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I get a lot of beginning writers asking me how to rewrite. This post is aimed squarely at them: the ones who are unsure how to fix a story they have written from beginning to end. Which is my way of saying that any experienced writer is going to find what I am about to say obvious, boring, and un-useful. You folks should go read Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing or, you know, get back to work.
(It’s also a really LONG post. Hence the cut.)
“How can I learn to rewrite?” is an incredibly hard question to answer. It’s sort of like asking a pro tennis player (or coach): “How do I improve my tennis?”
The answer, of course, is practice. Practice A LOT.
But how useful is that to the person who writes all the time but doesn’t seem to be getting any better? Who can’t figure out what to do to improve a story once they’ve written the first draft? How do you practice rewriting?
It’s almost impossible to improve your rewriting skills without doing lots of rewriting. But if you don’t know how to rewrite it’s very hard to, you know, rewrite.
How do you learn?
Most people need to be taught.
I didn’t learn to rewrite until I started to have my work critiqued regularly by people who knew what they were talking about.
I remember my first real critique. My manuscript was handed back to me defaced with red scrawl. There were no smiley faces, no praise, just endless comments on everything I’d done wrong. It reduced me to tears. So did the next dozen (probably more) critiques. But with each one I learned a little bit more about how to (re)write a half-way decent novel.
I was blind; other people had to teach me how to see.
Very few people learn to rewrite alone.
There are two basic kinds of rewriting: structural and sentence level. Most beginner writers get caught up in sentence level changes. They go over their manuscripts deleting and switching words around (what’s called line editing in the biz). They do this before they’ve learned how to fix the structure. The result is lots of shifting around of deck chairs while the Titanic sinks.
Structural rewrites are the kind that change the genre of your story (this would be so much better with a vampire), the order of events (wouldn’t it make more sense if the quokkas were stolen in the first chapter?), the relationships of the characters (if they were brother and sister it would be way more intense), the setting (have you actually been to Sydney?—I’m not buying the ease with which your character walked from Surry Hills to Dural), what point of view it’s in (you know Hans is kind of boring but Greta rocks—why don’t you have her tell the story?), whether it’s told in past or present tense (if the narrator is telling the tale from beyond the grave putting it in present tense makes no sense), and so forth.
To demonstrate, let us take a bad movie, say, Snakes on a Plane, and think about how to make it better.
My first big structural change would be to delete the tedious opening where you learn why the tedious white boy character is in witness protection. He witnesses a murder, is pursued by baddies, and taken into protective custody by FBI agent Samuel L. Jackson and then waits at the airport to get on the plane. At this point the other characters are introduced. This whole section is unnecessary and deadly dull. We know the title of the movie. Skip to the snakes on the bloody plane already!
I’d begin with the FBI commandeering first class for their precious witness, while the flight attendants are stuck dealing with the results of that as the plane is boarded, and down in the bowels of the plane the snakes begin to stir. The scene is set much more efficiently and you don’t have to wait forever for the snakes to show up.
Deleting the opening is a common edit.1 Lots of writers start their tale too early and go into too much detail. For instance, my first (unpublished) novel started about ten years too early and involved introducing the cast of zillions one by one, enumerating what they look like, who’s related to whom, and where they fit in the story. Riveting stuff. Cut!
This is not to say that a leisurely beginning can’t work. Sometimes it’s the exact right way to tell a tale. See any number of nineteenth century novels none of which begin with anything blowing up. However, in the case of Snakes On A Plane nothing new is added by those opening scenes. The vast majority of viewers can figure out what the situation is within seconds. No backstory or flashbacks needed. There’s a dude and the bad guys have put snakes on the plane to get him. Proceed!
The film’s other major structural flaw (other than its witless dialogue) is that there’s very little tension. And what tension there is gets wiped out by the snakes invading the passenger cabin en masse (the progression from one snake to millions is almost instantaneous), and the hero (Samuel L.) being fearless and impervious to harm. If there’s nothing at stake for the protag then there’s nothing at stake for the viewer.
