On Rewriting

I used to hate rewriting.

As any writer knows, it’s not over when you write, THE END. It’s a glorious moment, to be sure, and one to be savoured—but what it usually means is that you’ve completed the first draft and will soon be getting to grips with the dreaded rewrite.

Writers come in all kinds. There are those of the down-and-dirty first draft persuasion whose prose floods onto the page so fast they can barely keep up. I know authors whose early drafts don’t even come with punctuation, with hash signs or XXX marks peppering every page as placeholders for a word they can’t think of in the instant. I admire these people for the sheer energy and momentum of their attack—they can often get 4,000, 5,000, or even more words on the page in a day, but I don’t envy them the task of rewriting—it’s going to be even more work than the first draft! That said, it’s easier to strip down and rework rough writing than prose that’s almost good enough to publish already.

Which would be the way my first drafts tend to be. I manage around 1,500 words on a good day. Not a lot: I think and compose in the process, and don’t plot ahead. But the prose is clean. The upside of my method is that I don’t have to do a great deal of rewriting; the downside is that teardowns in which large structural changes need to be made and entire scenes or chapters recrafted are more painful, since it’s hard not to be somewhat invested in prose that already has  a good shine on it.

Today, as I approach the end of the rewrite on my new suspense novel (working title: Black Easter), I’ve come to look forward to and even enjoy the process of rewriting.

Why? Because it’s where the magic happens.

This novel was, for various reasons, the devil to write—and given that it concerns itself closely with Hell, (and no, not your usual Hell, as I have a whole new and twisted demonology for the reader), this is probably appropriate.

The rewrite began no easier, and at first I struggled to engage the correct gears. Stephen King compares writing a novel to rowing across the Atlantic in a bathtub: you’re alone, and most of the time you’re out of sight of land. It’s dark, and there are storms. Fear and self-doubt pluck and worry at you constantly. As is so often the case with writers, especially novelists, despair is never far away. You know you suck, and pretty soon the whole world will know it, too. Maybe you should just bury the manuscript and take up origami.

And then, at the darkest hour, magic happens. A character suddenly reveals the motive for which they said something, took some action, or made a key decision. You see a connection between two story events that casts an entirely new light on a pivotal plot point. You understand why you wrote a particular scene that seemed to have no immediate meaning at the time. You realize that you have two characters transposed, that one should be doing this particular action, not the other. Your characters that looked like stick figures suddenly take on form and solidity.

Before long, the entire work which felt like a pile of dry, lifeless bones just yesterday has come to life in your hands. Tendons and muscles appear from nowhere, and the loose collection of bones tautens and snaps into an ordered skeleton. Flesh begins to cover it, it acquires a face; and pretty soon your formerly dead creation is breathing and moving and talking. Despair turns to elation, defeat to victory.

What’s happened of course is that your muse has delivered the goods. By just keeping at it and showing up at the keyboard, your subconscious mind (and that is the muse, the place where the magic happens) has had the time and been served sufficient material that it’s now delivering the output to you in the form of insights, explanations, connections.

I believe that most writers—except perhaps those who indulge in very detailed outlining and plotting in advance, to the point where their process is more mechanical than organic—rely largely on the subconscious to do the heavy lifting. When I write my first draft, I have an idea of where my plot may go, and often extensive notes on my characters, but I really can’t see very far or deeply. Characters will do things I don’t quite understand at the time, and the plot will take odd turns I couldn’t have foreseen. This doesn’t mean I have no control: I do hold the reins, but loosely; and on the whole, I find I hardly ever need to tighten them and rein in the team—they seem to know where they’re going better than I do. Somehow I get to the end.

My point here is that what’s happening is an information upload from the writer’s subconscious to their conscious mind. I believe that in the first draft the conscious mind is putting down on paper a somewhat garbled version of the narrative that the subconscious, the muse, actually has worked out in great detail (this correlates nicely with the “found object” school of plotting). In the rewrite, the muse looks over what the conscious has put down on the page, laughing in some places and frowning in others. It then goes off to have lunch.

After a little more time in which you might find yourself spinning your wheels and considering those origami classes again, the subconscious returns from lunch and starts really delivering the goods. Suddenly you’re energized. You slap yourself upside the head and wonder how you could have been so an ass to not see this, and get that so wrong. You make the connections, your fingers fly on the keyboard. The magic is happening.

And those rewrites I once feared are something I’ve begun to look forward to.


How do you feel about rewrites? Have you experienced this same magic?








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11 responses to “On Rewriting

  1. Terry Pratchett said he wanted something hooked up to his heart, so that at his moment it stopped beating, his hard drive would be erased. That way, we wouldn’t be able to read anything he hadn’t finished rewriting.

