Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Hey Sweetheart, get me rewrite!

Boxers or briefs?
Coke or Pepsi?
Rewrite or...not?
I rewrite. In fact, I believe in its virtues so strongly I can't see there is any other sane way to produce a book. Still, I know there are those who don't, won't or can't. I hear them in bars and on panels, saying they just begin at the beginning and end at the end and never rewrite a word. But I can't see it. Rewriting is like religion to me: I hold so firmly to my belief that I can only shake my head at those pagans who claim they can produce the perfect page on the first try and never look back.

Maybe I can be convinced. But it won't be by a beginning writer. If you are just starting out, I am here to say the road to righteousness lies in the power of the delete key and multi-drafts. Here is how I came to see the light:

Our first book was a mess. (Kirkus said it still was, post-publication, but that's another story. See previous post: Liver Pecking). Our agent, She Who Knows All, made us rewrite it 10 times. Truth be, Kelly and I were rather indignant. I mean, we knew the story and dare some outsider imply it didn't work! How dare someone say they couldn't follow the plot? How dare someone say the characters' motivations weren't clear? I mean, we were the authors and the story was so alive in our heads and hearts! How could someone not SEE THAT?

Well, She Who Knows All was right, of course. She was our first cold reader. And she was just telling us what our next readers would have -- the critics and the buying public -- that we didn't have it down. So we rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. And "Dark of the Moon" was less of a mess, got sold and started our career.

Here's the second thing that makes me a believer:

Kelly and I now do a lot of manuscript critiques. We do them for charity auctions, as do many authors, and the winners submit their 50 pages and we give them honest feedback. Most the folks we never hear from again. I suspect the reading public doesn't either, probably because those writers did not want to face the gawd awful hard task of rewriting. One guy sent me a copy of his book. I read it. He hadn't changed a thing. It had been self-published.


Case No. 1: Two years ago, we did a critique for a woman named Leona. Her first attempt had many of the usual mistakes. But Leona didn't give up. She toiled on her story, rewrote, reshaped, started over. She stays in touch, telling us she's gotten some nibbles but no bites yet. "I know my time will come, but in the meantime, I'm still learning," she says. I don't know if she'll get published, but man, I admire her tenacity.

Case No. 2: Last year, the person who bidded for our critique sent us her story and it, too, had problems that we knew she had to fix before an editor or agent would consider it. We did the critique, sent it back and offered a followup. Nothing. Didn't hear a word back. I figured she, like so many others, just decided to ignore what we suggested. But a couple days ago, I got a sample in my Sleuthfest workshop batch. The name didn't register, but as I started reading, the story did. It was the same woman and she had done major surgery on her story -- and it was better, much much better. She isn't giving up. She isn't giving in (to POD temptation). She is learning the craft.

Here is my tao:
1. Find your one true cold reader. Every writer needs someone they can trust to tell them the truth. I am lucky; I have my co-author sister Kelly. Your One True Cold Eye is usually not your spouse, friend, mother. These people love you and can hurt you in two ways: by telling you everything you write is great or by telling you that you will never make it.
2. Don't aim for perfection. If you insist on making every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter gold, you will destroy the initial passion and momentum of discovery. Give yourself permission to write badly as you find your narrative legs and get to know your characters.
3. Finish the manuscript. Sounds like stupid advice. But too many folks never finish because they can't get chapter 12 perfect. Finish the damn thing first and then go back and polish it.
4. Lose this idea that rewriting destroys spontaneity and creativity. I often tell beginners that the first draft is written with the heart but the second, third, fifth or tenth -- those are written with the head.

And lastly,

5. Embrace the process. You are not a writer. You are constantly becoming a writer. No matter how many books you have under your belt.

You got that, sweetheart?


Blogger Daniel Hatadi said...

I think you've read my mind. I just wrote a post about my second draft, and this feels like a direct response.

Most of these points involve work, which is fine. You just work. But number 1 is about luck. Any tips in this regard?

9:49 PM  
Blogger R.J. Baker said...

Boxers or Briefs - neither.

Coke or Pepsi - with DonQ Rum.

Who can? - not rewrite?

Excellent Tao. Read it, live it, know it.

And you called me sweetheart. Only waitresses do that to me any more...hmmmmmmmm?

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Mark Terry said...

Okay. Years and years ago, Writers Digest had an article about author and screenwriter Joe Gores. They put multiple copies of the first page of his novel manuscript in the article with his markings on it so readers could see what the process was like. It was the most valuable writing education I ever received, bar none.