In one scene Mr Jackson has to go down into the snake-infested part of the plane to flick a switch and save the plane from crashing. But it’s all too easy and he returns unscathed. Boring!2
I would have introduced the snakes more gradually and would have had Samuel L. bitten by one with a slow-acting venom very early on to make the whole movie a bit more DOA. Can he save the whole plane and himself? Will there be an anti-venom waiting for him if the plane arrives?
On the other hand, it may still have sucked.
You can do this same exercise with books. Take a book you thought was crap. Read it again. Note the boring bits, the bits that made you roll your eyes and go “as if”, the bits that were confusing, and the bits that were flat out insane. How many changes would you need to make it work?
Do you have friends who’re also learning to write? Critique each other’s stories. Every time you’re confused or bored note that down. Note down the bits that work too.
Now do the same to one of your own stories. Not as easy, is it?
The problem is that you know what you were trying to do—or trying not to do—and sometimes when you’re reading your own stories that’s what you see rather than what actually wound up on the page. I have a mortal fear of overwriting; my most frequent editorial comment is that I should spell things out and be less subtle. Yet when I read what I’ve written it seems plenty spelled out and totally unsubtle.
That’s why it’s so important to have as many different people as possible read your work and tell you the ways in which it ain’t working. Ask your teacher what they mean exactly when they say your essay/poem/story is broken. Make them point out the crappy bits and tell you why they think they are crappy. Perhaps a writers’ group or workshop will work for you. There are plenty online that you can join if you live somewhere without many writers. But don’t worry if a writer’s group isn’t your kind of thing; there are lots of writers for whom they are anathema.3
Most likely everyone will say different things. “Lose the bridge explosion!” “What are quokkas? They seem boring. Get rid of them!” “I didn’t like Hans.” “Why is it in past tense? Past tense is boring.” “Hans is the best thing about the book. I hated Greta. You should make her a cat. Preferably Siamese.” Some of them will say insane things. But if enough people are pointing at the same bits of your work chances are there’s something broke there (or thereabouts). Your job is to figure out what it is and how to fix it.
It is not an easy job.
Occasionally you’ll get lucky and have a genius critiquer who will tell you how to fix it. But that’s rare and is why great editors make the big bucks.4
Reading through what you have written with all those contradictory and annoying comments scrawled in the margins will most likely fill you with despair. Don’t worry: Despair is an integral part of the rewriting process. Your despair will deepen. When you’ve been over a manuscript four or five or twenty or a hundred times you’ll know the true meaning of despair.
Scott says I have a moment (or two) with every rewrite where I declare the whole thing irreparably broken. “Why don’t I write normal books?” I wail. “That make sense! That someone in the world—other than me—would have a faint interest in! Why am I such a horrible writer? Why haven’t I quit and become a rabbit farmer?!”
Scott will roll his eyes. “You always say that,” he will tell me. “Every time. Just like you always have characters open their mouths to say something and then close them.”
“Really?” I’ll ask between sobs. “I really always do that? Wow. I better do a search on ‘mouth’ and get rid of that crap.”
Which leads me to sentence-level rewriting. This is what I was talking about in this post. The process by which this sentence:
Just as with large structural changes, knowing what to change at the sentence level is partly a practice thing and partly a need-editorial-help thing. As I said here I saw nothing wrong with that first version until my editor pointed it out. I’d already rewritten the book a billion times before she made that edit. I’ve been writing full time for more than four years and I still miss lots of horrible sentences.5 I know people who’ve been writing professionally for decades who ditto.
But even if you don’t have a professional editor to help you, there are some mechanical tricks that will improve almost anyone’s sentences. Lots of writers keep lists of words and phrases they know they overuse. I have a list of words I always search for. The list changes from book to book though there are some perennials:
mouth (open, close)
eyebrow (raise, lift)
None of these words is evil.6 It’s just that I use them too much. For example, my “eyes” problem is that I fall back on describing them (“narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening”) too often especially when I’m giving characters something to do in between dialogue. Rather than searching on “narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening” I search on “eyes”. “Nod”, “eyebrows”, “shrug”, “smile”, and the dread “I opened my mouth to say something and then I closed it” also fall into that category. As in:
“Jessica’s finally gone.” He rolled his eyes. Some red thread clung to the front of his T-shirt. “Hey, were you asleep? Did I wake you? Sorry. But it is three in the afternoon. Do you normally sleep during the day?” Before I could reply he continued, “Wanna hang? You seen much of Newtown yet?”
