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.

 

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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/

The Manuscript is Not Sacred!!

A little while back, I posted about how blindsided I was by the manuscript I’m currently editing. How many things were wrong with it. How many Post-It Notes I have used (an entire stack!). How much ink has been spilled in corrections, cuts, and extensive notes.

But every time I try to sit down and actually make those revisions . . . my fingers still on the keyboard.

I know enough to listen to that feeling. I know there are scenes that just have to go. I know there are others to be put in. But something else was bothering me, as I tried to make my fingers and brain work, something that had nothing to do with the amount of work involved, or how daunting all this was. Been there, done that.

It was the fact that in some small way, I was thinking about this manuscript almost as something sacred.

The fault lies with me. We all get these ideas about things. We remember the taste of something being better than what it really is. We remember reading a book in one sitting – then going back to read it a second time, a few months later, and suddenly realizing that it totally sucks (Twilight and The Clan of the Cave Bear, I’m looking at you!). Or a house being bigger, or our parents being perfect.

That’s the way I was with this manuscript. Even though I had the evidence – 50+ Post-It Notes, scribbles on every page, a mountain of comments in my journal – to provide otherwise, the sad fact was . . . I’d spent so long on this project, put so much of myself into it, loved certain scenes and passages so much, that there was this block in my mind.

So tonight, faced with yet another round of staring at the computer screen, dreading the moment I opened that file . . . I instead decided to confront my issues head-on.

Okay. So what are my problems here?!

I think part of it is still feeling blindsided by how much work there is to do to this thing. I have to get over that. Even if all those edits I made to the manuscript end up being thrown out later, I have to make them. I have to get motivated on this!

A huge part of it is simply – where do I even START?! I have no idea! There are so many issues and so many things wrong that it honestly feels like I need to take the first few chapters, put them in a new file, and then just go from there. Rewrite the entire thing, blank slate, without the cumbersome burden of what I already have. Maybe that’s what’s holding me back – not knowing what to do with what I already have. I don’t want to toss it all. There’s some really excellent things in there. Things that have to stay. But on the other hand – it’s also holding me back. It’s a mental block. It feels like a sacred thing that I can’t deface.

Well. I have to get over that, too. It’s not sacred. It’s a creation. It evolves. As my writing evolves, so does this manuscript. As my writing changes, as my characters change, so does this manuscript. Nothing stays the same. The writing I do now is not the writing I was capable of doing a few years ago, when I drafted this. I have to keep that in mind. The tone and style I wrote Book 1 in, is not the same tone and style that this is written in. All of Erin’s quips and snark is gone – it’s there in the end, sure, and that’s part of the reason why I love the ending so much. But in the middle, it’s nowhere to be found. She’s just whining about the demon. And that’s it, really – she whines. For like 100 pages straight!

And that has to change, too.

So does Kai. Well. Not change as much as just take on more of a role. It’s one of the things that bothers me, the transition from where they are in Book 1, to where they need to be in Book 2. It’s a bit too sudden, maybe, and Kai still isn’t quite trusting her. She still has tons of questions about how he saved her from Rebecca – and the demon. Questions he won’t answer. Is she okay with that? The tension between them feels forced, and not organic. That has to change. That’s a huge issue for me.

Wow. So. I feel better now! I know what the problem is – and much as I hate to say it, I know how to fix it, too. Rip it apart and start from scratch. I know it means a lot of scenes may not return. I know it means that things are going to be cut. I have to be okay with that. And I think I am. I think I know what’s strong and what isn’t, and I think I know what I can leave on the table and what I can use again.

I mean, what I wrote isn’t GONE. It’s not like it won’t be there, in some draft. Maybe it can be used in a different book, like the scene with Abigail. Scenes can be recycled, you know. J Lines, dialogue, situations, even just the germs of the scenes can go in other books. It’s not the end of the world.

I do feel a bit better now, having written that. In her book Write it Down, Make it Happen, Henriette Klauser says that sometimes, just writing down all of our fears makes us feel better, because we know. They aren’t lurking in the shadows anymore (like the Turbo Tax commercial!) – they’re out in the open, and once our fears are in the open, we can figure out how to deal with them.

Maybe this wasn’t helpful for anyone else – but if you’re having issues with something you’re working, try writing about it. Just let the fingers do the talking and see what comes of it. It might be nothing. But then again, you might just find a nugget you can use to go forward.

