Learning to Rewrite

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.

Sherwood Smith



Learning to Rewrite — 43 Comments

  1. “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’s why I don’t write fiction. Had I known, early enough in life, that the possibility existed, I might have tried to write scripts, or maybe even to direct. But I am simply incapable of translating the movie in my head into words and words alone.

  2. I hope confession was good for your soul. Thanks for sharing your struggles.
    Your stories were a lot of fun when I saw them, but you are far more skilled and powerful as a story teller now.

  3. Sometimes you hear the right thing at the wrong time, because you are not ready for it.

    Of late, I have been evolving a theory that most of the messages we need to hear are available to us most of the time, the trick is, as you said, growing to the point where we can hear them.

  4. Jay: that’s another argument for keeping a ‘writing book’ or log or list of quotes or something that one can go back to again and again. At different points in our lives there is a good chance that something there will light up.

  5. Thanks for telling this story, Sherwood. I keep looking over the “her eyes flashed with scorn” paragraph because I have this problem when it comes to setting. This will be a big help to remind me that the audience can’t see what I see.

  6. I’d like to go back and retroactively slap your professor in the face for inflating his own ego at the expense of his students.

    He may have been right that you needed to work on your prose in certain ways, but as a teacher, he had business to find a way to tell you that so you could hear it, not silence you for the next many years.

    In short, it wasn’t that you weren’t ready, it was that he was a lousy teacher. It wasn’t just him, or the fact that he was male–pretty much the same thing happened to me when I was in college, courtesy of a woman who wanted us all to write like Sylvia Plath and came down with a fine scorn on anything she thought smelled of whimsy, excess, or sentimentality. It was the 70’s. Things are (mostly) better now, I think.

  7. Jay Lake: I agree with what you say about things being available to us–something may hurt or be incomprehensible when we hear it, but it comes echoing back into your head later, maybe even years later, sometimes, and suddenly you get it.

    Sherwood: That’s quite powerful, the story of your plagiarism. On the one hand, I suppose I am impressed that a guy who would never have read Lewis could appreciate him–I’m thinking of all the stories I’ve heard of snippets of famous works being submitted to prestigious venues and being rejected as no good.

    The difference between a teacher like your prof, who seems, either intentionally or unwittingly, to have been doing nothing but tearing people down (what’s the gain there?) and a good editor–like Jane Yolen, putting you through all those revisions–is that the good editor sees the promise in the work and collaborates with the writer to bring it forward. And in the end, there’s a story or novel we can all enjoy. (Whereas with your prof, it seems all there were were tears…)

  8. Delia and Asakiyume: I don’t want to vilify this prof, who I believe, in retrospect, was trying to be fair. But in those days, everyone thought there was one way to learn. This was why my geometry teacher, for example, told me I was stupid and lazy in class–when actually (and for the first time) I spent hours and hours on my homework. Assignments that took others in the class half an hour max. I simply didn’t get it, ergo I was lazy, stupid, and not paying attention.

    The prof didn’t call us lazy or stupid, though he did hammer us at that second lesson–I think to shock us, and give those who couldn’t take the heat the chance to drop the class. (Some did.) But yes, Delia, like your Sylvia Plath prof, there was this firm belief that only one style of writing was good, everything else was trash. And if we couldn’t master that style of good, then we weren’t Real Writers.

    (And oh yes on Plath. I got myself into trouble in a Lit class for writing that I didn’t like Plath, that her images were obvious and her tone always whiny. One of the several reasons why I left English as a major and switched to history. :-))

  9. “here was this firm belief that only one style of writing was good, everything else was trash.”

    Except that you have already said that this was not what he believed: he might not wish to have read Lewis, but he recognised a good sentence when he saw one. If anything, he was a perceptive critic.

    What I am hearing is a lot more to do with why twenty year olds rarely make good writers (there are always exceptions). I come across this far too often with my own undergrads: however much I tell them a sentence is built up a word at a time, and that the image must be painted in words, they slap them down like bricks and mortar (except that even wall building is not that crude).

    You were ready — as many of my students were–to tell a story. To write? Not so much. I see the shift in my own writing: the difference between my PhD thesis and Rhetorics of Fantasy is a gulf that I crossed only with age.

  10. I think I learned to rewrite when I joined my first crit group and discovered that the vivid images in my head were not making it onto the page as well as I thought.

    Thankfully creative writing courses these days are far less brutal that that poetry prof. The same problems of cliche eradication occur, but teachers normally handle things more tactfully.

    By the way, taking the chunk from C S Lewis might even be allowed these days because it would count as a “found poem”. 🙂

    “Finding” poetry in prose was one of the activities we did on the poetry course I took a few years ago. I think the idea is to help students see that poetry isn’t made up of jingly rhymes and trite phrases and that straightforward language can work as poetry.