I shook my head, trying to wake up and follow his volley of questions. I stepped out on the balcony, shutting the door behind me. I’d just remembered the almonds, didn’t want him spotting them.
“We could go swimming.”
My eyes felt gritty. I wiped the remaining sleep away, rubbing my hands on my shorts. “Yeah, I fell asleep. Didn’t sleep so good last night. New place, you know?”
Tom nodded. “Aren’t you used to that, but? Travelling around so much and all?”
In this short section of Magic or Madness I’ve used “eyes” twice, Tom and Reason shake and nod their heads, and for good measure I threw in a spot of shrugging. This is the final version after I’ve already gotten rid of gazillions of “eyes” and “shrugs” and “nods”. Can you see how characters doing all of that over and over can be a problem?
A good way to come up with fresher ways of describing what people do while they’re having conversations is to look at people talking and watch what they do then figure out ways to describe it that have not been used a million times before. It’s that easy! (Yes, I am rolling my eyes.)
When I’m rewriting at the sentence level, I look for tedious (as opposed to good) repetition, sentences that are clunky or make no sense, cliches (“flat as a pancake” etc), and redundancies (see the “thumb warmth” sentences above). For instance, I have a tendency in first drafts to say the same thing half a dozen times. Like in this deleted paragraph from Magic or Madness:
Reason missed her mother. She lay on her new bed in her new home missing her mum, Sarafina, so much it hurt. It was her first day in her grandmother’s house. She should get up, explore, do things, but all she could think about was how much she missed her mother.
You know what? I think she might miss her mother . . .
That one was easy to spot because I didn’t even bother with a synonym for “miss”. But the exact same thing can be written over and over without repeating too many words:
It was dark. She could not see. There was no light to guide her. She felt as if she had gone blind. All was obscured from her vision.
Or when a character thinks through every possible consequence of an action they may or may not undertake:
What should she do in this darkness? Should she try to find a light? Or maybe a window or a door? But what if she opened it and it was still dark? Would that mean she really was blind? Would it mean the world had ended and she was the only one left? Or maybe there was a pillow over her head she hadn’t noticed? Would the darkness ever end? Should she move?
Here’s an example of too much unnecessary information:
Fiorenze saw me looking at her and came and sat opposite me
Much better is this:
Fiorenze sat opposite me
The reader can take it as read that if Fiorenze’s come over and plonked herself down next to the protag it’s because she saw the protag there. Especially if she commences talking to the protag. Also “came and” is very often redundant. It’s the kind of thing you type when writing in a hurry. My first drafts are often written at breakneck speed. I then spend a lot of time deleting all the guff I wrote cause I was writing too fast. Time saved by writing the first draft fast: negative six weeks.
A good question to ask yourself is whether a word or phrase or clause or sentence or paragraph or chapter needs to be there. If deleting it doesn’t affect the flow of the story then why is it there? Kill it! This is my favourite kind of rewriting. Pressing the delete button is easy and fun.
Another common result of writing too fast is not varying your sentence structure. I’ve read quite a few first drafts that have pages of Subject-Verb-Object sentences. This can get old fast. Especially if the Subject is the same.
I saw a tree. I touched the tree. I could tell from touching it that it was a good tree. I felt the tree speaking to me but I could not tell what it was saying. I was hurt by the tree when it exploded because I touched it. I was angry at the tree.
As you can see it really stands out in first person when every sentence starts with “I”.
I saw a tree and put my hand out to touch it. It felt like a good tree. For a moment I thought the tree was speaking to me, but I could not tell what it was saying. The tree exploded. Possibly because I touched it. Stupid tree.
It’s still not a good paragraph but it’s less tedious than the first version. Maybe I should have written it from the tree’s point of view?
