Today, I’m fortunate enough to have a guest post written by an awesome editor and friend, the epic Michael Dellert. His post: the nitty gritty of re-writing!
What We Learn When We Rewrite
The only truly creative aspect of novel-writing is the first draft. That’s when the story comes straight from head and your heart, a direct tap into the subconscious. After that, the rest of it—the rewrite—is grunt work. But it’s grunt work that has to be done, and work from which we can learn.
When I first sat down in 2014 to write my first book (Heron’s Cry), I was essentially teaching myself to write all over again. I jokingly referred to the whole undertaking as, “the first thing I’ve written since my college Creative Writing workshop that’s more complicated than a grocery list.”
As the author of Fear of Flying so succinctly put it:
“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.” – Erica Jong
That was my experience as a writer for many years as well. I was so adamant about writing well (grammatically) that I never got to the end. I was “that guy,” the writer who keeps polishing the first three chapters—but doesn’t finish the work.
Then I heard the phrase, “Perfect is the enemy of done.” I realized I wasn’t helping myself as a writer by being such a perfectionist. And so I adopted a new approach to my work and started writing Heron’s Cry.
First, I gave myself a strict deadline: Thirteen weeks. And I put a hell of a consequence on that deadline. If I didn’t type, “The End” by 5pm on the 91st day of the project, I wouldn’t ever call myself a writer again. After 30 years of self-identifying that way, I didn’t know what else I would call myself, so it meant a lot to me to keep that goal.
By not backtracking each day, I was always moving forward, getting closer and closer to the last page where I could finally type, “The End.” By writing that first draft all the way through without looking back, I got my internal editor off my shoulder. The first draft was all creative stuff that just “came to me,” often as a surprise. Reading what I wrote afterward, I often mumbled, “Wow. I wrote that!” I let my stream of consciousness flow, and the words appeared on the monitor. And I was amazed at how damn good they were. Or at least, how damn good I thought they were.
But not surprisingly, that first draft was a huge, unwieldy thing. I had aimed for just 65000 words, the minimum word-count for what I considered “a novel,” but I came in at more than 120k words.
And as amazingly good as I thought the words were, there was no doubt they needed major revisions before I could even think about publication.
But I wasn’t discouraged. Hell, I had just done what for thirty years had been impossible for me: I’d finished the first draft of a novel. A whole new world had opened up to me. I could finish a story. The world hadn’t ended. No nuns with wooden rulers came around to rap me on the knuckles. The sun still rose in the east every morning.
So since then, I’ve been editing Heron’s Cry. I’m not in a rush. I don’t have a deadline, I enjoy the process, and I’m a stubborn person. When many other writers might have shoved that manuscript under the bed or buried it deep within a desk drawer after the fifth or sixth edit, I continue to comb through it with renewed enthusiasm. My protagonist is becoming more proactive, the plot more tightly woven. I’m embedding subtle clues and red herrings through the narrative as I become more adept at plotting.
The Rewrite Process
So how do I do it?
My earliest edits in Heron’s Cry consisted of cutting, and this is a practice I’ve kept up through my subsequent works. I’ve learned to embrace that oft-repeated mantra that every scene must move the story forward or, at the very least, define character. If I can’t justify a scene, it’s gone. I got over the trauma of cutting—words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and even (yelp!) whole chapters. And I applied those lessons to my other books, creating lean but complicated fantasies.
Needless to say, this hasn’t been easy. But I discovered a way that made it less painful: I created a “Cuts” document. Everything I cut went into that separate file, “for posterity.” Nothing was ever truly gone. If I changed my mind, I could reinsert it with the click of a button. The “Cuts” document for Heron’s Cry is 190 double-spaced pages (about 47000 words).
And what I found was that a lot of those cuts were backstory and exposition, not relevant to the story at hand. So I started book number two, Hedge King in Winter, as an excuse to tell that backstory and repurpose that exposition. And then I went on to book three, A Merchant’s Tale, and then my first published full-length novel, The Romance of Eowain, and now my forthcoming new novel, The Wedding of Eithne.
As I mature as a writer, the “Cuts” document for each book is shrinking because I’m learning to evaluate scenes before I write them. For The Wedding of Eithne, the “Cuts” file is just seven pages.
No Rest for the Wicked?
I’ve probably edited Heron’s Cry more than twenty times already. I can flip open the manuscript, glance at a line or two, and know exactly which scene I’m looking at. Around edit number ten of Heron’s Cry, I realized I needed to do a major story revamp, so I copied the entire manuscript into another document for safekeeping. This freed me to be as bold and daring as I liked. If I mess something up in the revision, I still have that earlier version to fall back on. This is a nice strategy for short stories, too.
But when will it be done? I’m not sure yet. Keeping in mind that perfect is the enemy of done, I’ve set deadlines on my other four books, and told the story that leads up to the events in Heron’s Cry. Now that those books are finished and almost all out of the nest, maybe 2017 is the year to bring Heron’s Cry to the world? Or maybe I’ll keep myself guessing.
About the Author:
Michael E. Dellert is a writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 20 years. His blog, Adventures in Indie Publishing, is a resource for creative writers of all kinds. He is the author of three books in the heroic fantasy Matter of Manred Saga, and his latest book in the series, The Wedding of Eithne, will publish on 28 March, 2017.