Showing posts with label rewriting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rewriting. Show all posts

Sunday, March 22

Rewriting Is The Essence Of Good Writing

We’ve all heard the sayings:

“Rewriting is the essence of writing,” William Zinsser 
“The best writing is rewriting,” E.B. White
“All writing is rewriting,” John Green

I agree wholeheartedly. I believe that rewriting is the essence of good writing. I also believe rewriting is a skill that, like any skill, takes time and much practice to acquire.

But I know some folks won’t agree with me, so let’s look at a few of their arguments.

Rewriting Can Strip A Story Of Soul

This can happen. Beginning writers do have the tendency to edit the soul out of their stories. I know I did.

When I first began writing, rewriting was NOT my friend. I recently dug some of my earliest stories out from the shoeboxes I’ve lovingly interred them in. I write in drafts, always have, saving versions 1 to ... well, to however high it goes. 

For my oldest stories, my beginner stories, the first draft, perhaps even the second draft, had a sort of quirky personality. A mood was communicated. Yes, the story itself needed a lot of work, but there was something there, a spark. Then I read the versions of the story that followed and saw that spark dim and finally die.

So, yes. I agree. Rewriting doesn’t necessarily make something better, sometimes it just spoils it.

How can we prevent this? I believe that this is where the craft, the techne, of writing comes in. Part of the reason writers must write regularly is so we can practice rewriting. It’s also helpful to get feedback from folks who know how to spot where we’ve gone off the rails. This is especially important in the beginning. After a while we get a feel for it; this is often called developing our distinctive voice.

So, yes, writing can strip a story of its soul, but that just means we need to write a lot and read a lot and solicit feedback from people whose opinion we respect, because that’s how one gets better. 

Rewriting Takes Time

That’s true. Rewriting does take time. A LOT of time. Time that could be spent doing other things.

And it’s true that if one wants to make a living at writing one must produce work on a schedule. If one must put out, say, a 60,000 (or greater) word book every three months then the amount of time one has for rewriting is curtailed. 

Some folks have a knack for writing strong prose and a gripping story in a staggeringly brief amount of time. It’s a skill, and my guess is they were pretty good storytellers to begin with.

In any case, yes rewriting takes time and how fast one can put a book out can determine (at least if one isn’t a New York Times Best Seller) whether one can make a living at this.

But, as I said above, learning to rewrite both well and quickly is a skill, and to hone a skill takes practice. Sometimes a LOT of practice. If you’re not there yet, don’t give up. In this case, slow and steady does win the race.

Only New Words Count

I used to believe this.

For a time I was convinced that if one wasn’t writing new words that one wasn’t writing. Rewriting and editing didn’t count. (Which isn’t to say that one doesn’t need to edit one’s work. One does.)

Harlan Ellison is famous for sitting in a bookstore and, with a crowd looking on, writing a short story in a matter of hours. (See, “Dreams With Sharp Teeth”)

Jack Kerouac wrote “On The Road” in three short weeks, a book called one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Here’s a sample:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. (Jack Kerouac, On the Road)” 

Beautiful! Some folks mock writers who can write a story in one draft by calling them typists rather than writers, but I say, “Type away!”

Lester Dent, perhaps the most famous of the pulpateers, at times wrote over 200,000 words a month and made a nice living even during the depression era. He never rewrote and editing was left to the publisher. I’ve read some of his stories, for first drafts they are amazing.

But being able to produce publishable prose on a first draft is rare and I think that, sometimes, even in those cases, taking a second pass at the material would have only improved it. (But some books, books like “On The Road,” are perfect as they are. It would be a crime to change them.)

I also think that certain stories, perhaps even certain statements, are best made from the heart in one great orgasmic rush. To rewrite them wouldn’t improve them. 

So, to sum up, these days I do wholeheartedly, believe that for the overwhelming majority of writers, both professional and amateur, rewriting is indeed the essence of good writing.

That’s it! See you next week.

Wednesday, July 3

Is Writing Rewriting? A Historical Perspective

Is Writing Rewriting? A Historical Perspective

Should Writers Rewrite?

There is a saying you've probably heard: rewriting is writing.

Some writers swear by this, for instance Elmore Leonard, Ernest Hemingway and Susan Sontag have all written passionately and convincingly on the virtue, in fact the necessity, of rewriting.

Other writers, Dean Wesley Smith prominent among them, just as passionately disagree. DWS points to writers like Harlan Ellison, writers who wrote stories in one draft, stories which have gone on to win awards. Dean himself has written a 70,000 word novel in 10 days and sold it for a tidy sum.

So, what's the deal with rewriting? Is it a writer's salvation or their bane?

I found this article by the Boston Globe absolutely fascinating: Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists.

Craig Fehrman writes:
It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.

Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature. Those authors, Sullivan writes, were the first who “revised overtly, passionately, and at many points in the lifespan of their texts.”
. . . .