  11. Sometimes I wonder if I should go back to college and apologize to all of my music professors and conductors, because I was not ready.

  12. Heh. It wasn’t Plath for me, but a similar “Like this, but don’t like this” attitude sent me straight to the History department as well. I was pretty good at imitating the things my various writing profs wanted from me, but this actually screwed me up for genre fiction. When I was in college, the trend was to write vague stories with pretty language where nothing really happens.

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂 And I agree with Delia. There are ways to tell the truth without inflicting open wounds…the prof might have said something worth listening to, but there are better ways. (On the other hand, I wish someone had called me out on some of my annoying tics! It’s difficult to find the flaws you aren’t aware of without help.)

  13. I took a poetry writing course from my college’s big-name poet; before hand I read some of his poetry in The New Yorker–and recognized it as skillful, but utterly not my thing. And while I learned some useful things (starting with: I do not have the correct angle of discipline to be a poet; there are intersections with my other skills and talents, but it’s not a match) what I took away was that, at least in his class, the tone was to be bleak and the emotion was anger. The poets he liked in our class were without exception the angry ones: the angry feminist, the angry black man, the angry lesbian. One of them (the lesbian) wrote what I thought was really evocative, elegant, slightly old-style poetry, and she was much praised. The other two seemed (again to me) to have no sense of rhythm or the heft of their words (I’ve heard rap music that was much more satisfying than the black poet’s work) but they were both screamingly angry, and the teacher ate it up. I heard him speak slightingly of Plath, appreciatively of Sexton…I left his class very confused, and went back to prose.

  14. farah: this professor wasn’t like that, but the prevailing attitude of the time added up to that for me. For example, in no class could I ever discuss Tolkien, because that was fantasy trash. After yet another syllabus with the same narrow range of white male names (with a few token women, and none of my favorites among them) I realized I wasn’t going to mesh, and shifted majors.

    Helen in Wales: that is fascinating about “found poems.” Indeed, if I can find that sentence again, I should put it up as a found poem. Or at least as a quote!

    Madeleine: oh yes, the bleak tone, the anger. The clever oxymorons.

  15. Mad — I think that you and I had the same poetry prof… Professor B was brilliant but his idea of what was poetry and mine turned me off the form for years.

    “What’s in your head isn’t always on the page” is a hard lesson to learn – and the leap from hearing it to understanding it, and then from understanding it to an inkling of how to create it — is both essential and damnably difficult.

    Once it’s learned, though, it was like driving: I find myself constantly adjusting on the page, re-evaluating the impact of a sentence, the coloring of a word choice. It -feels- instinctive, but it’s not. It’s lots and lots of practice and received theory finally working together (most of the time).

  16. Thanks for sharing that! As someone who _teaches_ literature and creative writing, I shudder to read your post and your readers’ comments. How easy it is to shatter confidence and destroy someone’s love for language. (I think Sylvia Plath can be trite and obvious, too, though some of her work is quite good. I greatly prefer Ted Hughes).

    But I do have to testify how dreadfully difficult it is to grade and critique truly bad poetry, while struggling to offer constructive and encouraging words. That’s no excuse for the unkind or the thoughtless, but… just saying. I’d love to hear from you and your readers how a really good editor can do that.

  17. Laura Anne: oh yes. For me, it’s a long and constant climb.

    Intertext: I would never teach a poetry class–ever. (After that, I have only written one poem, and never showed it to anyone.) However, creative writing, I have taught, and I tell the students up front that their grade depends entirely on their effort, but mostly I prefer a workshop environment that does not culminate in grades.

  18. You know what I liked best about this story of your development? That the prof recognized that what you’d ‘borrowed’ was good writing.

    I’ve heard a lot of stories about professors, other writers leading workshops, editors getting a ‘manuscript’ from ‘unknown name,’ criticizing / rejecting the ms. with scorn, when what was rejected was a very well-known, highly praised work by an often-published writer!

    Love, C.

  19. Thanks for sharing, especially the plagiarism story. I’ve often wondered what would happen in writing classes if someone turned in a famous writer, and it’s comforting (in a weird way) to know that there is a tangible difference, especially since I had no faith in many of my college profs.

    And thank you too for the example. I’m guilty of ‘flashed with scorn’ type stuff and I never ever would have gotten the difference if you hadn’t contrasted it with the tilted head, the dress, everything!

    Question–so, then, is all of this revision, how does it feel to write that? Because sometimes I find when I write deliberately the prose comes out flat and constricted. Does the amount of thought affect the quality of the rewrite?

  20. Thanks for this post. I think I’m hearing this at the right time – I am struggling with an Epic Rewrite of my second contracted novel, but for me the challenge is plot & structure. Actually, maybe I need to figure out which it is before I continue!

    This was very helpful, and also quite moving to hear how you learned some of these lessons. Thank you for sharing!


    p.s. I like that we were a similar age when we sold our first novels. It’s not important to this discussion, but I like hearing it, for some reason. I, too, went back to writing for myself for many years, before trying again in my early/mid-thirties.