You may have noticed that rewriting is not a science. Even with a list of tired words and phrases you still have to make decisions. “Just” is a frequently overused word but sometimes it’s the exact word you’re looking for. Rewriting is about achieving the effects you want to achieve. Only you, the writer, know exactly what that is.
For instance, dialogue can be less grammatically correct and fragmentary than description. But it depends on what kind of a story you’re telling. If it’s written in very close third or first person then the whole thing can be more conversational and thus be littered with “just” and “like” and “you know” in ways that don’t kill the story.
I don’t start seriously polishing my sentences until I feel like the overall structure of the whole novel is working. Otherwise I spend way too much time making perfect sentences that end up being nuked. But I often think I’ve nailed the structure when I haven’t. Thus I wind up polishing a lot of sentences that I delete. Saying “structure first, sentences second” is kind of simplistic seeing as how the structure is sentences. Plus the better the sentences the easier it is to see the underlying structure.
One of my editors once told me that I turn in very clean manuscripts. She meant that my first drafts (from the editor’s point of view, not mine—I’ve rewritten my book at least four or five times before any editor sees it) read smoothly. There are few obvious mistakes, or typos, or grammatical errors etc. She said that made it much easier for her to pinpoint all the problems and write me ten-page single-spaced letters about them.
On the other hand I’ve read some manuscripts that are so smooth and polished that it’s distracted me from figuring out what’s wrong with them. That happened to me when Scott was reading the first draft of Extras to me. I was enjoying it but something was bugging me, but I didn’t figure out what it was until Scott suggested that maybe he should write it from a different point of view. Bingo!
Can you see the chicken-or-egg-ness of it? Sometimes well-crafted sentences make it easier to see what’s wrong with the structure; sometimes they make it harder. Sometimes you can’t fix the structure until you’ve fixed the sentences; sometimes vice versa.
I hope at least one of these suggestions helps. Keep writing and reading and critiquing other people’s work and have them critique yours. A major part of learning to rewrite is learning to read your own work critically.
It ain’t easy, but it beats shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
Posted by Justine at 0:16, 2 January 2008 under Best of Blog, Reading, Scott's books, Viewing, Writing process | 58 Comments »
all of this is pure genius on toast. I was only confused by the part in which you said snakes on a plane was bad. I assume this is a joke.
January 2nd, 2008 at 12:51 AM
also, you did not mention that zombies make everything good and should be in all books. aside from that, perfection. this post should be read aloud, to me, every morning at sunrise. can we hook that up?
January 2nd, 2008 at 12:52 AM
I took a break from not writing my novel out of sheer frustration because i knew how much rewriting it would need – and this was the first thing that I saw on my friends list.
it’s been a very inspiring pep-talk – and i’m sure it will come in even more useful when i actually finish the first draft bit…
January 2nd, 2008 at 1:25 AM
“Don’t worry: Despair is an integral part of the rewriting process.” i keep forgetting, and then having to rediscover this. I think I’ll have it tattooed to my wrist – with proper attribution, of course. happy new year!
January 2nd, 2008 at 1:48 AM
Sarah P. Says:
Got here from Elizabeth Bear’s LJ site and just have to say, wow. Totally something I’ll be bookmarking and taking back out when I get to revisions on my YA. Thanks for sharing!!
January 2nd, 2008 at 7:44 AM
Hi, another reader via Bear’s blog. I loved this post, thanks for taking the time to share. I have a novel that’s going to need some serious rewriting – this really helps cuz I had no idea how to even *start*.
January 2nd, 2008 at 8:46 AM
This is an excellent post, dearie — bravo. The only thing I’d add is something I spend a lot of time doing, which is refining how things happen (as opposed to just what happens) to make sure it’s in the most interesting way. This mostly falls under structure, thought most of the time it doesn’t involve rearranging or moving events, so much as reimagining them better. But it’s a bit more than line editing because often it requires completely ditching and rewriting sections from scratch.
January 2nd, 2008 at 9:22 AM
oooh, brilliant! thank you thank you for this brilliantly motivating & helpful essay.
i think i am going to needlepoint the bit about despair being an integral part of the experience, so i can hang it over my desk and keep it in mind and not fall into the trap of thinking it is my own deep lameness that brings the despair about.
onwards to the structural rethinking!
