Someone asked me about how I learned to rewrite. For every writer the answer is going to be a different, just as every writer (and every project) has different challenges.
I’ve been writing steadily since I was eight, but it took a very long time to learn to rewrite. Part of the reason was that I wrote what I loved in secret, as teachers, etc, expected real life and conformative fiction, not fantasy. So I wrote one draft, illustrated it, stashed the notebook between the mattress and the bed slats, and turned immediately to its sequel.
In eighth grade, I thought, how cool would it be to actually sell something? So I wrote some different novels (with elements that I thought would please the grown-up editors), typed them up, saved up babysitting money, and out they went . . . and they boomeranged back.
When I hit college, I stopped sending things out, figuring that though I and one or two friends enjoyed reading what I wrote, nobody Out There was feeling the love. I needed to figure out why; I was confident about plots and characters and world building, but what good was all that if the prose wasn’t getting the job done in presenting it? How was I supposed to learn something about prose? I’d heard this poetry professor praised as a great writing teacher, so I signed up for his class. Our first assignment was to write a poem. At our second session, the prof ripped through the existentialist angst of the first three students, and I sat there gloating, confident that when he got to my romantic ballad he’d sit back and say “Ahhh, a talent at last!”
Woo-ee, was I wrong. He lit into me for pastiche (what’s that?) and cliché (I knew what those were–I thought) and he pointed out that it was twice as painful when I distorted already trite expressions to make rhymes–it was like a double hammer-stroke to the ears instead of just one. Drip, drip, the tears ran down my face as the other students sat in silence–nobody was gloating by then. We all got nailed.
This went on for weeks. I struggled to write what I thought he wanted to see–and failed every time.
Desperate, resentful, fearful, even in challenge, I stole words from a book by C.S. Lewis that I was reading at the time. I just now spent an hour trying to remember which of the books so I could find the line. It was a vivid, complex sentence describing a tree–I can see where it lies on the page, and I can see the internal images of the ramifying roots, the glistening bark, but I cannot lay my hand to the exact book any more than I can paraphrase his racing greyhound leaps of phrase with my plodhopping three-legged stool prose. I thieved Lewis’s long, lovely sentence with deliberate intent, split it up into jagged lines as people in the early seventies did, and turned it in.
Result? The prof hailed it with relief, even cautious praise. Said I’d finally written something with a little bit of promise–and went on to point out to the others why the phrases worked, the verb was just the right one, yadda. I should have taken notes, but I was devastated. I never plagiarized again, so the rest of the year was my stuff, and though I tried to write about trees, and roots, and keep it short, nothing was ever praised again, he went right back to trying to show me that a “stormy” passion was still trite even if I tried to embroider it with an unexpected (or even worse, oxymoronic) adjective. Oxymoronic phrasings being another Hot Thing in the early seventies: the dark of noon, periwinkle voices, everything was “heavy”, in 1970 that being one of the buzzwords signaling hey, I am really being deep and subtle here, kind of the way “nuanced” is often used now.
I did try. I wanted so badly to understand. But at that time my brain simply wasn’t up to separating image from text, and so I didn’t see that my heroine’s ‘shadowed face’ did the job to suggest she was troubled, but the expression was as exciting as a hand-me-down pair of socks.
So I never got caught plagiarizing–that prof would have spooned out his own eyes before ever reading C.S.Lewis, being a Vonnegut and Dos Passos guy–and I did not intend to repeat the disastrous experiment. Here’s what I took away from the class:
* I was not good enough for professional publication.
* Drive does not in fact equal talent.
So I went right back to writing for myself and one or two others. When I tried again, I was now in my mid-thirties. This time I sold a novel at last–but Jane Yolen, who bought it, put me through four or five heavy duty rewrites, during which I began to differentiate, in a very limited way, between the movie in my head and the text I’d so enthusiastically (and sometimes carefully, though you’d never know it) put on the page.
She didn’t tell me anything new. I’d heard most of it from that poetry prof, back in 1970. But now I began the long process of comprehending that what is so vivid in your head doesn’t automatically zap into the reader’s head. That phrases like Her eyes flashed with scorn did not, in fact, shoot into the reader’s mind the image of my heroine’s wary tilt to her head, the tightly crossed arms, her bitten thumbnail, her threadbare summer gown and the wisps of hair straggling onto her forehead, the smooth black glinting blue in the morning sun. I saw that. The reader just got a common phrase signaling sexual tension. If she was reading just for a story of sexual tension that would eventually resolve with a happy meeting of minds (and lips), then it didn’t matter if she didn’t see the complete picture. She would provide her own picture in the holes my prose left.
But if I wanted her to see my picture–if I wanted her to remember my heroine as distinct from all the other heroines whose eyes flash scorn–then I had to disassemble the movie, and rebuild it on the page as text, image by image, noun by noun, verb by verb.
For every writer the battle might be against a different foe: plotting, or pacing, or character, or structure, or whatever. For me, it was learning that the easy phrase might be easy to write, and easy to read, but it will never, ever sparkle–give that gasp of pleasure–be memorable. And too many of these easy images or expressions, no matter how powerfully the movie thunders in my head, makes for a dull and repetitive drip of a manuscript.
So, the new lesson was:
* Sometimes you hear the right thing at the wrong time, because you are not ready for it.