I knew it didn’t work. I knew it was out of character for my MC, Erin, and I knew my other MC, Kai, would never ever in a million years NEVER let her do that. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t let it go.

And then I made some major changes earlier in the novel, and that scene is now . . . not necessary. So I cut it from the new draft. It just never got copied and pasted over. I’m still wrestling with whether this is good or not!

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2But. Here’s the thing:  if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t belong in your novel.

For a long time I considered this scene sacred, integral to the novel (yes, despite my misgivings about it!). But here’s a sad fact:  if the scene doesn’t go in, it won’t matter. Seriously. It won’t matter to the novel at all.

 (At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m not entirely convinced.)

There are other reasons to jettison paragraphs or entire scenes. One is simply that it doesn’t move the story forward. It might be pretty. It might be some of the best writing you’ve ever done. Does it add to the story in any meaningful way? Does it provide for character development, plot twists, new information? If not – let it go. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch put it,

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (On the Art of Writing, 1916).

Or, if you prefer the great Stephen King:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)” (On Writing) 

Or, you’d rather, Kurt Vonnegut:

“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — (How to Use the Power of the Printed Word)

(And please remember:  just because you don’t use it in THIS novel doesn’t mean you can’t rework it for another one! Nothing we write is every truly gone. Plus, your future readers will never know it used to be there. All they’ll notice is the nice, tight pacing, the flow from one scene to the next, the rapid plot development.)

Another reason is parallel to the one I mentioned above – after you’ve revised, you suddenly have a scene that just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your character’s motivations have changed. Maybe you’ve added – or deleted – a character. Whatever the reason, it’s just not necessary anymore. Take heart in the fact that you recognize this, and you’re ready to make the sacrifice for the novel’s greater good!

So if you’ve had paragraphs that you felt were extraneous, or lines of dialogue that don’t go anywhere, or even entire scenes that don’t work anymore, don’t be afraid to cut those bad boys right out of there. Cut them! Do it! Now!

Doesn’t that feel empowering? Scary, yes, but empowering?

Now do one more thing:  save your novel as an entirely new file. And do this every single time you make major revisions and cuts to your manuscript. I just spent about two hours trying to find an old scene that got cut, and now I need again. I was able to find it because I save my novels as new files all the time. No recreating it from memory. It just needs some tweaking to slide right into place.

This way, you can throw things away – and keep them.

 

Re-writers, unite! Or untie. Whichever.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” —ColetteCasual Chance, 1964

As promised, the theme of this summer is rewrites.

Actually, the theme of this summer is ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may all be living in a fascist hell,’ so I’ve been on as close to a vacation as I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve had gelato for the first time (yes, I’m serious, and YES, I loved it, eat it, I beg of you!), I’ve shopped, I’ve cuddled with the kitties, I’ve planted rose bushes, and I’ve been collecting and shopping for my vintage shop.

But the rewrites have also been ongoing.

Rewriters, unite! Or untie. That’s what it feels like, sometimes – that our manuscripts are great big tapestries, and you’re not quite sure what went wrong where, but if you start tugging at one small thread, the entire thing will unravel.

And guess what? That’s okay. Because in the end, it will be better.

This second novel is hard because, as I mentioned in an old post, I thought it was done. Finito, finished, fin. Then, when I finished the new first novel in the series and went back to this one, I realized that not only was it not done, it also wasn’t even a very good first draft. It had several issues, including:

Characters:  My MC, Erin, is totally kick-ass and snarky in the first novel. In this one, she was afraid and whiny and I hated that. Also, there was very little interaction between her and my male main character, Kai – which is kind of a problem, given that one of the subplots is their developing relationship. So that had to change. Plus, the antagonist’s motives weren’t clear – and neither were its actions. What was it doing? I had no idea, and I wrote the thing!

