Rewrite, Then Do It Again

It didn’t just dawn on me it smacked me in the face. A writer writes—and rewrites. You gotta love it, and I do.

I had my first encounter with rewriting when my newspaper column editor challenged me to say something meaningful to my readers in no more than four hundred words. I had to put my large ideas into a very small basket. (Well, I thought they were large ideas.) I quickly learned to cut, cut, cut my precious words.

When I wrote my first novel, however, I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough words. I labored very hard to add what I could—filler for my precious dialogue, I called it. My editor didn’t restrict the number of words I could use. She did, however, restrict the number of points of view I should use. (Thank you, Abigail Mieko Vargus, for cutting me down to size.) That was my second encounter with rewriting, and it was a big one.

I had read the publisher’s guide, but even after ample forewarning, I still thought “editing” meant “correcting spelling and punctuation.” Truthfully, I’m not sure any guide or advice could have prepared me, the novice writer, for what lay ahead. Sure enough, when I got The Prize back after the first edit, I was overwhelmed. It seemed to me that my editor was asking me to cut out all my hard work.

“Don’t open a chapter with a description of the weather; it’s boring,” she commented. I knew it was boring, but I also knew there had to be something besides dialogue. Dialogue was the easy part for me, and I had struggled to include description as well. Now she was telling me take it out? I feared my novel would become a novella.

“Open a chapter with action—something that grabs the reader’s attention,” was my editor’s next instruction. When I followed this advice, I found myself caught up in the action. I couldn’t wait for my characters to rescue me, to tell me what to do next. I was having fun.

“Don't rush.” That was more good advice from my editor. I should have known that. I am a Brief Solution Focused Therapist. The therapy is called brief not because it's fast, but because when I go slow and work thoroughly, it takes less time and fewer sessions to reach my client's goals. I should have applied that principle to my writing. I enthusiastically tried to do all the things my editor suggested, but I went too fast. She suggested that I let it rest for a few days, but I couldn’t keep my anxious hands off the keyboard. I was making myself dizzy.

For sanity’s sake, I declared my keyboard off-limits for a few days, but I could still read. I printed my book with two pages on each piece of letter-size paper, as it would appear when published. In so doing, I was able to see overused phrases and awkward passages at a glance. And there was an unexpected bonus: When I extracted myself from the writing and put myself in the position of reader, the flow of the story became clearer to me.

My technique to slow myself down, and keep myself from getting dizzy, worked well. I took it a step further. I separated the subplots from the whole text and read them through individually for consistency. I did this with character’s speeches too. Again, the printed version worked best for me.

I think most writers write in a vacuum—and, these days, primarily on a computer. An obsessive/compulsive writer, like me, can easily fall into a pattern of writing around in circles. Cutting and pasting too much can lose the author in a labyrinth.

Working with my editor saved my sanity. I wasn’t alone in a vacuum anymore. She was as intimate with my characters and my plot as I was, and I got the feeling that she cared about them as much as I did. She encouraged me to follow some very important axioms, without imposing a different style of writing on me. With her guidance, I could feel The Prize coming alive. I could hardly wait for her comments and for my next chance to make my book better, my next chance to rewrite.

When we’d finished the usual number of edits, my editor said it was good enough, but it could be better. There was no way I was going to let it go at that. She offered to do an extra edit, and I enthusiastically accepted. Rewriting is the fun part.

—M. LaCourt

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