January 2nd, 2008 at 9:42 AM
found that neither obvious nor boring, and especially not un-helpful. (Additional compliments here have been deleted upon revision — too redundant.)
January 2nd, 2008 at 9:57 AM
elizabeth barnesco Says:
another visitor thanks to Elizabeth bear…just had to say thanks. I have just deep-sixed 28000 words of my MG since draft 5 died in the middle. I’m starting again, since the structural problems are so deep-seated that it’s way better to start fresh with my old draft as reference and inspiration. your post is soooo timely. I must bookmark you, and will look for your novels for sure! thanks!
January 2nd, 2008 at 10:39 AM
Voice inside my head #1: “Maybe you should finish the first draft of your novel before you start thinking about rewriting.”
Voice inside my head #2: “You think? She’s not even halfway done with the smallest novel ever!”
Voice inside my head #1: “Yeah, but it’s pretty good. We don’t want negative six weeks of progress from writing too fast, do we?”
Voice of me: “Will you just shut up? I’m trying to figure out a plot here.”
January 2nd, 2008 at 11:17 AM
And of course “uni***n” is not on the list of Words To Look Up And Annihilate From The MS because it would never be there in the first place.
I’ve rewritten lots of MSs and it’s never been easy. There are frequently tears, and avowals that I will never do this again. But you make me want to drag something out and rewrite it, which is a bad thing because I’m on deadline to deliver a first draft. (Although like you, my first drafts make my editors weep with relief because they’re so clean… which leaves me wondering what kind of messes other authors turn in.)
Your praise of Scrivener also has me thinking ever-more-seriously about an iMac. Rewrites on the iMac! Maybe they will be more fun!
January 2nd, 2008 at 11:46 AM
i finished my first novel just over a month ago. i’m very aware of the need to fix structural before line-editing, and the need to have other eyes tell me what the heck is wrong with my story first. thus i’ve done some initial editing (cut first scene, reworked a chapter, fixed some stupid glaring mistakes) then put it forth for feedback. but despite being in an online writing community and having an offline writing group, no one seems to have the time to read my novel. should i move ahead to line-edits when i myself cannot see the flaws in structure (which I’m sure are hiding there somewhere)? or should i find a third writing group, or continue waiting?
January 2nd, 2008 at 12:02 PM
Corey J Feldman Says:
Thank you. That was very informative and helpful. Being dyslexic, I am hyper-focused (often necessarily so) on the sentence level rewrites. I rarely take the time to rework the structure. I usually just say it is broken and move on to the next project. Since one of my New Year’s resolutions is to submit something for publication, somewhere. I think I am going to have to shake the dust of one of my broken stories and try a structural rewrite.
January 2nd, 2008 at 12:59 PM
Eden Bradley Says:
I came from Elizabeth Bear’s site, too, and will definitely be coming back! I never blog in any useful sort of manner, so I’m always envious of those of you who do. Plus, I obviously need you.
This parting line is what really got me:
‘It ain’t easy, but it beats shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.’
Yeah…I suppose it does, but I just turned in revisions to my editor last night (hours before my deadline), and by about 10PM I may have been ready to trade for a ticket on an ill-fated ocean voyage.
Still, I didn’t read it until this morning, so that line did put my last week in the fiery pits of hell into perspective. Thanks.
January 2nd, 2008 at 3:36 PM
16. Justine Says:
Thanks everyone! I’m dead pleased it seems useful.
Mary: but despite being in an online writing community and having an offline writing group, no one seems to have the time to read my novel. should i move ahead to line-edits when i myself cannot see the flaws in structure (which I’m sure are hiding there somewhere)? or should i find a third writing group, or continue waiting?
That’s tricky and always a problem. Critiquing someone’s ms. is a huge commitment. I talk about some of what’s involved here. That’s why writers’ groups can be helpful: people are committed to reading each other’s work. It can be hard though, for example, if you’re the only novelist in a group of short story writers.