  21. Foxessa: so much of these perceptions are in the eye of the beholder, but when I was young, there was a great deal more of a line drawn between “This is good literature” and “everything else is trash.”

    Owl: every writer’s process is different. Some writers scarcely have to revise–their prose is brilliant at the gitgo. Me? I have to go over things a zillion times, and it is never good enough . . . I turn something in, revised to the last, read it when it comes out, and groan and writhe, wondering why I missed these four repeated words, and that clanking chain of unnecessary prepositional phrases, etc , etc.

    But. If I try to think about all that when commencing a first draft, nothing gets done. For me, splashing it all down and then going back with the forklift, blowtorch and machete is the only way I can do it.

    Karen: there’s always a challenge–always. Kinda cool, actually!

  22. The story makes me glad that I spent many happy hours writing and writing and writing stuff that never got seen by other eyes, even if it took longer.

    Though I have to say that writing pastiche taught me a great deal about getting words to jump through hoops rather than plod along the page. Even seventh-rate imitiations of Lord Dunsany require ability to work with the words.

  23. You were ready — as many of my students were–to tell a story. To write? Not so much.

    On the other hand, there are genres where getting on with the story — and having a good story to get on with — is the main thing.

    As a reader, I don’t see flashing eyes as sexual tension. It could mean any kind of sudden anger or resolution. I’d rather the story went on at the same pace she is reacting, than freeze frame the action while I add up her hair, her dress, etc.

    If the hair and dress are important, or entertaining, I’d like to see them established first, while the action is still leisurely.

  24. Having just tried to improve a 25 year old book, and knowing that I still missed some small, obvious things, because I had to keep myself from completely tearing the book apart and writing it again, I can say that we never stop re-writing. We continue to learn more each story, each novel — and thank heavens for that.

    I feel that we’d lose something if we didn’t try to make each book better than the last. I sometimes feel like a sculptor — I must chisel away everything that is not story, so the glide and glow of the object can shine through.

    YOu make me feel like I feel like I got off lightly, the one time I turned in some poetry in a class. I was singed but not flayed. I’ve written just enough poetry to understand that I’m a novelist, not a poet. If I could say it in a dozen lines, I would.

    Probably why Twitter drives me nuts.

  25. Hoseboatonstyx: These things depend on each writer and reader, but yeah, stopping the story to load in a ton of description might be counter productive. But the right detail instead of a series of overused expressions does help sharpen the focus on a specific character rather than a type of character, I think. I could be wrong, of course.

    Kathi: ohhhh I hear ya.

  26. Yours and Madeleine’s story remind me once again what a great creative writing professor I had at university.

  27. I had a few really excellent writing profs in college, each with a very different way of teaching. One was very nurturing, one I used as a sounding board — listening to what he thought was happening in a piece and then rewriting it until his version matched the one I was trying to produce, and the third (the only woman) managed to rip to pieces every story I brought to her — but by the end of the critique, I wasn’t devastated, but enlightened, sure that armed with her heavy blasting I could now tackle the piece anew.

    I think, now, that I was much better at rewriting when I had any one of those three profs -requiring- me to do so! I love my crit group, and they give wonderful critiques, but I often let those critiques languish before doing any real revisions of my work. The rewriting stage is vital, and having people who can show you your flaws (and inspire you to do something about them) are incredibly important.

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  29. Your experience with the narrow syllabi reminds me of my sf teacher in high school sending me to the Gor books because I had already read everything on the very narrow reading list. Today, at least, he would be called out on it. Not then.

  30. Never committed plagiarism but I was twice accused of it, defended my work, and the cherry on top of it all–given “B’s” both times. College papers, those; notes, outline, longhand draft with the rewriting done as I typed it up on my Brother.
    My poems, though? It’s not so much rewriting as…forging. Beat and fold, drive out the impurities, shape and temper, making a blade of my words. Hmm, gives me an idea…

  31. I had such a range of criticism and praise for my writing in my early years–and an equal range of reading trash fiction to classic lit–that I learned early on that what’s pleasing to the eye of one beholder does not necessarily appeal to the next. Like all else in life, I believe there is a range of talent and all of it is valuable. Some are better wordsmiths and some are better storytellers. It’s excellent to try to improve both crafts, but if we all attempted perfection at both, there would be very few books published. I dearly wish there was some way I could be taught a perfect turn of phrase, but I lack the patience. I simply want to know how the story ends. And when I read poetry (or listen to songs), I want a story there, too. I can admire the phrases, but without the story, they’re meaningless to me. Maybe we ought to find writing partners to balance out our deficiencies!

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  33. Thank you for this. More than you can possibly know.

    …I’m in my forties. Maybe it’s time to try my writing again.

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