Writing versus Re-Writing

By Brenda W. Clough

grassLet me begin by saying that very nearly all writers rewrite.  Rare indeed is the writer who can just pour it all out on the page, solid gold and not a word or a comma needing to be changed. If you are that rare bird, then it is a cinch that this is not your first, or even your tenth, story or novel. To hit it perfectly, every word shining and ideal as your fingers leave the keys, is a learned skill, just like running a four-minute mile. And how do you learn it? Practice, of course. Rewriting!

So, you gotta rewrite. But a grass-is-always-greener effect seems to take hold here. Whatever it is you’re doing right this moment, the other was more fun. I argue that the joys are different — like ice cream versus raw oysters.

Writing that first draft is the glory of Balboa in Darien, mounting to the top of the continental divide and looking with wild surmise over a vast ocean that nobody ever knew of before. You are plowing along steadily, the inexorable progress of the backhoe chewing up tarmac, unstoppable, inexorable, the juggernaut crushing all the story problems into bloody powder before you. Or else you are driving fast, five hundred miles an hour, the plot mileposts flicking past in your speed, the sound barrier cracking in your wake. Raw creation, the power of the gods in my hand — tremble before me, ye mortals!

Rewriting is the deliberate pleasure of the needleworker. Each end is neatly and perfectly tucked in, one by one by one. Was that cable turned correctly? No, it was not! How did I miss that one? But, no huhu. It’s not over until I say it is over. Drop down, pick up the stitches and knit it up right. The quest for the exact right buttons, the careful consideration of the ruffle around the neck — lace? a leaf lace, or more filet? Books are like knitting — you can always fix it. Nothing is forever.

This is when maniacal Googling happens, so that every detail and fact is solid. This is when inordinate expenditures on research volumes are made on Amazon. Not before, when you could always tell yourself you would fix it later. It is later, today — fix it now! And, what about the plot? Could I make it … worse? My hero has not suffered nearly enough.  Suppose, instead of going off with the cops meek as a lamb when they arrest him, he makes a break for it? Chase scenes are always nice. There is not a plot in the world that could not be improved by howling bloodhounds, and perhaps search lights stabbing the night sky. And if I did that, then his girlfriend could go ballistic. There is no reason why she should put up with the police’s need to drag him off to the slammer. Then she could be hauled in for questioning.

This is the fanaticism of perfection, Savonarola standing at the pyre with the torch. It is going to be right, absolutely perfect, if we all die for it. But it is important for the young writer to discover what kind of a writer she is. Can these two halves coexist, or must they exist quite separately, two sides of the writer coin? Do you get sucked into research and never write? Or are you unable to finish, to declare the rewriting over with? You only learn these answers by doing it.

The ebook version of my novel How Like a God is now available from Book View Cafe.

How Like a God, by Brenda W. CloughMy newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.

I also have stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies, including our latest, Beyond Grimm.

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Writing versus Re-Writing — 28 Comments

  1. Interesting, Brenda!

    For me, the first draft is fun up until about page 150 or 200, when I hit the “marshmallow center” and realize that at least one scene and maybe as many as three on my lovely outline are actually just fancy wordings of “And then shit happens! ” I used to get blocked about those scenes. Now I just skip over them. And guess what? I don’t miss them! Past that point and it’s all downhill on the jumbo waterslide–wheee!

    I agree, rewriting is a separate pleasure.

    • You may be wavering in the zone between being a pantser and a planner. The planner lays out an outline for the work. This can become very elaborate, with character sketches, plot arcs, the delineation of the space drive or the magic systems, and spreadsheets for the timetable.
      I am a pantser. I just sit down and write. No planning whatsoever takes place. All the outlining and spreadsheets happen after.
      If I do it the other way — if I do character sketches and plot outlines — it dies. Immediately, right before my eyes, its little story legs held up in the air. And that’s how I know that planning is wrong for me. Because any way you can get it DONE is the right way.

      • Interesting you should say that. For fifteen years I’ve been a plotter. Then the last book just flopped over on me and became impossible.

        Now I’m pantsing for the first time in forever, and the draft is flying along. (!?)

      • eh, one can outline as a pantser. I wander down into Terry Pratchett’s Valley Full of Clouds through the outline, which can often take much longer than the first draft — assuming you don’t call the outline a first draft, since I have to do it scene by scene.

        • Now I’m curious! What is Terry Pratchett’s Valley Full of Clouds? Has he written a book on writing? AND I DON’T HAVE IT?