What first got Sullivan thinking about revision was encountering a version of Ernest Hemingway she’d never seen before. While a first-year PhD student at Harvard, Sullivan visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and its Hemingway collection. She marveled at the famous author’s archive—his letters, his family scrapbooks, even his bullfighting materials. But one thing in particular stood out to her: the typescript of his novel “The Sun Also Rises.” It showed Hemingway changing his book dramatically from one version to the next. Monologues vanished, entire plot points disappeared, and, in the end, he arrived at the terse, mysterious novel that became part of the American literary canon. “The Hemingway style that’s so familiar to us wasn’t in the first draft,” Sullivan says. “It was a product of revision.” [emphasis mine]
. . . .

“We often assume that style comes out of nowhere ... But style is produced in revision, and revision is not something writers do naturally.”

The Cost Of Paper

Why this attitude toward revision?  For one thing, the cost of paper! CF writes:
In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. Printing was slow and messy, and in the rare case a writer got to see a proof of his work—that is, a printed sample of the text, laid out like a book—he had to travel in person to a publishing center like London.

All of these factors suggest that revision was not something that happened on the page. Indeed, during the 19th century, the Romantics made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed, flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts. “I am like the tyger (in poesy),” Lord Byron wrote in a letter. “If I miss my first spring—I go growling back to my Jungle. There is no second. I can’t correct.”

What Is Good Writing?

This, really, is the nub of the issue. What counts as good writing? CF writes that Hemingway's attitude toward rewriting was ...
"... driven in part by a new philosophy of what made good writing. The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hemingway famously described his “principle of the iceberg”: “There is seven-eighths of it under the water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.”

A Shift In Technology

But it wasn't just a change in philosophy that made rewriting more attractive, there was also an advance in technology that made paper cheaper to make. CF writes:
"An equally big part of this change, Sullivan suggests, was a shift in literary technology. In 1850, Britain was producing about 100,000 tons of paper per year; by 1903, that number had increased to 800,000 tons per year. Printers started setting type by machine, which was five times faster than setting it by hand and allowed page proofs to be easily shared and corrected. Before long, authors were guiding their books through a long and potentially fertile process: first a manuscript, then a typescript, perhaps a magazine serial, and finally a series of proofs for the book. “One thing it allowed for that revision by handwriting didn’t is massive structural transformation,” Sullivan says. “Some writers reduced their work massively, and some expanded it massively.”

Jack Kerouac: Don't Afterthink!

Of course, not everyone is a modernist. That is, not every writer believes "that careful and substantial reworking would ultimately produce the best literature".

Can Revision Be Overdone?

CF writes:
In the last 30 years ... technology has shifted again, and our ideas about writing and revising are changing along with it. Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.

“The ideal environment for revision is one where you can preserve several different versions of a text,” Sullivan says. With only one in-progress draft on a computer, we lose the cues that led the Modernists to step back from their work and to revise it. “It’s that moment of typing things up that led to the really surprising and inventive changes,” Sullivan says. “The authors came back to their text, but it seemed estranged.”

A Cautionary Note

CF ends his article on a note of caution. He mentions that many authors who teach at universities "need to look more like professors and to discuss their laborious processes ... ‘We can’t teach you how to write, but we can teach you how to revise.’ And it’s a big business.”

CF writes that revision has always come with a cost. "... revision can go too far, making something worse instead of better.”

I think John Updike may have said it best: "Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying."

All in all a balanced, fascinating article. The link again is: Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists.

Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for the link.

Photo credit: "corn in the moonlight" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, April 11

Is Writing Rewriting?

Is Writing Rewriting?

Rewriting Is Not Writing

We often hear the saying, "Writing is rewriting."

Dean Wesley Smith disagrees, he does not believe that rewriting can make a story better. Dean writes:
In the early stages you are better off just trusting your natural instincts, your natural voice, write on the creative side, and then just let it go to an editor. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
That advice may seem radical--and it's certainly not heard often--but one could argue (as Dean does) that it's really a different way of saying what Robert A. Heinlein said in his rules:
1. You must write.
2. Finish what you start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put your story on the market.
5. Keep your story on the market until it sells.

Creative Mode vs Critical Mode

Ever since I first read Dean Wesley Smith's views on rewriting, that was some time ago, one thing that didn't sit right with me was the idea that rewriting couldn't improve a story.

For instance, I remember getting feedback on one of my first novels; specifically, that the pacing in the first quarter of the book was off. It didn't take me long, a couple of hours, and I fixed the problem. I sent the book out again to my readers and they agreed it was much better.

But I think, now, I might understand what Dean's saying.

When I made those changes to my novel I was still in creative mode. Dean writes:
Creative voice is the white-hot heat you feel when creating. Sometimes, granted, it burns like an ember and it doesn’t feel so hot, other times it is a rushing fire of words. But the words always come out of the creative side of your brain. That is the key, learning how to stay completely, no matter what method you use, in the creative side of your brain.