Plot:  I know, the plot derives from the characters’ actions, and that was a huge problem in this book:  there were no actions! Okay, that’s not quite accurate, but the truth is, the characters weren’t doing anything to drive the story forward. There was a huge chunk in the middle – like 40 pages – where Erin didn’t really do much of anything except whine and react. All that’s either getting cut, or getting rewritten. The really sad thing was, she didn’t have anything to react against. The antagonist wasn’t doing anything, either! There has to be give and take between them. The MC does something; the antagonist does something in return; the MC reacts; and so on. Yeah. Like literally none of that was happening.

The Antagonist:  Your MC can only be as good/strong/intelligent/resilient as your antagonist lets them be. You fill in the adjective. But no matter how great your MC is, your antagonist has to be just as great. Otherwise, where’s the tension? Where’s the fun? And my antagonist just . . . wasn’t. In fact, when I think about it, my antagonist appeared exactly twice – at the beginning, and the end. That’s it. And that’s okay, as long as we know it’s pulling strings behind the scenes – after all, how many times did we see Voldemort in HP#1? Once. Well, twice, technically, but we didn’t know the thing killing the unicorn was him. But he was a constant presence. My antagonist wasn’t even that. So that’s an issue I’m addressing.

Forward Momentum:  Yeah, well, there wasn’t any, and we’re fixing that. ‘Nuff said.

It’s not to say that there wasn’t anything good from the original version. There was. A lot, in fact. And those scenes are going to be taken and revised slightly, and slotted back into place, hopefully this time with better, stronger scenes surrounding them! It’s not that they’re darlings I can’t murder; they really are good, strong scenes that drive the story forward and are necessary to the novel. But the fact is, a lot of the manuscript is full of darlings that need murdered. In fact, they’re not even darlings. They’re sort of like the weird neighbor down the street who’s quiet and keeps to himself, and every once in a while you see him digging in the backyard. You’re not quite sure what he’s doing, and you’re not quite sure what he’s doing in your neighborhood, but you’re pretty sure he should probably just go away.

Rewrites are scary. I get that. I swear, I’m the queen of rewrites. But it’s how we learn, and how we get better as writers. The days of Faulkner typing a manuscript, submitting it his editor, and forgetting it, are over. And I’m sure Faulkner revised and rewrote, too.

It really is the only way.

So be brave. You’ve got a manuscript in the desk drawer, don’t you? Maybe it’s finished; maybe it’s not quite done. Maybe you think it’s the best thing since espresso; maybe you think it’s total crap. But the only way to find out what it really is, is to sit down with it, a pen, and some Post-It Notes, and get started. I have to. Stephen King has to. Diana Gabaldon has to.

You have to be ready to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest enough to find the flaws, admit them, and be willing to do something about them. And I’ll be truthful here:  you may not even be able to see the flaws right now. Not all of them, anyway. I sure couldn’t, not for a long time. (Sad thing is, neither did my beta readers.) You have to be ready to decide what kind of book you want this to be – not just genre, but do you want it published or not? Just like with anything worth doing, you have to be willing to stick with it, all the way.

Are you ready to make that commitment? Are you ready to pick up that string you see hanging out of your manuscript, the one that screams This is what’s wrong!, and give it a tug, knowing that once you do, the entire thing will probably unravel before your eyes? Are you ready to face the fact that once you tug that string ,you can’t un-tug it? It’ll reveal more. I promise. Once you tug that loose thread, you’ll see a dozen more. You’ll see flaws and holes and problems you didn’t even realize were actually there. I’ve been working on this book in some version or another for ten freaking years, and I’m still finding plotholes and issues!

If you’re ready .  . . let’s go.

Untie that manuscript. Let’s see what happens.

Happy writing.

 

An earlier blog post on the same subject, apparently:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/02/04/the-manuscript-is-not-sacred/

From The Atlantic, an article by writer John Rechy that touches on both Faulkner and his process of rewriting – and why it’s so important to him. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/the-key-to-writing-a-mystery-is-asking-the-perfect-question/515799/

Another great story from The Atlantic:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/my-pencils-outlast-their-erasers-great-writers-on-the-art-of-revision/267011/