    You explained why, perfectly. That’s where the magic happens.

    When I finish writing a first draft, is it flawed? Is that a stupid question?

    And yet, it’s great because I know the book works. That frees me to just relax, to engage myself fully into each scene. Vipassana writing, being fully in the moment. It’s beautiful.

    I definitely spend more time on the rewrite than on the first draft. But fortunately, I love rewriting.

  2. morgynstarz

    Um, no biggie. Add a Twitter link? Off to share.

    • Hi Morgyn ~

      And thanks so much for both comment and share 🙂 There is a Twitter link in the l/h sidebar but it kinda gets lost. I’ll see what I can do to improve!


  3. Pingback: 5 Interesting Links for 08-07-2015 | Tales to Tide You Over

  4. An interesting perspective on rewrites for sure. I’ve become over the years what I term an organized organic because what you describe as your first draft in term of writing the skeleton for the subconscious to play with is what I use my outline for. It’s a very rough first draft compartmentalized into something easily sortable because sometimes it comes to me out of order and I want to shift it into chronological (or better for tension) order before I start writing and end up with a mess. However, the blurbs are narrative summary (sometimes with dialog) and do reveal some of those connections.

    Then, while writing the first draft, I work as you do, crafting the sentences and waiting for something to sound right before I can move on. I’ve learned pushing through can lead to being blocked because I failed to see what my muse was trying to lay out so it balks at going forward.

    I’m coming to appreciate rewriting a little more in the past few years, in part because it’s fun to find those seeds that my muse buried and understand how they function.

    Of course I’ve had a new innovation in the draft I’m writing now. I saw the seed as I wrote it, but I do not understand what role it will play as of yet.

    • Hi Margaret! Nice to see you here, and thank you so much for commenting 🙂

      I love your term, “organized organic”. I don’t find scenes coming to me out of order so much as myself questioning the order for precisely the reasons you state…but I find more and more that my first instincts were mostly correct on that score. In the current work, I think I only moved maybe two scenelets out of perhaps a hundred. Since the WiP has two main storylines and groups of characters–one set in the 1930s and 1940s and one in present day–who collide about 3/5 of the way into the novel, ordering scenes for tension and pacing could have been a major challenge. Fortunately, they seem to have come to me in the correct order….besides which, I think modern readers, accustomed to contemporary movies which can be *extremely* convoluted in their timelines/sequencing, are pretty adept at figuring it out. So I think as writers we have more freedom than ever in that regard.

      I’ve learned pushing through can lead to being blocked because I failed to see what my muse was trying to lay out so it balks at going forward.

      Yes, yes, yes! A block is usually IMO at core failure to have really penetrated character(s). That, or subplots/minor characters getting out of hand…and the wise muse, as you put it so well, balks.

      Thanks for sharing: it’s fascinating stuff!


      • I’ve snagged the link for my Friday interesting links because it’s so rare to find someone who thinks and composes like I do :). As far as the out of order, that’s not exactly how it works for me. Some do come randomly, but often it’s the key scenes that jump ahead in the timeline and then I have to trace the characters’ steps to discover how they got from there to here. If I wait to write the notes on that later scene, I may forget a critical nuance that otherwise will have to be built in during the rewrite. My characters aren’t so patient as to tell me the answer five times because I was too “busy” to write it down the first time.

      • Margaret, apologies for replying late, and thank you 🙂 Yes, it does seem we have a similar process. I think taking those notes when the juice is flowing is really important, and a good habit to get into. I too often rely on fallible memory, and it’s precisely as you say–the nuances fade and you may never get them back. I really need to start carrying a notebook with me at all times (I don’t) because you never know when the muse is going to deliver. But I do find that with daily writing at the same time and same place, the uploads come more regularly and predictably 🙂


      • If you have an android smart phone, NoteEverything is a good, flexible app for taking quick notes via keyboard, handwriting, or audio. Then you forward it to your email so it’s there when you get home :).

  5. This was a timely blog. Writing is difficult and your blog validates my thoughts on the subject.

    When I see in the news all the problems in Greece I think of you and your wife. I wish your would write a book about the financial things going and the impact on local people.

    Keep writing,
    Sheila Hanson

    • Thank you so much for the kind words, Sheila, and so glad this post resonated for you. And, poor Greece, poor Greeks. My heart utterly goes out to them. They’re in a no-win situation. It’s not going to be pretty, and the ECB and the Germans should bite the bullet and forgive most or all of the debt. That’s unlikely to happen. It’s a mess.

      Though I’m not in Greece, I imagine those on the islands have it easier than those in Athens. Most families on islands own some land, and can grow things at the least. In Athens, not so good. But the strength of the Greek family unit will, I hope, carry them through.


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