Long-term professional writers like me can turn the creative voice on instantly. I call it a “switch on my butt.” When I sit down in front of my writing computer (different from my e-mail computer) I automatically just drop into creative mindset. It takes time to train that switch, but after millions and millions of words, it becomes automatic.

The critical side of your brain is where your English teacher lives, where that awful book by Strunk and White lives, where your workshop and all their voices lives. The critical side of your brain wants you to write safe stuff, wants it to not offend anyone or go outside of any rule. The critical side of your head thinks your own voice is dull and will always work to take it out.

No professional writer I have ever met writes quality fiction out of their critical side. No matter how many drafts they do. All drafts are done in creative voice except for the last draft of fixing mistakes found by a first reader.
My readers had shown me a place where the story wasn't communicated to my readers. So I didn't change the story, I just improved the transmission of the story.

Recently I wrote a short story, wrote it fast--it was like a creative gale was blowing through me, sandblasting the words onto paper. Afterward I gave it to my first reader and he pointed out a few things that were extraneous to the story as well as a couple of places I hadn't been clear. I took the story back, worked on it for a couple of hours, and it was done.

I have the feeling that particular story won't be universally liked--it's just not that kind of story--but it's done. I've communicated the story. If I started rewriting it the freshness of the passion I had, the passion that I think is evident in the language, would seep away.

That said, if there is a detail or two my readers would like put in, an explanation of how something came about, that sort of thing, I'm game.

I want to be clear that I'm not saying a manuscript can be sent out with incorrect spelling and bad grammar. Far from it! But I think Dean's right. We learn most from writing, not rewriting.
Question: What do you think? Does rewriting lie at the heart of the craft or does it bleed out all that is unique/creative/original?

Other articles you might like:

- PubIt! Rebranded as NOOK Press
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
- Every Buffy Needs A Xander: What Makes A Great Sidekick

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Sunday, March 31


Sometimes when a story isn't working the only thing you can do is start over from scratch.

Just typing that made me cringe!

Signs that your manuscript needs a rewrite

How can we tell if our story needs a rewrite as opposed to a re-draft?

Heather Anastasiu talks about her decision to rewrite her novel Override in her wonderful article, The Art of the Rewrite.
I recognized I’d need a rewrite when all of my beta partners, my agent, and my editor seemed less than enthusiastic about the draft. Nobody came out and said it was horrible, but there was a lot of beating around the bush about how bad it was. I think I probably scared my editor with that first draft. I imagined her in the office reading it and being like ‘why on earth did I ever buy this trilogy?’
It's difficult to judge what is wrong with my own stories so I am grateful to have critique partners and beta-readers who can be objective about my work when I can't.

What to keep in mind when doing a rewrite

The nuclear approach

One way of doing a rewrite is to open up a brand new file in your word processor and begin again from scratch.

Heather decided to go a nicer, kinder, less traumatic route.

a. Outline the book as it stands

b. Re-read sections and target the problems.

c. Brainstorm about how to fix the problem.

For instance, Heather recognized that she was having difficulty relating emotionally with her protagonist and so--naturally--her readers were as well.

d. Look at the pacing. Are our character's goals clearly spelled out?

e. At each step, ask what your protagonist wants. What motivates her. What are her worst fears?

We need to figure out what our characters want and then trow obstacles in their path to prevent them from getting it.

f. Know your weaknesses and strengths as a writer.

Heather writes:
So these are the big things to keep in mind when you do a re-write:

Take some time away from the draft. Get feedback and then try to look at it with fresh eyes. And be brutal with yourself—not the self-defeating kind of brutal, aka, ‘I suck and will never be successful at this writing thing!’ Instead, you need the productive kind of brutal, acknowledging that this is a work in progress, that all writers (both published and unpublished) are facing these same problems, and gearing yourself up to dig in to do the work that needs to be done.

What does my character want and what do they fear? Am I crafting the plot to really push these desires and fears to the forefront so I can get a full emotional arc for my characters? Your characters are what stay with a reader, not clever plots. Your character’s emotional arc is what will make readers laugh and cry.

Do I lose tension during any section of the book? Do I keep the stakes high? Usually this ties back into the first point—does the reader genuinely feel like the main character has something important to lose, that their wants and desires are challenged in some way in each chapter? Don’t be afraid to hurt your main character or take them scary places. Being a writer means being willing to gut your main characters and then kick them while they’re down. Conflict is what stories are all about.
Excellent advice!
Question: Have you ever done a complete re-write of a manuscript, starting again from scratch? Please share your wisdom!

Other articles you might like:

- Are Libraries 'Sitting Close To Satan'?
- How To Write A Great Opening For Your Story
- Creating Flawed Characters

Photo credit: "Autoportrait" by *** Fanch The System !!! *** under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.