How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Rewrite

The Pen

So, from my vantage point, I’m looking at many moons of rewrites.

Over here, we have the novel. The edits aren’t terrible, and they’re eminently doable — but it still counts as a rewrite, doesn’t it? I still have to get my hands up in those guts. I still have to get my mitts bloody.

Over there, we have the screenplay. The edits there are going to be more dramatic. Structurally, we’re sound. We’ve embraced the story world, we’ve nailed the genre, we’ve got the thrills and chills, but we’re going to reapproach it from another direction, a direction that allows us to fire on the characters in a deeper, more meaningful way. Plus, we’ve got too tangled a set of rules (the advisors at the Lab collectively gave us a raised eyebrow, a visage demanding an answer to the question, “What the fuck is going on here, again?”), and so simplification is necessary lest we cause the audience’s brain to shit itself.

Plus, the novel — if, Great Cthulhu Willing, it goes to a publisher — will get another rewrite.

The script is likely to see further rewrites, too. The Lab advisors warned us not to be scared of a phenomenon whereupon we endeavor to cram a lot of new ideas into the first rewrite, and thus that first rewrite ends up as a trough of fetid slurry, and so a second rewrite is necessary to make choices and gravitate back to center.

Plus — plus! — we’ve already written the sequel to the script, so that will need a rewrite.

And then there’s the TV show, which is in the pilot scripting stage —

And then —

And then —

Whew.

Once upon a time, this would have me quivering in my man panties. Rewrites freaked me out. Gave me the shivering shits. Now, though, I’m finding a comfort in the notion of the rewrite. I’m downright excited — giggly like a girl in pigtails — to get cracking on these changes. I feel a sea change. An internal shift.

Given that much of writing is in the rewriting, I’m happy to feel this way. It tastes of progress. And bacon. Mmm, bacon.

Anyway.

Here’s how to get there, how to boot the mind in the back and force it to kneel. (Your mind has a back? And legs with which to kneel? Man, that’s weird. You should get that looked at. By a certified mindologist or some shit.)

Banish The Bullshit

It’s easy to store up a lot of mental bullshit. Someday, I’ll offer a whole post about the unending catalog of mental static a writer builds up in his own diseased brain, but for now, it’s easy enough to say: “Writers are fucked up, sometimes.” It’s just how it is. No mental change is necessarily easy, but the way to start is to at least identify the bullshit that’s blocking you — only then can you be shut of it.

Two key pieces have blocked my acquiescence to the rewrite. I’ll list mine. You have your own? Share in comments.

First: Rewriting is admitting I can’t write. I know, what? That doesn’t even make sense. But having to rewrite almost feels like an indictment against the original work. Like you’re anthropomorphizing it, like you’re changing it’s personality, it’s goddamn DNA. It seems cruel. It seems insulting. It’s like admitting failure.

Really, it feels like “fixing.” And “fixing” sounds like it was “broken” to begin with. Except that’s a garbage metaphor. Don’t think in terms of repair. Think in terms of improvement. My sink works fine, but it’d be a lot fucking better if the faucet poured gin out of its mouth instead of water, and if it said nice things to me in the morning (“Your hair looks particularly delightful today, Admiral Wendig.” “Thank you, Sink.”). Same thing goes here. You have a draft. It’s already there. Now you’re tasked not with fixing, but improving. The painting is on the wall. You’re just straightening it.

Second: The draft is good enough. It’s easy to get comfortable with what’s there. “This doesn’t suck” is not the same as, “This can no longer be improved by my hand.” I realized this was our approach to the script, but was comforted to know that it ain’t just me. Our advisors often had the same feeling — “I got it to a place where this film can be made” isn’t the same as, “I want this to be the best it can be,” and it takes some time and contemplation to get to that point. But you need to get there. You need to wade through your own bullshit, your own feelings of inadequacy and laziness and punt this kangaroo in the face.

…uhh, no, I don’t know why you’d really want to kick a kangaroo. I can’t recommend it. They seem nice enough, and even if they’re not, I imagine a kangaroo could kick the head right off your shoulders. So, y’know what? Scratch that. Don’t go fucking with the kangas, okay? Okay.

Point is, the excuses need to go. Someone once said, “Excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure.” Me, I say, “Excuses are the steps you fall down when you’re drunk and then you fall on your keys and they dig into your balls and it hurts really bad and then you throw up on yourself and people laugh at you and think you’re a hobo and somebody pees on you and rats make a nest in your chest hair and have dozens of rat babies and now you’re a walking pee-stained rat warren, good job, jerkoff.”

I like my version. It’s more concise.

The New View

You shoveled the bullshit and cleared a path.

Now, you can see the way. The road is open.

It’s time for a new view.

I already explained that we’re talking about improving, not fixing.

To build off of that, look at your rewrite this way:

You already have the pieces. They’re on the page or they’re in your head. But they exist.

Now, it’s an arrangement of elements and a rearrangement of awesome possibilities.

Look at it this way: you make a stew, and someone might say, “The stew isn’t bad, but you use beef, and I wonder if lamb might be a more complex and rewarding flavor.” Or, alternately, “The lamb is good, but maybe it overcomplicates the dish. Go back to the fundamentals. Say hello to beef, baby.”

