Hello, dear readers, and welcome!
Today I am bringing you a post that I'm actually quite excited about. I've realized, somewhere in looking over my writing posts, that I don't often write about, well, the actual process of writing -- usually I'm speaking about how to keep inspiration, or what mindset I believe we need to have as writers. But here I'm going to talk a bit about some "actual writing" tips, though I'm sure there will be some of the former, as well.
What form of writing will I be giving you tips concerning? Something that quite a few of us -- or most probably all of us -- fear:
This post comes to me from a conversation I had yesterday with one of my writing friends. I think I've mentioned her before. We will call her El. Well, El is working on rewriting a novel that she finished I would say closer to 6, maybe even 7 years ago. El has been out of the writing world, for the most part, for over a year, due to life circumstances. Though she is excited about this rewrite, and together we were able to hash out a new backstory that she really likes, filling in some plot holes, she is still very nervous and overwhelmed with the idea of a rewrite.
El has never rewritten a book, but this is something I have a bit of experience with. I can't say that experience itself makes you an expert, but it does, if nothing else, make you more familiar with how the process works.
One of the stories I am currently working on is in its 7th or 8th edit -- I've nearly lost count at this point. I have even unpublished, rewritten, and re-published some of my works in the past, finding that I wasn't satisfied with them (this, I can point out, is a difficulty with being self-published, because there is no automatic team being payed to help you fine-tune your story; there are ways around this, but it's less easy); there is a difference between being unsatisfied and wanting your book to be perfect, which I will get to in a bit. Revision and rewriting really aren't anything new for me, but I remember a time when the thought of either was terrifying -- and truthfully, as I told my friend yesterday, it doesn't get much easier. Knowing what to do helps, but it's a new journey every time, and whether or not this thought crushes you is, amusingly enough, all in how you look at it (and the mindset advice strikes).
It seems as though we, as writers, are afraid of rewriting our stories. We all want to think that they're perfect after the first draft, with a little editing. And while I can't blame anyone for feeling this way, because after all you have worked plenty of hours writing that first draft, I've learned through time (the hard way) that it's important to throw this type of thinking out the window.
Here's your first step in my rewriting (or revision) tips:
1: Forget Yourself
It may sound odd, but it's also very important. Once that first draft is done, writing isn't really about you anymore -- how this story is your baby, how you spent so much time on it, how you want the plot to go, what little scene you would like to see in it for purely personal reasons. We, as writers, tend to whine and cry too often over how the amount of hours spent on a project is unfair to us, or how we worked so hard. Put bluntly, I've learned to say to myself: quit complaining -- or better yet: shut up, and stop being selfish.
This story is about the story now.
Once you've finished that first draft -- crying over it, sweating over it, bleeding over it -- writing it isn't about you anymore. Sure, it's still your baby, and you still care, but now it's time to sit down and make the story the best it can be for your characters, for your world, for your plot, for your themes.
When the reader picks up the book and falls into it, they aren't going to be thinking about you, they're going to be thinking about the story, and that's where your focus needs to be, too. You shouldn't feel like spending more time on a story is unfair to you, or that it doesn't need it -- because it always, always needs something, whether it's just a light form of revision, or a complete rewrite.
It's tempting to publish immediately after you've written a piece -- because face it, it's easier. We can publish now with the click of a button, with hitting a few keys to correct a word (or using Spell Check), but that doesn't mean we should. Publishing is not an entitlement but a privilege, and whenever we put work out there, we should know that it's our best, because otherwise we are only wasting the readers' time and money. One person's best may not look like anothers', but that isn't the point. The point is that it's always important to remember that your book will need some form of work once the first draft is done, and that the time you have to spend on this work, be it months or years, is not a waste of time, and should not be skipped; respect yourself, and your work, and your readers will respect you more.
2: Implement Focus
Revision and rewriting can be daunting, and if you're anything like El (or me), you can easily become overwhelmed by it. Looking at your first draft, you begin to see mistakes, holes, stupid dialogue, unneeded scenes, and can even begin to think that your entire story is nonsense and needs to be trashed, burned, or otherwise exterminated. This is absolutely normal, and it's important to feel these things, I think...and then let it pass; it's a bit like a grieving period.
