I know that for many of you, rewriting is less exciting than writing that first draft. For you, there is nothing more thrilling than creating something from nothing. I don’t feel that way. I adore rewriting. It is not accompanied by the anxiety and uncertainty of the blank page. The basic story is already down on paper. The characters have grown and changed. Until the first draft is finished, there’s a huge element of blind faith involved in the process, something I have come to trust, but just barely.
Of course, having something down on paper does not mean that it’s good. Usually there are some huge mistakes. The characters behave inconsistently or don’t change enough. The pacing is wrong. The first rewrite is where I catch those mistakes. Because the story remains fairly skeletal at this point, errors are much easier to spot. I don’t flesh out the characters too much in my first draft, because I don’t want to risk falling in love with them and being unable to make necessary changes.
While I usually share many pages with trusted readers by the time I finish the first draft, this time I have chosen not to ask for opinions. No one (and by that I mean not even my husband) has read anything beyond the first chapter. This is a story I’m holding close. There’s no way I’m showing it to anyone until I’m certain that I’ve done my best with it, that it includes all of the elements I’ve intended. At this point, suggestions from anyone else would just confuse me. Eventually, I will give the manuscript to my husband, assistant, agent, and writing group as well as a few other trusted readers from my favorite book clubs. That will be the time for notes and suggestions, but first I have to get it right for me.
I’m not certain why the rewriting process for this novel is so different from my other two. It might have something to do with the world of the story, which includes elements of mythology. It may be that it’s more personal than the other books I’ve written, not in the sense that it is based on my experience but because I am creating portions of the story’s mythological world myself. As a result, there are many elements of that world that I’m still exploring.
The process of this first revision is as much about rereading as rewriting. I’ve already been though the manuscript four times, adding details to enhance the description, taking away early embellishments that once inspired me but no longer serve the story.
As I read and reread, I ask certain questions of my characters. Most deal with consistency. Do the characters’ actions fit their backstories? Does what they want remain consistent, or does it change? Do their actions happen in the correct order?
I’ve often seen my characters take an extreme step early in a story in an effort to get what they want. This is a mistake, one that often brings the story to a halt. I find this kind of error fairly easy to spot in the first rewrite and almost impossible later. For that purpose, I go back to the beats of the story, not what I intended in my outline but what actually ended up on the page, which is often very different.
If I’ve done my job well, my characters will begin to talk to me, even if I’m not always crazy about what they’re saying. If I can’t make a character do what I intended, there’s always a good reason.
For example, in my last book. The Map of True Places, I was writing about a protagonist who couldn’t make decisions because, in the past, her decisions had tragic consequences. She had come to a point in her life where she couldn’t even order an ice cream cone, because she had no idea what flavor she preferred. Her character changed significantly over the course of the narrative, but, in the first draft, I was trying to make her change too radically. While I wanted to place the story’s dramatic climax more squarely in her hands, it didn’t fit the character and would have only served the plot, something I refused to do. Her character arc needed to be far more subtle. I had to rewrite my ending. Fortunately, this was something I was able to discover in the first rewrite.
The other element that shows its flaws in this first rewrite is pacing. I seem to be fine with the major beats of the story, but within chapters, I find I always have trouble. It’s akin to a character ordering dinner in a restaurant before she looks at the menu. These are small details, but if they aren’t fixed, they will reveal something unintended. A character who orders first and then peruses the menu is interesting, but if it isn’t what you intended, it will give the wrong impression to the reader.
This first rewrite is a place where mistakes can be corrected. It is also where the story begins to be fleshed out, where details of description emerge. This is what I love about rewriting. I get to know my characters best during this process. Every time I reread the manuscript, I learn more about them, and I am able to add more details.
For me, the rewriting process has become more creative and much more fun than the first draft. Even so, rereading is such a huge part of the process that I sometimes find myself lost in my own words. When that happens, I have to walk away and find something else to do for a while, something that inspires a different kind of creativity. I don’t consider this slacking. I consider it part of the rewriting process, a creativity renewal.
Toward that end, I travelled to the MFA in Boston a few days ago to see Dale Chihuly’s “Through the Looking Glass” exhibit. For a few hours, I was immersed in a vibrant and fanciful world created by one of the most innovative glass artists in the world. The colors and forms and freedom of expression were just what I needed to renew my artistic spirit. I’ve included a photograph.
I’d love to hear about your rewriting process. Do you enjoy it? What tips can you share?