The Stages of Rewriting (for overly dramatic people)

Unsolicited Opinions / Thursday, July 19th, 2018

**This is not a useful post. This is just me whining on the internet. With that said…

I’m having kind of a rough few months with the rewriting process for my series. It’s the first time I’ve ever undertaken such a huge editing project.Mostly, it’s lovely and I’m happy and I love my series. But sometimes…it sucks.

On a bad day, this is how it feels to reewrite a novel (or three of them at the same time, God help me):

Stage One: Shock

You read your first draft for the first time, all the way through. You cannot believe that any human being’s thoughts could be so utterly jumbled as to produce a work this confusing and convoluted. It’s like a dip in a glacial lake after leaving the last tepid-bathwater months of writing your first draft. You’d been lulled into a false security and now you see clearly. For example: what’s the point of this entire chapter? you ask, fingertips on temples, forehead slowly descending to meet the table. Who is this character and why do they appear for two scenes then disappear, never to be seen again? Why is my protagonist saying that – is she actually a complete idiot with extraordinary character flaws, or is that just bad writing?

Stage Two: Despair

In answer to the preceding question: yes, this is just bad writing. You are past shock and in despair. It’s absolutely impossible to salvage a story from this wreckage. For example, you built the entire series around this one dumb plot device that you now realize makes no sense because when you describe it to people they wrinkle their foreheads. And when you read it back to yourself, now, you wrinkle your own forehead. As it descends, quicker now, towards the table. There is no hope. Trash it. Despair. You will be a sad little worm-woman forever now because no one will ever publish anything you write, ever.

Stage Three: Determination

You peel your forehead up from the table. You look at the computer screen. You realize that what you’ve written cannot possibly get worse because it’s as bad as a thing can be and the realization settles into your veins and spreads like liquid fire. The fire melts the frozen synapses in your brains and neurons start to fire. Despite the utter hopelessness of before –all the plot holes, the characterization flaws, the pacing problems — you are possessed with the idea that you can fix it all. You write and write and write. Fueled by a manic excitement, you carve chapters to bits and sew them back together, Frankenstein’s monster style. You start a whole folder called “Deleted” and fill it with needless exposition, boring descriptions, and digressions. You fix chapters that went nowhere. The book actually has a beginning, middle, and end now. You’re feeling, on the whole, pretty great about yourself and your second draft.

Stage Four: Despair, etc.

Then you read your edited draft, all the way through. This is very similar to stage 2, also despair. Except the second time, you’re not shocked. Just, like, super demoralized. This time you’re noticing different issues. Sure, the story’s more cohesive: there is a plot and a structure, though both could use some help. But what of the subtleties in character development? What of all those grand humanistic thoughts you meant to cultivate in your story? What of the heart you hoped to grow, right in the center, that would be connected by various arteries and veins to each chapter, from the first to the last? You despair of turning this from a plot into a book; from a story into a novel. Your forehead, slick from the sweat of dashed hopes and exertion, hits the table as it slides from your cramped hands.

Stage Five: Determination

Once more, a squelching sound indicates that your forehead has peeled up off the table. You push the lank, greasy hair from your eyes. The computer screen, fuzzy at first, refocuses under your gaze. It can’t get any worse, can it? This stage, by the way, is very similar to stage 3 but you are calmer now. You’ve done this before. And now (god help us all) you’re realizing you might have to do it again. You might have to sweep the ashes off this draft off again, leaving the naked new version of your novel open to critique once more. You rewrite, sentence by sentence – more careful now with the knowledge that everything imperfect will be removed in a later draft. So why write it if it will need to be unwritten? Carefully now, with a cautious and dare I say polished enthusiasm, you continue.

So that’s where I am, that’s where I’ve been.

I’ve cycled through shock, despair, and determination several times. Currently, I’m in a sort of manic determination, working through the first re-write of one of my drafts, but I know I’ll plunge into despair upon the re-read. I know the cycle will repeat itself until the books feel done and I know that could take me several more months. I know now that there will always be something to mend, something to perfect but eventually I’ll feel like my books are as complete as they can be. I’ll make it to the finished book, the end of editing.

