February 19, 2004

no rewrite?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine finished the first draft of her first novel. ďYay,Ē I said, expecting to read it and give notes for the inevitable first rewrite. But no. Instead, after a cursory run-through for line tweaks, off the manuscript went in a box to New York and her agent connection there. Iím sad for my friend. Also frustrated and even angry. She just shot herself in the foot. The book isnít ready. Not nearly. And you rarely get second chances with this. Sending the novel off before itís ready is self-sabotage.

This made it hard for me to read something John Scalzi wrote in his blog the other day. Heís just finished his third novel. Which is a fantastic accomplishment, and it sounds like a fun book, too. And I enjoyed his post-mortem entry on it. But he says in the comments to the entry that heís going to send the manuscript off to his publisher in the next few days after just a cursory proofread. He says,

I rewrite only very rarely, mostly because I tend to resolve most of my writing issues during the initial writing. In some sense I think "re-writing" is an artifact of the days of typewriters, when it wasn't easy or practical to rework material on the fly. With computers, it's much simpler to makes changes as you go along.

Now, I have tremendous respect for John Scalzi as an essayist and I suspect he does know how to tell a story. But I strongly disagree with this assertion. This method may very well work for him, heís got the chops and experience to potentially pull it off. And I havenít read the novel, so I obviously canít comment on the particulars. But it scares me to think of some writer out there taking his opinion to heart, someone like my friend, looking for validation and an outside justification to avoid the work that needs doing. The world already has too many bad, unedited novels.

I admit that Iím coming from a very different position and background on this. Scalzi has been a nonfiction writer for a long time, short pieces evolving into longer works, but everything with a distinct and clear format. Iím sure itís quite possible to turn in a polished first draft of a nonfiction book. On the other hand, Iíve been writing screenplays, which demand extreme tightness in the writing as well as a streamlined plot, since the scripts are often nothing but plot. Every beat has to count in multiple ways. Itís like a sonnet, except with more rules. Those puppies need to be massaged every which way. Lots of rewriting unless you get incredibly lucky with the first draft and everything magically falls into place. This can happen but itís rare as hell. Ten drafts are more the rule than the exception, and thatís before you even send the thing to your agent for a look-see. So naturally I expect to go through multiple drafts of a novel.

I think itís facile to say that you can catch errors as you move forward, therefore youíre rewriting on the fly. Yes, to some extent you can, but that doesnít account for larger pacing issues Ė the first half of story sags while the second half has uneven leaps, that kind of thing. Or unexpected character development. Your main character is leaving her job and her kids to sail around the world? How did she come to that conclusion? Set that up sooner, seed it through the earlier chapters. Uneven character development can trip you up too; if you read through your novel after youíre done, you may realize that a character acts one way and then switches tone with no explanation.

And frankly, thatís all small stuff. The larger issues are often about clarifying what youíre trying to say and making sure the climax is satisfying because of everything youíve set up going into it emotionally as well as plot-wise. Or maybe it involves restructuring the story, shifting chapters around, rebalancing. Stuff you simply canít do mid-flow because it doesnít yet exist in toto.

I also think thereís a danger in writing your first draft with too close an eye on the editing. It can make you write tight and not in a good way. Tight as in overly controlled. Tight as in leaving little room for invention, for freeform world and character building, for wild attacks of the muse that may or may not fit the parameters of what youíre creating but if you let them in, they may inform and enrich the work and after all you can always decide later how they fit. If, that is, you allow yourself a later. If you do a proper rewrite. I say this as one who has made this mistake, by the way. I've written too tight, too carefully, and it's bitten me in the ass.

Some people think what Iím saying only applies to mainstream, literary fiction. But Iíve picked up an awful lot of genre fiction over the years. Mystery and romance but mostly SF and fantasy. A tremendous percentage of it is badly written. Maybe that could be fixed only with intensive applications of writing seminars and sleep-deprivation brainwashing tactics. Or maybe the authors just canít write. But I think more often the culprit is sloppy editing. Sloppy self-editing, to be exact. A writer, looking at deadlines, wanting that next installment of the advance, decides sheís done and sends the manuscript off without the rethinking that would turn something mildly readable into a memorable work. In trying to avoid wasting her own time with a so-called unneeded rewrite, she ends up wasting mine as a reader. These days Iíll just put the book down and walk away if the writing is slipshod. With more time and editing, maybe the author could have hooked another new reader, maybe risen above the dreaded midlist limbo of small first runs and quick trips to the remainder tables. (Or in the case of my friend, maybe gotten her work published for very the first time.)

Having said all that, Iím about to contradict myself. Because my basic policy is to rewrite until I and my trusted cadre of three readers think the thing is ready. With most of my short stories, thatís meant a fair amount of massaging and even some rethinking. With the last story, it just meant lopping off the first half of the narrative and tweaking lines to make them sing. It was ready to send off within a week after I finished the first draft. Of course, it was also thirteen pages long. My novel wonít be ready that quickly. Iím sure of it. Even though my cadre likes the novel a lot and seems to have fewer notes as I go deeper into it, none of us will know (myself included) until we read the entire work in one go.

The larger issue, Iím realizing, is knowing when somethingís done. Iíve met writers who tinker until the work is massively overwritten, well past done, and theyíre past making it better, now theyíre just making a bigger mess. So yes, they exist too. But they donít generally get published or produced, maybe because they canít let go of the pages. The trick is knowing exactly how much to do, no less and no more. Thatís the art and the mystery of it.

Posted by Tamar at February 19, 2004 09:35 PM