I took up his process and in many ways I still use it. Here it is:

1. Write your chapter.
2. Print it out.
3. Take a felt-tipped pen of some vibrant color--red or blue or green or whatever.
4. Read the chapter out loud and make changes with felt-tipped pen.
5. Wait a few moments or hours or whatever.
6. Take a different colored felt-tipped pen and go over the manuscript again. Read it out loud or don't, at this point there's some value in seeing how your brain reacts to the words on the page versus your reading them aloud. Mark up manuscript.
7. Go to computer and make changes on manuscript--this is a third re-write, don't be afraid to make additional changes.
8. Print out.
9. Move on to next chapter.

And here's the caveat when it comes to novels. When you're done, try to put it away for a length of time. Then find yourself a nice comfy location like your sofa, your bed, your favorite armchair, poolside lounge chair, hammock, etc., that is similar to where you would be reading a novel for pleasure. Read your manuscript as if you were a reader. If you must have a pen in your hands at this point, resist rewriting. Maybe jot a few notes here and there about pace and flow or whether a character works or needs more or less or if something is boring you.

Then, go back to step 1 above and do it all over again.

Do I do this all the time? With variations, yes, and now my novels are getting published. It's not written in stone, but it'll definitely help aspiring writers to give it a shot.

Mark Terry

9:37 AM  
Blogger Bethany said...

Hear, hear!

When you are in the midst of a first draft the very thought of rewriting can bring on writer's block. So, really, you don't want to go there. At all.

But, once it is done, and you've moved on for a while to another project. Go ahead, rewrite. Get dirty. This is where the real GROWING occurs as a writer. How can I make my story sing?

Regardless, thanks for the reminder. It is always good to read that I am not the only one losing my sanity in rewrites. ;-)

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Barbara W. Klaser said...

Some of the best stuff (passionate, spontaneous, revolutionary, clever stuff) happens during rewrite.

By now you know your characters and the story so well you can see it all more clearly.

1:55 PM  
Blogger emeraldcite said...

It's been so long since an entry. I was really starting to miss you girls!

4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

got it, babe! tell me more

9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a huge proponant of the revising school. Getting that first draft done was very important even though it was shit. It showed me I could complete a full novel. Which I did, four more times from scratch with probably fourteen rewrites in between. Each draft though gets better and more focused. The first one took me four years to write total.

Now I'm on to the second book and I hope it doesn't take as long. I can already see improvement. This rough draft would have taken me four or five drafts to get to before.

I liken the process to sculpture. The first draft is just getting the lumps into the right general shape. the next few drafts put a little more definition on things and then finally the last few drafts add the detail and polish. Or something like that.

10:40 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Hey guys,
What great responses! And I thought I was going to take it on the chin because I hear from folks all the time that only wimps rewrite.

To Daniel: I don't know HOW you find your cold eye reader. My husband is pretty good at it but when he tells me my stuff stinks I tend to take it personally. From my sister, never. Probably need to talk to a shrink about that...

To Mark: As usual, you're right on. I might suggest your method to newbies, in fact. Jerry Healy gives a great lecture on rewriting. He was the first person who told me, when I was staring out, to write the whole thing without stopping and only then go back. It still works for me.

To Bethany: The best thing about hanging with other writers is finding out you aren't nuts.

To Barbara: So true. It is amazing how the discovery process is enhanced the second time around. (Found that out with my marriages, come to think of it).

To Byron: Reminds me of what an art teacher told me once when I was having problems in sculpture class: "What's so hard about it? All you do is chisel away all the parts you don't need."

And to r.j.: Treasure it. You know you're old when girls and waitresses start calling you "mister."

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Mark Terry said...

" The best thing about hanging with other writers is finding out you aren't nuts"


3:22 PM  
Anonymous kalbzayn said...

I've only finished a few stories, but I've started several. I can pound through the rough draft which helps get it out of my head and lets other ideas come in its place. Then, when I reread, if the story still seems interesting at all, I will take the time to rewrite it. I normally end up finding that I'd rather use a different narrator or something totally different like that, but I would never get to that stage if I didn't just write that stupid first draft.

Now I have a few ideas running around in my head that are larger scope and could probably turn into a novel and I'm chickening out on starting them. Thanks for the reminder about just getting my butt moving and worry about making it pretty later.

12:51 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


We have all been in that uncomfortable spot where you are now -- trying to get that kernel of an idea to explode into a frenzy of an Orville Redenbacker Extra-Butter bestseller.

Whew...sorry, had to get that bad metaphor out of my system before it turned up in a book.

Good luck!

12:06 PM  

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