Most of us know the saying (or some version of it) that writing is rewriting. First drafts are supposed to suck–they are a thing you have to white-knuckle your way through, like middle school and dentist appointments and family holiday dinners. Just get to the end, don’t look back, you can’t fix a blank page, etc. When you think about it, it’s kind of strange–there aren’t many other jobs where you not only do bad work the first time around, but you’re actually expected to.
I don’t even know if this is an accepted rule for other types of art. Do painters always have to go back over their paintings? Do photographers take twenty bad pictures before they start taking good ones every time they point their camera? Do sculptors always throw out their first try?
In most things, you get to a level of competence where you’re good the first time around. You don’t have to fix the thing every time you do it because you have achieved expert status; mistakes are for beginners. You get comfortable, and while new challenges might arise, you feel secure in your ability to meet them.
From what I’ve read and heard, most writers–whether they are debuts at work on their second novel or bestselling authors a dozen times over–rarely feel 100% capable of the work before them. The first draft is always hard. The thing you get better at, supposedly, is the part after the first draft: revisions. Not only can you separate the bad from those few, shiny bits of good, but you also know how to take those lumps of bad and make them into diamonds. You cut with exact precision, murdering your darlings with the finesse of a seasoned, contract killer. You move the pieces around with ease, because you’ve seen the picture on the top of the puzzle box–you know what it’s supposed to look like in the end.
That’s what I like to believe, anyway.
I’ve only been writing seriously for a few years, and I can already tell this is not something I will ever get right, really right, the first time around. The project I’m working on now, I’ve been writing for roughly three years, and I’ve rewritten it two and a half times. And I’m hoping this isn’t the norm, but as I haven’t written another book all the way through, I won’t know until I do.
Part of the problem is that I started writing this book before I was actually capable of writing it, and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. I’ve discovered that I should probably spend more time with an idea–a year at the very least–before I can settle down with it. And I also think that my process looks a lot like this thread Laini Taylor wrote a while back.
I can’t write a book sight unseen. I have to get in there and stumble around, and feel the weight of things, and live in the space for awhile. I have to write my way to the right way. And sometimes that means writing it the wrong way several times over.
So, how do you rewrite an entire book?
On the one hand, you have to tear it to shreds and burn the pieces, and then give those pieces to the ocean. You can’t be precious about your writing in revisions, and you have to be extra brutal when rewriting. This was something I struggled with: I held on to some things too tightly for too long. I was stubborn about not having to start from scratch, which only meant that I wrote hundreds of thousands of wrong words, and eventually had to start from scratch anyway. In many ways, you have to completely obliviate the first (or tenth) draft from your mind in order to go forward.
That being said, you also can’t totally obliviate the previous draft from your mind. It’s the whole, you can’t fully know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been, thing. Humans are creatures of habit, and we will make the same mistakes over and over again in a thousand different ways. You have to look at that previous draft, painful as it is, and see what is wrong and why it’s wrong to have any chance of getting it right.
Also, even if almost everything is wrong, there could be a few right things in there somewhere. The first act might not be so terrible, or maybe that one scene still works, or those bits of dialogue are kind of perfect; and while you can’t reuse them, wholesale, you can recreate them.
This conflict–having to both let go of the previous draft but also keep it in sight–means your best bet is to plan. As much or as little as fits your creative process, but have some kind of map. Know as much as you possibly can before starting. Have a solid idea of what the picture on top of the puzzle box looks like, so you know what you’re moving towards. You could try writing out of order, or entirely by hand–changing things up might help you separate this version from the last one.
[Side note: don’t try to talk about any of this when family members and/or friends ask you how the book is going. Say, “It’s fine,” and change the subject. Or pull a Jason Mendoza, and throw a Molotov cocktail. Whatever you have to do to not talk about it. Go to that one amazing critique partner, or understanding friend, and tell them how the thing you spent a year writing is all wrong and you’re completely starting over, and that any and all forms of chocolate will be gratefully accepted, and that’s it. I have found that trying to explain why you’re rewriting an entire book to a non-writer never ends well, and will probably only increase your anxiety.]
Basically, rewriting an entire book is messy. No matter how organized your plan of attack, no matter how many color-coded notecards you make (which is a great thing to do, and you should definitely read Susan Dennard’s revision guide for the best way to do it), it’s going to be messy. Because you’ve still got these previous versions of the story rolling around in your head while you try to give shape and weight to the right version. Sometimes it feels like you’re pushing the same stone up a new hill–or maybe it’s the same hill with a new stone? Regardless, you feel like you’re doing the same thing, albeit differently, all over again.
You’re going to want to quit. You’re going to want to start that shiny new idea, which you will definitely get right the first time, because look at it, it’s so pretty! And honestly, sometimes that is the right call. To put the thing that just isn’t working away, and take all you’ve learned and work on something brand new. That’s a hard decision to make, and it’s case-by-case. But either way, know that you will still be pushing that stone up that hill. It’s kind of what we signed up for re: writing. Every book you start, you start from the bottom, and all you can do is believe you’ll reach the top.
Which, I guess, is the key thing–that I am still learning–when it comes to writing, first draft or twentieth: faith. Faith in yourself as a writer. Faith in the story you are telling. Faith in the readers who will one day fall in love with this dumb stone you sweated and bled and cried all over.
There will be plenty of doubt when you hit send, to critique partners or agents or editors, and from what I hear, most definitely when you hit send for the last time and the book is headed to the printers. But while you write, the only thing is to believe you can. Believe in this wild, infuriating thing you are doing because you love it, and you can’t imagine not doing it.
And when you do reach the end–because you will–know that it doesn’t have to be perfect. No matter how many times you revise on your own, I can almost guarantee that you will revise again with an agent, and again with an editor, at least once, if not more. “Writing is rewriting” isn’t a secret, it’s a known fact, and no one is expecting perfection.
So, start pushing that stone up that hill again–I’ll be doing the same thing at the hill next to yours. See you at the top.