While I have offered some good advice in my Wordslinger posts, (and we’ve all had a few good yucks in the process) I think that this month’s essay has the potential to do the most good for any and all writers in any and all mediums.
Writing a book isn’t the hardest part of the game: Re-writing it is.
How many times do you read your chapters, poems, or blog posts before you send them out?
Zero? (Writing it doesn’t count. That’s like trying to mix the song before all the parts are even recorded).
Let me skip the logic and conventional practice argument and move right to the personal testimony, where I say that I have found something KEY to add, subtract, or change in everything I’ve ever gone through at least once. Interestingly enough, the second time is often my most revolutionary pass and they don’t say, third time’s the charm for nothing. By the third time, I feel that I really see my story for the first time and just flit through it making small cosmetic tweaks and smirking at my own wit.
Writing is like working in clay. You need to keep your hands on it to make it smooth and the more time you spend with it, the more beautifully your creation will turn out. Most of us barely even double check our tweets before clicking the SEND button. We’re in the habit of thinking quickly, typing quickly and moving on quickly. But, as it is with sex and cooking, writing requires practice, timing, and endurance. Re-working a story is an exercise in all three, that’s like circuit training for the MIND baby!
I would, however, like to acknowledge that it’s absolutely a drag to have to hash through stuff you’ve already written. Revision requires a completely different mindset than free writing does, but it is a GUARANTEE that you (and more importantly, your story) will benefit from it.
Okay, now maybe it’s time for a little logic and conventional practice for those of you who are linear thinkers: Imagine how much you know about your characters and circumstances by the time you’ve completed a story. Going back through your it allows you the opportunity to take advantage of that knowledge in dozens of ways. Your characters could have more (or less) insight; you could set future events or locations up better by mentioning them earlier; you could beef up emotion and tension by focusing on people’s internal reactions to dialogue; or you could even leave red herrings for your readers, if your story lends itself to such fun devices.
Herring is gross oily fish that turns red while it’s cooked if it’s been over salted to hide the fact that’s it’s going bad. Using the term red herring to describe any purposeful act of deception can be found as early as John Heywood’s 1546 glossary. Back then, it was mostly used to describe people. Now, it’s almost exclusively a literary term.
It really can become a whole new world when you’re brave enough to go back into your story. And yes, brave is an apt description of the complexities involved in simultaneously dissecting, and reassembling a would-be completed book if not for your own meddling.
I’m re-working a novel right now and found that even my characters’ motives have changed drastically. Also, the plot has been greatly simplified without giving up anything but clutter. The story is at least twice as good for having been completely squeegeed, plus the emotion and erotica has been amped up in places that needed it. Honestly, I’m more excited about the project than I’ve ever been and the last chapter was written ages ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think revision feels like doing homework while the sun is shining, but it’s just too easy to see how the extra work is shaping and polishing a story that I already thought had hit the mark.
I’m actually convinced that I’m a better writer the second time around because the act of getting everything out of my head and onto the page clears my head for a more objective (and sometimes abstract) view. I can just relax and make sure that I told the story right the first time.
If you’re using a beta editor you shouldn’t be sending anything to your colleague until you have re-read and squeegeed your first draft. In fact, you should consider everything a first draft and not completed story until this step is completed.
If you use a beta/editor, (and I highly recommend that you do), you may be tempted to assume that their approval (or even praise) validates your literary genius and exempts you from burdening yourself with the arduous task of re-working your mental droppings. But only you can test whether or not you struck all the right narrative tones or emotional colors. Only you know what it was supposed to feel like. You must believe that your work is worth a second look, and the best part about that is, a second look can only increase that worth.
If you haven’t already been convinced by your buddy Morgan’s testimonial, pick something short that you wrote (and better yet, posted) in the last few months that you know you only spell checked. Read it and see if you don’t want to make at least six changes for every thousand words. (If you are too scared to try this, you have your answer already).
Once you have written, read, and squeegeed your work, then send it off to your beta to have her buff it out for you.
If you don’t have a beta, Get one. Find someone who is a real perfectionist and who knows what a dangling participle is. (Apparently, it’s not what it sounds like). It could be an online friend or a smarty in your real life, but what you need before you submit or post anything is subjectiveness.
I rely on my wife and I call her Darth Beta. However, her input only makes me look more intelligent, so I embrace it.
And then I re-read it.
P.S. This post went through four revisions, and it was on the third one that I realized how cool it would have been to have kept the first draft to post as a comparison to my final submission to Tamie. If this post generates as much interest and conversation as I got from Jennifer though, I would gladly use a future post to further illustrate the point by doing a whole before and after thing.