Ya’ll familiar with Theseus’s Paradox?
Quick philosophical set-up: Theseus was all about adventuring on his great wooden ship, right? Well, after he dies, the Athenians keep the ship as an homage. As the years go by, it begins to rot. The people of Athens replace each piece of rotten wood with a fresh plank until not a single piece of the original wood remains.
Is it still Theseus’s ship?
This is my awkward segue into a horrible admission that I have had difficulty blogging about. It’s finally time to share, just in case any of you have been in a similar position.
The first draft of the third book in my series was so bad that I had to literally rewrite it.
The. Entire. Thing.
Though I’ve overshared about the stages of rewriting in various forms, this is the first time I found a draft to be completely unusable. And it was especially demoralizing because, as the third book in the series, I thought it would have reflected better writing since I’d had more experience by then.
No such luck.
You should have seen me reading this thing through for the first time. Picture heavy black eyeliner, nails bit down to nubbins, disappointment, despair, despondency.
I took every single piece of wood out of that moldy old shipwreck. Maybe there’s a few paragraphs left of the draft, a forgotten plank in the corner of the hull, but in time those will probably be replaced as well.
During my rewrite, I’ve changed the entire plotline. Added characters. Subtracted characters. Killed some off that I hadn’t originally; saved some that I’d thought were doomed.
Did I say I was replacing planks? This weepy writer wasn’t just replacing the wood. She was heading out to the forest with a chainsaw and gathering the fucking lumber for the planks. It was hard. Or I should say, hard in writer terms. (The other day, I mentioned that writing is hard to my brother, who’s an ER doctor and he didn’t say anything mean but he did raise his eyebrows sort of high which is when I realized sure, okay, maybe typing on my keyboard while drinking various teas is different and perhaps less difficult than working 24-hr shifts saving other human being’s lives or whatever.)
Okay, back to me. The worst part of this GRUELING PROCESS?
This complete rewrite came on the heels of a previous frustration. Like, I didn’t start this project with a spring in my step and a song in my heart; I’d just abandoned edits on my second book because I was losing perspective, so I already had this sort of desperation about my series in general. So reading through the first draft of the third book and seeing how much work it needed really bummed me out.
But I started a document and entitled it Book 3 Rewrite and here we are, a few months later.
Am I coming at you triumphantly, with a beautiful completed second draft? No, it takes time to rewrite an entire book. I’m about 4/5 of the way through, and I just realized that I have to AGAIN go back and rewrite some of the earlier chapters in order for the last act of my novel to make any sense.
It’s been distressing, but throughout the process I’ve been practicing “positivity,” and placating myself with the following, which I share in case you ever find yourself in a similar position:
It’s still your ship, dammit.
I solved Theseus’s Paradox, at least on a personal level. Despite all the changes, it’s still the same book. My book.
Part of my personal Greek tragedy about rewriting this book was that I was attached to it, shitty as it was. I didn’t want to take it apart piece by piece. I sort of loved it, bad as it was. Maybe, just maybe, I should let it stay and molder instead?
No. Because even if you completely replace your first draft with your second, and your second with your third, it is still your book. You know what you were trying to capture with your work, the feelings and meaning you wanted to convey. It’s still yours, and making it better bit by bit isn’t a dishonor to your original vision.
You are not alone
We are not all Stephen King, who writes like three drafts then taps the pages of his manuscript with a magic wand. And produces a bestseller. Many writers have to scrap the entire first draft and basically start from scratch. I always take some comfort from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, where she says,
“In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
So there you go, even famous well-regarded writers write shitty first drafts. And I guarantee that in any given coffee shop in America right now, there types a despondent author wondering if this time, just maybe, she’s writing the draft that will stick. (This, incidentally, is where reading other people’s blogs has been a Godsend to me. Bless all of your hearts for being so open and honest about your travails.)
You did not waste your time
Oh, I did struggle with this thought a few months ago, when I realized that virtually everything in my draft had to be dismantled. Patiently and methodically like when you take the Christmas lights down at the end of January and they’re all sad and blink-y and you’re sad, too, because it’s January and Christmas is over for good and you have to start a whole new dumb year all over again.
It can feel like you wasted your time. Like all that time you spent trying to navigate eating an apple while typing on your lunch break (leaving only a sweetly sticky keyboard as evidence of your trials) is for NOTHING. It can even bring all those writing guilt feelings to bear, like maybe instead of locking yourself inside your fortress (in my case, 1 bedroom apartment) of solitude you could have, I don’t know, hung out with other people or made some money?
If you find that you’re reproaching yourself for spending so much time on something that failed, I recommend reminding yourself that you’re an intfintesimal speck of nothingness in the cold vastness of the universe and nothing you do matters anyway.
It really puts things in perspective
Take it day by day
If you re-read your first draft and you start to hear a long, low funereal dirge inside your skull, chill. It’s not that big of a deal. You know what you have to do. Just lay out the pieces, day by day. Try to keep yourself on schedule with the rewrite, but feel empowered to step back when you need to. You book will be written.
If you’re in the same position as I am, then I genuinely feel for you. I know what it’s like. If you ever need to commiserate, please get in touch.
Conversely, if you’re writing your first draft and everything is going swimmingly and you think it’ll hardly need any edits at all, well…we probably can’t be friends.