Deja vu all over again

i_write_therefore_i_rewrite_mugPaula’s Post #25 — Guess what I’ve been doing this past week? That’s right, editing. As of Sunday, I’ve actually managed to slog my way through the first 100 pages of my manuscript. I’m about a quarter of the way through the rewrite of what I’d like to think could be a ‘final draft’, but in my heart know is more likely to be the first of many rewrites.  I know I need to tighten up the plot, rev up the action, polish my prose and make my characters more compelling.

Sounds simple enough, but for me, the process of editing is hard slogging. I know what I need to do, but execution is another story (pardon the pun). More often than not I find myself falling into the trap of merely ‘copy-editing’ my manuscript instead of actually fixing what needs fixing.

Why is that?

I think part of the problem is a lack of objectivity. If you’ve ever been in a serious critique group (and by that, I mean the kind that can occasionally reduce you to tears) then you know what I’m talking about. Each month, you send off your 30 perfect pages to the other members of the group. Each month you’re filled with hopeful anticipation. You’re proud of your baby. You’ve worked hard to advance the plot, write sizzling dialogue and imbue your characters with dazzling complexity. Then the fun part starts. How can it possibly be that you didn’t notice that you’ve ended up with ten straight pages of your protagonist’s internal dialogue? Or that your characters have suddenly become little more than talking heads spewing out info that you need your readers to know.  The dreaded “As you know Bob…” info dump. Your critique group members see it right away and the second they point it out, you see it too, and then it’s back to the proverbial drawing board.

In our critique group, we’ve usually just shared first draft stuff. You only get one kick of the cat, so most of us use the critique group process to hammer the kinks out of our first draft, and the feedback we receive from the other members of the group is invaluable when it comes to rewrites.

But now I don’t have that luxury. During round two of this 5writers challenge, I’m more or less working without a net so to speak. In other words, I’m on my own, baby. So maybe this is the perfect time for a little primer on the fine art of rewriting. Not that I claim to be an expert on the subject, far from it. But hey, I can google with the best of them, so this week, I’ve ‘mined’ the internet for some sage advice from the masters:

Elmore Leonard‘s Ten Rules of Writing

ElmoreRewriting1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Phillip Roth:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.

Michael Crichton:

Books are not written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…

Diana Gabaldon

I get asked, ‘How many drafts do you go through?’ all the time. The answer is either ‘one’ or ‘infinity,’ but I don’t know how to tell the difference. I don’t write, leave, come back later and revise.  I work slow and fiddle constantly, so the revision is pretty much done as part of the original writing.  By the time I’m done with a scene, I’m done with it.

Truman Capote:

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.

Anton Chekhov

My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying. 

Peter de Vries

I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork. 

Barbara Kingsolver

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.

Somerset Maugham 

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary –  it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.

James A. Michener

I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.
I find that three or four readings are required to comb out the cliches, line up pronouns with their antecedents, and insure agreement in number between subject and verbs … My connectives, my clauses, my subsidiary phrases don’t come naturally to me and I’m very prone to repetition of words; so I never even write an important letter in the first draft. I can never recall anything of mine that’s ever been printed in less than three drafts.
You write that first draft really to see how it’s going to come out.

Vladimir Nabokov

Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It’s like passing around samples of sputum.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend. 


Inside every fat book is a thin book trying to get out. 

Thanks for the advice guys. I hope that this time, I can sharpen my scalpel and find my story somewhere within the first draft. Or the second, or the third, or…

Happily, believe it or not, turns out March is NaNoEdMo: National Nano Editing Month.


7 thoughts on “Deja vu all over again

  1. I write like Diana Gabaldon,but then I come back later and have to do my do-overs over again. 😦 However, this apparently happens to many of the Greats, like Michener, who really moves me. So, if he has to re-rewrite, it’s OK if I have to. 🙂

  2. Great post, Paula. It’s useful to be reminded of what not to do in one’s writing. I am sort of leaning towards Diana Gabaldon’s approach. And I definitely agree with Nabokov about handing out first drafts.

  3. Great rewrite advice – wish I could follow it right now, but there’s that pesky thing called a ‘first draft’ that has to be finished before I can rewrite. I think I need to be a little more like Michael Crichton and James Michener, and a little less like Phillip Roth and Diana Gabaldon. I do find it hard to crash out a first draft, mistakes and all, for the sake of getting the plot in shape – which is probably why I’m the tortoise in the pack. I should wait to be Miss Picky until rewrite time.

    • It’s such a conundrum, isn’t it. If you end up throwing out half your first draft pages, you’re going to hate yourself for wasting all that time making them perfect, then again, if you decide the first draft is spot on, and you’ve just dashed off some bare bones plot points, you’re going to bemoan the fact you need to now go back and add flesh to the bones. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. For me, I’m planning on having to fix quite a bit of the plot, particularly in the last half of the book, so I don’t really mind going back and fleshing things out, because a lot of what I ‘flesh out’ will be fresh material. But everyone is different Tortoise… for now, I’m just trying to put one foot in front of the other and rewrite 10 pages a day: 300 divided by 10 = 30 – One month, that doesn’t sound so bad!

  4. Bev’s rule of writing: the first draft has to be crap. Excellent post, thank you. I, personally, love the rewriting process. It’s filling up that blank page that drives me crazy.

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