Either way, please remember:  in rewrites, your manuscript isn’t sacred. 🙂

A Letter . . . to my Characters

For the past few days, I’ve struggled with rewrites. I’ve gone through the manuscript. I’ve made my notes. I’ve sorted what worked and what didn’t. I’ve reconsidered scenes that I tossed long ago, thought about bringing them back.

Then I sit down to write . . . and the fingers won’t move on the keyboard. Words don’t become sentences. Sentences don’t become paragraphs. What I do get down, I don’t trust.

I poke and prod at it. Hoping to wake it up. Knocking on my characters’ doors, hoping to find them at home, letting them know I’m here. But where are they? Do characters go on vacation? If so, mine must have done so. Are they, at this very moment, tossing back highballs on a beach in Maui? If so, why the hell didn’t they invite ME?! 🙂

But it’s time for them to come home. Time to sort them, and their stories, out. So I wrote them a little letter.

Time to get to work, guys.  I know we just finished that first novel and you think it’s time to slack off a little, but it’s really not. We’ve done great work in the past – I’ve seen it. I’ve read it! Some of those scenes are popping! But we need to get the rest of them popping. 

Remember, we’ve got new characters. Demon – sorry, Nicholas – it’s your time to shine! I know you. I re-read your bio last night. I’d forgotten all that stuff! You told me your life story a long time ago, and I’m sorry I sort of let it sit on the sidelines for so long. You deserve better. You’re witty and loquacious and I really like you – you know, for a demon – and this book needs you. The series needs you. You’re a worthy adversary for Erin and Kai, and I’m sorry you’ve been through so much, but let’s get it sorted, shall we? Tell me how you do what you do. Tell me your plans. Tell me how you’ll execute those plans. 

Erin and Kai – this is YOUR book! This is the one that started it all – the trust and mistrust, the sidelong looks, the questions and non-answers. Neither of you is trusting,  yet you both trust each other. The demon knows this . . . and you do, too. It’s time to take your story to the next level. Let’s do it! 

Shannon . . . I know you don’t play quite as large a role in this book as you’d like, but then again, if I ever let you, you’d take over the entire books and then where would I be?! You’re sassy and smart and scary and – well, let’s face it, you’re evil and you like it that way. I know you didn’t want to die, and I know everything you do now is a reaction to that. I’m sorry you barely got your heart’s desire and then had it ripped from you. Not my fault, though. And your time’s coming. But for this book . . . you’re in the backseat, girlfriend. 

Nick . . . wow. I got nothing. Seriously, you’re a douche. And you know it. You say ‘cad’ because you’re British and you’re describing yourself, and I can feel you. You’re ready to go! I’ve got no problems with you. And I know all your little secrets, too. 

In short, guys – I know it’s going to be another long slog. I get it. It’s not going to be easy at all. It’s going to be another round of ripping apart scenes, adding new ones and cutting the old, using a hatchet and then maybe a scalpel. I really do get it. Who wants to do all that work?! Well – we do. Right? I mean, isn’t that why you all came to me to begin with? 

I know – there’s a lot of people out there who roll their eyes, even get downright hostile, when I talk about my characters like they’re real people. But how can anyone spend time with their characters and not feel like that? How can anyone write day after day, feel that exhilaration of blinking your eyes and realizing that you don’t remember writing anything on the page – yet not only is it there, but it’s really good – and deny that their characters are real? You guys are. I live with you. You go with me to work, to the grocery store, on my walks. When I can’t sleep, you’re there sometimes, giving me whispered lines and paragraphs. 

So sadly, guys, if we want this book to get done, it’s got to be a team effort. 

I’m here. Get back from vacation, and let’s get started. 

Are You Tough Enough . . . for Rewrites?

Rewrites are really tough.

I don’t mean the nit-picky line edits to catch grammar and spelling errors. I mean the kind of rewrites that require you to rip apart entire scenes and stitch them back together, then rewrite the segues between chapters. The kind that make you look at characterization and character arcs.

We always draft our novels, hesitate over things that don’t seem quite right, and say ‘Well, that’s what rewrites are for!’ but the fact is – rewrites are bloody hard work. 

But. If you ever want your manuscript to see the light of day, you have to do them. Seriously. Think about it. How many times have you read a novel where you threw it across the room because it a.) was poorly edited, b.) had major plot holes, c.) characters did things out of character, or d.) ___ (insert reason here). This is why YOU have to do them – so no one, hopefully, throws your book across a room.