Basically, I’d say yes to all your questions. I’d keep looking for a group where people were actually going to read your work. (Assuming, of course, that you’re pulling your weight and critiquing theirs.) I’d keep contributing to the groups I’m in hoping they’d finally reciprocate. I’d also contine working on my ms. on my own.
But if you really feel like you’re getting no where with it then it might be time to let it rest and start a new novel. You can always return to it later.
Owldaughter: But you make me want to drag something out and rewrite it, which is a bad thing because I’m on deadline to deliver a first draft.
Oh noes! I am enabling procrastination!
January 2nd, 2008 at 4:54 PM
January 2nd, 2008 at 4:59 PM
Do I have to finish something first?
January 2nd, 2008 at 5:11 PM
Wow — thanks, awesome post, well-thought out and tons to ponder. this is definitely worth re-reading many times over.
Oh, and what maureen said about the zombies. When in doubt, undead.
January 2nd, 2008 at 10:18 PM
arghh me too! my characters are always rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, opening and closing their mouths or brushing lint from their heavily bedazzled pantsuits … but how beautiful is it when dialogue just speaks for itself?
I’ve never thought of keeping a list of overused words – so simple but so useful – thanks justine and happy new year to you and scott!
January 2nd, 2008 at 10:52 PM
holly black Says:
Now can you tell me how to write the first draft?!?
January 3rd, 2008 at 12:34 AM
i’ve been critiquing a lot during winter break, and i was trying to figure out how to put into words some of the stuff that was bugging me, so this post is awesome! furthermore, i think you just summed up my entire theories of rhetoric and composition class, and then some (minus the aristotelian theories–i never did really figure those out ). and i do all that stuff with my own writing too. writing is hard. *sigh* but i’m finding that critting other people’s stuff has been infinitely helpful in working on my own stories, especially when i see all the things they’re doing right, b/c then i figure out what i can do to make my own story right.
January 3rd, 2008 at 12:52 AM
Robert Legault Says:
Wow, Justine, a really great post. I see a lot of this stuff going on as I read manuscripts with markings by divers hands (including mine). I’m right now in the middle of the proofs of a 900-page meganovel by one of my favorite writers, who has done major rewriting. It’s fascinating to see how he’s added or taken out details, compressed whole paragraphs to a single sentence, moved around chunks of text in time, etc.
One thing I’ve observed time and time again in every sort of fiction: It works best if there are not too many character names to remember. All the fiction that has worked well for me has severely limited the number of characters’ names. This doesn’t necessarily mean the number of characters; just those with names. Nor are the ones with names necessarily the most important ones. A family saga told in first person might include “my mother,” “my brother,” etc., while the butler, a relatively minor player, might actually be given a name. The main character might have long conversations with a security guard, say, and reveal a lot of his deeper thoughts to such a seemingly neutral observer, without learning the guy’s name. A reader is going to remember “the security guard with the big mustache” much better than “Joe Morgan” when he shows up again 150 pages later.
In a long saga, like The Lord of the Rings or One Hundred Years of Solitude, you’re going to have to have a bunch of names, but keeping the names the reader has to remember to a minimum always seems to strengthen a book. How many spear carriers in your story have names when they don’t really need to be named?
January 3rd, 2008 at 12:59 AM
Barratt Miller Says:
exactly what i needed to hear right now. this was very helpful advice. i’m a beginning rewriter, and i’ve been struggling a lot with a project i’m working on. i find constructive criticism very helpful, and i’d secretly love a ten-page-single-spaced letter of commentary on my writing.
unfortunately, my only critique partner (an excellent editor who gives me terrific feedback) is also an ex-boyfriend. this means that i send him something to look over, he gives me good advice, i revise before going to bed, and then have horribly vivid dreams in which “advice from ex about love scene” and “imaging love scene in action” become one.
clearly, i need to ask more people to look at my writing.
January 3rd, 2008 at 3:33 AM
Write something of pure genius. Set it down . . . . come back much later (several cooling days, at least) and hellooooo discover you’ve written complete crap. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Good stuff though. Writers groups are funny: are they good enough to critique you? I mean, really. It’s fine if you like budweiser AND sam adams. You just need to know there are differences . . .