But once you've allowed yourself to feel overwhelmed, get rid of that feeling. Don't let it linger very long. Replace it with another, more potent one: excitement.
This is your chance to create something brand-new from a story you already love! What could be better?
When you're rewriting, take it one step at a time, and keep your focus on that excitement, no matter what. Create a new outline; read through your first draft and highlight; play the "why" game to fill in plot holes; keep a notebook and write down backstory, character profiles, and more; give your work to an editor, your writing friends, or others you trust, who will be honest in their critique (and put heavy weight to their advice, because remember: this story isn't perfect)...but don't try to do everything all at once, or you'll only overwhelm yourself. One foot in front of the other.
3: Change Course
This is something that I always struggle with in rewriting, and I'm seeing El struggle with it now: allowing ourselves to create something new and different from what we had before.
When you think rewrite, you might think revision, but they really aren't the same at all, in my opinion.
Revision, for me, is smoothing over what already exists, like putting gesso on a canvas before you paint. In revision, you fix grammar, sentences, take things out, and add extra scenes. But the plot, for the largest part, stays the same as when you first wrote the story, only there aren't holes anymore.
But rewriting is completely different. Rewriting, for me, is like starting anew. In rewriting, often a lot of things change, and maybe even the entire story changes. You might add ten chapters to a pre-existing story, or you might gut your story completely, and go in another direction.
The most important thing, I think, is to remember is that it's okay to change your story.
It's okay to take away characters. It's okay to take away plot points. It's okay to change the backstory, or the direction of the story, or to create almost an entirely new story. It's okay to, when you're finished rewriting, look back and think that you have two completely different stories on your hands between the old and the new one.
It's okay. If you need to let go of some things, then let go. Don't try and hold on when the story is pulling you in another direction, because you'll only end up feeling like it's not working, and something is missing.
4: Exterminate Perfectionism
I am a Doctor Who fan, and clipped to my laptop bag there is a bright red Dalek that says "Exterminate!" in his ridiculously wonderful voice whenever I press a button. I love my little red Dalek, who often bumps up against something as I'm headed to meetings with my fellow writers, and proclaims his wish to exterminate everything randomly, and here I find that he fits in quite well with my writing life.
Perfectionism will kill you. I think I mentioned this a few posts ago, but I'll say it again, because it's so important to remember. When you come up against perfectionism in rewriting (or any time in your creative life), be like my Dalek, and exterminate it -- immediately.
There is nothing at all wrong with doing your best, and making your work the best that it can be; you should strive to do both, especially when putting your story together as a finished work, ready to be published. But the moment that you tell yourself you will be unhappy unless your work is perfect, stop and shoot that perfectionism down, just like a Dalek takes down whatever is in its way without hesitation.
Here's the truth: your story is never going to be perfect. There, I said it! It can be as good as it can be, and you should never settle for putting out work that you know is terrible, but it's never going to be perfect. There will come a point when you simply have to tell yourself that it is the best it can be, and release it -- and don't look back, because if you do, you will be tempted to change it.
There are times, as I described above, where you find you're unsatisfied with your work, maybe even after it's been published. This is normal, and often means that the story should be rewritten. It's not a case of perfectionism, though. If you're unsatisfied, it doesn't mean the story was imperfect, but that it might not work anymore for what you're doing -- often a case if the story is part of a series. Many books have had new editions over the course of time, and plenty of authors have rewritten their stories, or added to them, but this should be because the story doesn't serve its purpose as it is, not because you want it to be perfect.
Learn to recognize when this is.
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Rewriting is part of the writing spirit, and is an important contribution to a writer's world. In rewriting, we learn to appreciate our stories more, take the time to cultivate them, and we begin to see them for what they really are -- the good, bad, and ugly -- and in these stories, we begin to see more of ourselves.
Don't be afraid of the revision process -- revel in it. It's a unique opportunity to become closer to your work, and yourself.
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