Although the final result of a finished novel is merely theoretical to me, I’d like to encourage you if you’re currently in the utter dregs of rewriting and you’re as dramatic as I am about everything. You can do this. Just recognize that everything you’re feeling–from despair to excitement–is normal and expected. You got this. I got this. We got this.

18 Replies to “The Stages of Rewriting (for overly dramatic people)”

  1. “This is not a useful post. This is just me whining on the internet.”

    That’s the best intro to a blog post I’ve ever read.

    Don’t give up! Rewriting seems like an awfully torturous process, but you can do it! Also, did you make an outline of the basic plot structure for your series before actually starting to write? That seems like it might help to give even the first draft some structure. I like structure.

    1. I try to be as honest with my posts as I can – thank you for appreciating it!

      I like structure too, but it doesn’t like me. For this series, I had a general goal in mind, but every time I tried to outline as I was going, the characters would get their own ideas and I would have to follow their lead. This has led to me having to dramatically restructure (rewrite) during the editing process.

      I guess my problem is that I don’t get ideas and then write them; I write and THEN I get ideas from the process. Does that make sense?

      1. This is why I chose non-fiction. Fiction is rather more complex genre. My life is complicated as is, so no thanks. I tried doing fiction before and it’s too much of a hassle. I get so many ideas for novels and I even wrote the titles for them and the characters, but then I got lost in lack of motivation. So, I changed to non-fiction.

        1. I completely understand that. It can be very frustrating and difficult, especially since for me fiction-ideas seem to get more and more complicated as I go along! I’ll start out with a short story concept and all of the sudden I’m in the middle of a trilogy.

  2. Whine away and vent all you want, you’re among friends who feel exactly the same way! I’m also right in the middle of editing an MS I once laughably thought was ready enough to go out on submission. It. Was. Not. Glad to know that all of this despair is normal. Good luck with your re-writes!

    1. Thank you – and good luck to you as well! It’s really amazing to know that other writers go through these similar cycles during the rewrite process. It’s always so eye opening to read through that unedited draft…

  3. Thanks for this post. Misery loves company and all, and it’s definitely a familiar feeling to be dismayed by your own writing in the editing process. I do a lot of rewriting in my “editing” too, because it seems almost like the manuscript is a live thing; fixing one thing changes the balance in another place, and you’re trying to control it but also let it tell you where it’s going, and it’s a whole balancing act that’s never done until it’s DONE. But even in a post like this (aren’t we all just whining on the internet? lol), it’s clear you have a knack for storytelling. I enjoy how visual and engaging your language is, and when you’ve got a compelling voice, the story follows. It takes time, but it’ll get there. (Speaking from belief, not experience… yet.)

    Good luck!

    1. Thank you so much! I love you point about the draft being “live” – it’s so true. It can be semi-heartbreaking to make a change in your draft that you KNOW is necessary, but that you also know is going to create a ripple effect throughout the story which will demand MORE edits. In these cases, I always feel like the story’s in charge, and I’m just following its lead. Good luck to you as well: I, too, truly believe we’ll get there!

  4. 1) hell yeah that’s some awesome imagery. You can really picture the scene, and the subtext is rich and complex.
    2) holy crap this is the purplest prose that ever purpled. Activate Minimalism.exe pronto!
    3) holy crap this is so bland. Okay let’s add a little metaphor…

  5. Oh, it’s so hard, isn’t it? But you must keep going. One of these days, you’ll read a chapter and say, “That’s not too bad.” Then it will be another chapter and another until you have a finished book! But it is a slog, especially a series!

    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement – despite my occasional habit of whining over-dramatically, in my heart of hearts I am incredibly optimistic for a finished product. I just had one of those “that’s not too bad” moments the other day with my second book. It was only one chapter, but still incredibly cheering!

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