I just finished rewrites on the first novel in my urban fantasy series (which – I am hoping – may actually meet an agent this year), and now that it’s off to my beta readers, I’ve started re-reading and editing the second book.

Here’s the thing:  in my mind, that book was already done. In fact, that book was originally Book #1 of the series, but – well, I discussed this in another blog post ( https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/wrong-path-wrong-focus-whats-your-novel-really-about/ ). It had issues, I knew, but nothing on the scale of the one I was currently working on. Suffice to say that for the past few months, while I’ve been frantically editing and rewriting on Book #1, I’ve been consoled by a single thought:  Book #2 isn’t as bad. In fact, it’s really good. I remember it flows well and the characters do great things and it’s funny and full of tension. It’ll need a few tweaks, is all. 

HAH!!!!

OMG. I long for those halcyon days. They were what, four days ago?!

I’m about halfway through the first read of the draft of Book #2, and I can’t believe I thought this was anywhere close to being done. It’s not. It’s SO not.

I suppose every writer goes through this. Neil Gaiman, when he came to Tulsa, told us that there’s a point about halfway through his books where he calls his agent and tells her he can’t do this and the book sucks and he’s a horrible writer (and his agent says “Oh, you’re at that point in the book.”). In her book Write Naked, Jennifer Probst talks about her rewriting woes as well (in fact, she tells a story about her editor calling with a bombshell:  the book sucks, and you need to rewrite the entire thing in seven days. Probst told her editor that she had two small children, and rewriting an entire book in seven days would be problematic – to which the editor said, “Well, you’ll just have to give your children away for the week.”).

And it’s not even so much that I have to do the rewrites – I knew that was coming – it’s the fact that I could be So Freaking Wrong about how good I thought this manuscript was! The book I have in my memory was 85% complete. It needed tweaked. I remembered a couple of scenes that needed some work, and a few that I wanted to move around for better flow, but after that . . . in truth, I was thinking I’d have this thing wrapped up in a week or two.

Yeah. Well. No.

Maybe this is like when you break up with someone, and after a few months, they want to get back together, and you’ve conveniently forgotten why you broke up with them in the first place. You forgot the hideous laugh, or the crude humor, or the way he strips his transmission rather than go into the proper gear, or . . . whatever it is, you forget it. Then, when you’re back together, poof! You remember!

Like I said, I’m about halfway through that first read-through, making notes and sticking turquoise Post-It Notes to nearly every page. Sometimes two or three per page. Realizing, as I go, that this isn’t a quick fix, and it’s not an ‘edit the existing manuscript’ thing, even.

It’s a let’s rewrite this entire manuscript thing.

As I’m reading, I’m struck by several factors that I can’t believe I forgot about. They must have been there – and not lurking in the shadows, either, but right there out in the open. Nearly every page has entire paragraphs that are circled, with a big black REWRITE next to it. A lot of things that were changed in Book 1 need to be addressed – new events, thing that got switched out between Books 1 and 2, motivations. My entire Chapter 1 has to be trashed and redone. Scenes don’t flow – in fact, they don’t even go together in some cases! It’s confusing, convoluted, and crap.

I have the glimmer of some goodness. Some scenes are okay. Some paragraphs are all right. Some sentences can even be left alone. If I can figure out how to fit them back in and where they go, anyway. But overall? IT’S CRAP!

I’m tempted to start rewrites right away, but I need to finish this re-read first. I know it will be a total rewrite. I also know I can do it – but I feel so blindsided! How the hell did I think this was any good?! How?!

My saving grace, I think, is that since I just finished the rewrites to Book 1, I’m in the right mindset to be brutal for these. With Book 1, I was downright brutal – I cut entire scenes! If a scene didn’t propel the story forward, ask or answer questions, and hold my attention, it got cut. By the time I was done, I  was so close to it that I don’t know if I accomplished that or not. We often refer to books as ‘babies,’ but the fact is, when you reach a certain point in the writing/rewriting cycle, that ain’t your baby anymore – it’s the freaking enemy, and all you want to do is defeat it, by any means necessary!

And since I’m still in that ‘it’s the enemy!’ mindset – I’m ready to be brutal!

Yes, rewrites are tough.

We, as writers, have to be tougher.

 

My blog post about seeing Neil Gaiman in Tulsa:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-magical-evening-with-neil-gaiman/

And Jennifer Probst’s website:  http://www.jenniferprobst.com/