Are they just being mean? Are they tough enough to give good honest criticism (if kumbayah breaks out, ain’t enough learnin’ going on) and are you tough enough to take the good criticism and discard the crap criticism?
And there are few perfect bits of writing: just those good enough that you overlook the flaws while reading and that afterward you feel they aren’t outweighed by the good stuff.
January 3rd, 2008 at 11:43 AM
NoteTab (freeware) has a text analysis function that provides statistics on word frequency. There’s probably other software that does it too.
January 3rd, 2008 at 1:17 PM
i said that bass-ackward: it’s that the good bits aren’t overshadowed by any perceived flaws . . .
January 3rd, 2008 at 1:32 PM
I don’t think I could ever be as nitpicky about words, like the nod/eyes/shrug example.
How much of that would your editor comment on and how much of that is just personal preference?
January 3rd, 2008 at 3:32 PM
Dana King Says:
First time visitor, referred throuhg John Scalzi’s Whatever blog.
Great post, lots of good stuff. I do some of what you noted already, but you’ve given a lot of food for thought here.
A couple of comments:
“Time saved by writing the first draft fast: negative six weeks.”
Ah, but. I often blitz through sections of first drafts, if the story is flowing well and I’m willing my fingers to keep up with my imagination. You’re right, it takes me longer to fix, but that’s often the most inspired writing.
“I saw a tree. I touched the tree. I could tell from touching it that it was a good tree. I felt the tree speaking to me but I could not tell what it was saying. I was hurt by the tree when it exploded because I touched it. I was angry at the tree.”
If only Hemingway had a chance to read you’re advice about this. It would have saved me a lot of tedium in high school English class.
January 3rd, 2008 at 3:58 PM
Just yesterday I ran across the concept of using exclusion dictionaries in Word. Here you are with a great list to prime the pump.
Thanks for all the rest too–the despair part is especially motivating.
January 3rd, 2008 at 4:25 PM
Thank you for this – I’m new to writing fiction and have needed sage advice. Seems I’ve found lots of it here
January 3rd, 2008 at 9:49 PM
B. Durbin Says:
I had a very good writing teacher in high school who managed to get some very important concepts across even though he was “merely” teaching creative writing to a bunch of students who were probably going to forget it all anyway. the first thing he taught us was that if you do not know the definition of a word— the exact definition— you should look it up. He then taught us exercises such as stripping out all of the adverbs in your writing and seeing if you can still get the emotion across, or writing down the first word of every sentence to see if you have a pattern going. (Since this was high school, “The” turned up for most of them.)
those sorts of exercises have stood me well in the years since. Strangely enough, they mostly helped me with my nonfiction college essays, particularly the philosophy papers. But of course they are best applied to fiction— try a few tricks such as those or the ones listed in the main post.
January 3rd, 2008 at 11:37 PM
Which plugin are you using for the footnotes? Spiffy!
January 3rd, 2008 at 11:40 PM
thank you – I have some ideas on how to rewrite (and have acted on said ideas) but I found some really useful points I’ll have to keep in mind in what you wrote. Such as the list of words to look out for one – one of my characters irritates me by always being puzzled or puzzling things out…
One question on rewriting, about _when_ you rewrite. I’ve read things which say you shouldn’t mix writing and rewriting. Write it all first, then rewrite it. I can understand that ‘creative’ and ‘analytical’ hats can be conflicting and that sometimes one has to just write crap first before improving upon it (which is difficult if you’re thinking critically), but I generally find I bounce back and forth between rewriting previous sections and writing more. Is this such a terrible thing to do?
January 4th, 2008 at 3:06 AM
@soni: I believe the plugin is called wp-footnotes
btw, most people (including me) don’t protect the directory listing on their blogs, so when curious about someone’s plugins, just try adding
to the blog home URL.
Anyway, great post, Justine, much appreciated!
January 4th, 2008 at 3:46 AM
another arrival (belatedly) from elizabeth bear’s blog, and also jay lake’s since i was reminded of this by a thread there…
your point about working too hard on the good sentences only to find they don’t belong in the story is very definitely something i need to take note of. i have a terrible tendency to do this, and end up keeping all sorts of earlier drafts because i think they have some lovely but inapplicable bits in them. and i never actually go through and keep or make use of any of these “pearls”. how much better to only craft them when i really, really need to!
