creative writing community, craft and inspiration
A lot of my students are coming to an interesting moment in their writing. They’re nearing the end of their drafts – long, hard-earned manuscripts that they’ve been crafting for months – sometimes years. But they know they’re not finished. In fact, their first sentence when they take their turns in class is usually, “OK, this thing is a mess!”
Many don’t know what’s next, except for the vague and daunting concept of rewriting. But how exactly do you do that? Where do you start? How do you take this globular mass of inspired phlegm and turn it into a novel, non-fiction book, or memoir?
Honestly, the first step is to simply step back – to deconstruct what you’ve already accomplished. My method involves a lined notepad set beside my printed-out pages where I list, “Chapter 1: the child is born, then abandoned on the top of a mountain.” (No, that’s not my current Chapter 1, but it could be!)
As I outline my written chapters, eventually including one-line summaries of each scene, I look for a pattern of rise and fall. I examine the shape of my central plot, along with important subplots that I have (or have not) anchored early in the manuscript, and places where ideas have been neglected, changed or simply forgotten. There might be characters I used at the beginning who disappear. Sometimes I cut them completely. Sometimes I combine them into a single, more useful character.
I look for the symphonic elements of my narrative. Think Peter and the Wolf, with each voice of the orchestra taking its part. I examine my themes and characters, notice when they take the fore and when they fall back, and how they all come together for the final climax. It’s oddly rewarding work to see what you’ve accomplished, even when you realize that the whole thing lacks balance and form, and you still have a hundred ragged, dangling plot threads.
This kind of work requires high level vision. One of the greatest pitfalls is getting sucked back into the vortex of the writing itself. You do yourself no favors by rewriting your sentences or searching for yet another perfect verb. All that close attention will come again soon enough. But for now you have to forgo your attachment to your beautiful literary voice and look at the whole to see if this creature you’ve created has strong, healthy bones.
Almost inevitably, you’ve created a monster with three extra limbs, a bunch of warts, and some festering flesh sticking out somewhere – usually right in the middle. The trick is to love your monster. Don’t abandon it on the top of the mountain! Take that ill-formed mass and put a scalpel to it. See what parts belong elsewhere and what just need to be removed. It might take multiple surgeries before it takes shape, but it will.
With all my revisions, I write three or four books’ worth of discarded junk. Some of it is beautifully written but simply doesn’t belong. This is the hardest part of revision – not just fixing the bad writing, but letting go of the good.
It takes courage to realize that “killing your darlings” is a necessary part of the writer’s process. But once you’ve found the courage, take that scalpel and cut. Tuck away your beloved debris in a separate file – an honored gravesite for writing: lost but not forgotten.
Trust me, you’ll be trimming, moving, tucking and tightening for probably several more drafts. But finally you will shout, “OK. That’s it. It’s time to let go.”
The result, with any luck, will be solid, lithe and lovely.