Hey Sweetheart, get me rewrite!
Coke or Pepsi?
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 characters...how 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.
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?