January 4th, 2008 at 11:47 AM
i heart you justine!
this is pure gold and i’m going to circulate the link to everybody i know involved in writing/publishing, link it via our website… etc.
thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!
January 4th, 2008 at 4:25 PM
little willow Says:
you are welcome.
and so are siamese cats. just so you know.
January 4th, 2008 at 4:54 PM
Herenya: I’d say that it doesn’t matter if you do all of your rewriting at the end or during the process of writing as long as the rewriting doesn’t kill your forward momentum. I wrote a lot in high school (and have saved most of it as a hedge against hubris— it’s pretty mediocre stuff.) The short stories came out pretty well but the longer work never got anywhere because I’d barely get past the second chapter before rethinking the first, so they’d stop before I got anywhere with them.
In college I spent several years doing improv, and the training actually helped with my momentum. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” Every scene went from beginning to end without a pause and you often discovered things in the course of a scene that you never would have if you had the opportunity to go back and fix things. A first draft is much like improv; most scenes need to go forward and be completed. Only a few games feature “repeats” of the action where things can be improved.
Minor rewrites don’t kill your momentum. Major rewrites are sometimes necessary— if you’ve painted yourself into a corner, but going back can get you out, it’s good. And if you can rewrite and still complete, don’t sweat it.
Most of us, though, will have to save rewriting for the end lest we run out of steam before the project is complete.
January 5th, 2008 at 12:25 AM
Thanks! Great hack!
Makes me wonder if I should be protecting those directories, though…
January 5th, 2008 at 1:00 PM
Nicholas Waller Says:
When I read your list of overused words you like to cut out, it reminded me somehow of a JG Ballard story called ‘the index’* – and here’s a story of a robot coming to life. perhaps.
had head – just.
look! mouth! (open, close).
raise eyebrow (raise, lift)
shrug, sigh… slowly smile. so still…
*(“we have only the index, the book itself no longer exists. From this remnant, arranged according only to arbitrariness of the alphabet, one can still discern the outlines of the story of a man who, like his biography, has been expunged from history.” – http://elab.eserver.org/hfl0093.html )
January 5th, 2008 at 3:53 PM
This is wonderful. It makes me want to go out and buy an editor to sit at my right hand, and a reader to sit on my left as I draft and redraft until I’m blue in the face and can no longer see the wood for the trees.
I am on a writers forum, but the critiques are so banal it makes me wonder what I’m doing there. I try to be honest on other people’s work so why can’t they show me the respect to be honest on mine? Sure, it’s great to know the good bits, but I struggle with strucure and no-one bothers with that. They would much rather tell me, eg, I’ve missed the apostrophe from I’m, or the comma before an -ing word.
Thank you for some great tips DIY tips. I will now get back to work
January 7th, 2008 at 5:41 PM
Cyde Weys Says:
Awesome information. I like how you mention how rewriting frequently involves large changes, like reordering entire chapters or excising huge chunks of text. This is the most important type of rewriting in terms of how it ultimately affects the readers’ perceptions, but too many inexperienced writers skip straight over it and jump directly to sentence-level rewriting (I will admit I succumb to this temptation as well).
January 9th, 2008 at 11:19 PM
I found my way over here from Carrie Vaughn’s blog Filling the Well.
I’m a writer who’s just starting out. I’ve only been writing for about two years off and on and never really been serious about it or gone anywhere with it until recently.
So for now I’m figuring out how to complete a first draft and how to actually put a story together as well how how to link events and senquence them and all that basic story writing stuff. Before now I’ve never really written story stuff just various eassys and research papers for school.
You’re stuff on rewriting will be extremely useful to me once I finally get there as well as any other advice for writing that you have around your blog.
I’m sure I could probably use a writing group myself considering I’m just starting out writing but I have no idea where to start looking really. So if you happen to have one and want to contact me feel free to at firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 16th, 2008 at 5:43 AM
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