You can try it both ways.

That’s the great thing about rewrites. It’s not “one and done,” it’s, “as many tweaks as you care to make.”

In a video game, you’re tasked with choosing one of two directions. In most games, you go down one hallway, you’re allowed to come back and see the other. That’s all you’re doing. You’re checking out hallways. You’re taking the left path, then the right, seeing which way feels the best. You’re trying on two pairs of shoes, seeing which ones look the best. You’re sampling different wedding cakes. You’re playing with options.

Me, I love options. First thing I do when I crack open a piece of software is fuck with the options. I get a chair, I adjust it. I get a car, I mess with all the settings. I like things to work to my liking, and looking at a rewrite in the same way is liberating — moreover, it’s kind of fun. “What if Codpiece Johnson doesn’t rescue the hooker?” “What happens when Professor Stieglitz discovers that he’s the mysterious Doctor Snarlbottom?” “If I take the chapter where they blow up the oil refinery and move it after the chapter where they make sweet, sweet love in the quicksand, do I gain more narrative oomph, and what does that do for the way these two characters interact?”

Reorient your head. Find the fun in rewrites. Discover that it’s your job to unlock the potential, to tinker with the options, to rearrange the colored blocks until it makes the image you like best.

Have A Plan

You’re going to feel a lot better tackling a rewrite with a plan in mind.

Tackle a rewrite with no idea how to do it, and you’ll flounder in the mud. Your palms will slap against the wet clay. It will be embarrassing. Nobody will want to talk to you. You’ll die a virgin. A mud-covered, filth-pantsed virgin. You’ll have clay packed tight in your ass-crack. Is that what you want? No. And if it is, you should go make up your own fetish and add it to the list.

Key to having a plan is knowing what needs to be done. Someone better have proofed this thing, whether it was you or another writer or a gaggle of super-literate marmosets. But a critique, a line edit, doesn’t mean you have the automatic path. It just means you have blank spaces in the puzzle, or you have elements you know need arranging. The options from here are still limitless. This can be empowering, if you like fiddling with the options and can have a plan going in. Otherwise, it’ll be frustrating — it’ll feel like being blindfolded just before someone hands you a box full of puzzle pieces and then presses a gun to your temple.

A plan helps eliminate both gun and blindfold.

Thing is, I can’t really tell you your plan.

For the script, we know the process. Character bible plus a little research plus a new outline, and then — fresh script.

Rodrigo Garcia, writer and director of the truly incredible Mother and Child, advocates making it easy on your brain — find one big or small thing you know you need to change, and change that thing and that’s your draft. Instead of managing a billion questions, you’ve tackled only a single question and put the others aside. One step at a time, and the rewrite resolves itself.

Do you do a new outline? A treatment? Do you just dive in and start rewriting? Are you a mind map aficionado? Do you bash in the brains of your next door neighbor with a brick and feast on his gray matter to glean secret power? Hey, it’s your call. I’m just telling you that you better know your way in and way out of the rewrite. Having that will give you confidence to get through it — and, moreso, to enjoy it.

And If You Feel Hopelessly Fucked?

You’re not hopelessly fucked. No draft is hopelessly fucked until it gets printed or made into a movie — then, at that point, nothing you can do can change it. But, let’s be honest, if it gets that far, you couldn’t have been too fucked after all, right? (Transformers 2 aside.)

So, you’re looking at this thing, and you feel like sobbing into your ice cream. Now what?

Well.

First, deep breath.

Second, realize that you need to find some measure of satisfaction, if not enjoyment, in rewriting. It’s work, but it’ll be much better to tackle this work if you make peace with it, if you come to terms with the idea that the power of your project will come through in the rewrite, not the first draft. (This should also be liberating when writing a first draft. Not that you want to write a piece of shit, but in that you’re just trying to get the elements on paper and into play. The crafting of the arrangement comes later.)

Third, you might not know the problems yet. Give the draft to someone. Get their input. Talk it out. The conversation of open-ended babbling can really assist in loosing the scree and letting the ideas flow more easily.

Fourth, walk away from it. I don’t advocate this on a first draft; the first draft is about pushing through, about walking the slog, about getting out of the weeds. The rewrite can’t be done that way. You can’t push through the rearrangement of elements. Putting together a puzzle isn’t an exercise; it’s a thought process. The first draft is about finding all the pieces. The rewrite is about how you get those pieces to fit in a way you love.

Fifth, drink. Profusely. No! No, wait, that’s bad advice. Don’t drink.

Sixth, come back to it, day after day. Don’t put it off. But don’t push it, either. It’s still work, and you still have to force yourself to it, but going through these steps again may help you come to enjoy the process. That’s really what I’m trying to get, here, is for you to embrace the rewrite. From behind. With gentle caresses and tiny kisses to the nape of its neck.

Then again, maybe not.

Maybe it’s not for everybody. But trust me — the magic is in the rewrite. I get that now. I didn’t get that for a long time, but I’m into it. It’s kind of freeing, actually…