          • It’s a quote from an interview.

            “I certainly don’t sit down and plan a book out before I write it. There’s a phrase I use called “The Valley Full of Clouds.” Writing a novel is as if you are going off on a journey across a valley. The valley is full of mist, but you can see the top of a tree here and the top of another tree over there. And with any luck you can see the other side of the valley. But you cannot see down into the mist. Nevertheless, you head for the first tree.”

  2. There was a time when I was younger that I had writing modes and rewriting modes, and could not do either in the wrong mode. Each of which lasted so long that I sometimes despaired of every switching.

    I’ve gotten better at controlling it.

    • Yes. The hardest part is learning how to switch back and forth between the edit brain (for the last MS) and the creative brain (for the new WIP).

      • In theory you could sort of cue your brain about the mode switch. Different fonts? Different background color? A glass of whisky, but only for the rewrite?

        • Something anyway. Some people play music only while they’re creating new text.

      • My difficulty tends to be turning the edit brain off long enough for the creative brain to produce anything substantive.

        I guess it boils down to not having enough trust in that creative brain.

        Trust is a tough thing to learn.

        • “Dare to be bad” is my motto. Also Nora Roberts’ famous line, “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page.”

  3. Carol Joyce Oates once said that writing a rough draft is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a dirty floor. Some of mine are. Most aren’t quite so bad.

    A long time ago I realized that my creativity comes in layers. The first draft is short, out of order, incomplete, and ugly. But massively fun like a voyage of discovery. I find the lost continent but leave it for later to fully explore. 2nd draft I layer in a better organization and start looking for gems in the holes. 3rd draft plays with the gems, finds others, stashes away some of them for a different book, and polishes up some of the nitty gritty.

    But I learn more about my plot and character by getting down that ugly draft than any amount of fiddling with the beginning. I suspect that those 1 draft writers who turn up their noses at my more messy process actually do a lot more pre-writing, and their synopsis or outline looks a lot like my rough draft.

    To each their own.

  4. I used to build a book in my head, and the second draft was polishing, some additions, an occasional slash. Then I got sick, and everything changed. I don’t know what I will be when I start a new book. I just know that I should not completely abandon or burn the one I am working on. A real book is in there somewhere.

    I plan to try some pantsing, after having done a bit of research beforehand. Not nearly enough. But I will know what is needed after the first draft, according to Brenda!

  5. I’m finding the idea of jigsaw puzzles useful for the “longer project” (not calling it a novel yet) I’ve been working on. Do the edge pieces first until you have a framework to work inwards from. There’s still a big uncertain area (“The Big Fuzzy”) in the middle, but as you find the pieces that fit together, the whole picture becomes clearer and there are fewer pieces left to try to find matching edges for.

    I like Jennifer’s “marshmallow center” image too.

    • I have had the donut hole phenomenon. The place in the novel where you draw a box with the label, “Magic happens here.” I used to worry about this. But now I have discovered that if you gun the engine hard and write as fast as you can right up to the edge of the hole, that momentum carries you over.

  6. Brenda, thanks for the post and everyone for great comments. For those stuck on the blank page — like some of my creative writing students — I give formal permission to “write crap” on early drafts. Or try fastwriting: set a timer for 5 minutes and type (or write with pen, a different feel) nonstop, which means no “correct” punctuation, no pausing, just repeat a word if stuck, until something new pops up. It’s a fun way to get past the internal editor and access the “right brain” creative side. And interesting images often lurk in the subconscious. When I’m working on my own novels, my process varies with the project. Some I’ve outlined, but always follow the muse if she guides you on a new path. I find revision very creative, too, fleshing out the vision and making new connections and realizations. That’s when I see the bigger picture and can focus it.

  7. On Another Project I am now experimenting with an entirely different method. Massive brainstorming and the scattering of random character and plot pieces all over the table. Over here is the ending, over there is analysis about the heroine’s attitude towards her husband, and over there is the kind of car they drive.
    Will the pieces assemble properly into a grand panorama? Or will it be story litter, fit only to be swept up and discarded? Nobody knows — yet.

      • I would feel ever so much more comfortable if I had the beginning. That is the crucial and essential piece for me. When I look back at my entire corpus of work, massive rewriting may well have taken place. But in every case the first sentence did not change.
        This makes me nervous. Without that first sentence, this thing may never get off the ground.