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…

13 comments

  • Thanks for all this advice man – I had to read over it a couple of times to absorb, and I likely will hit it at least twice more. I’ve never thought about hitting rewrites with anything more than what’s already there – popping up Word and digging in. I always feel like a soldier being sent to war; one that isn’t all that keen on being there. I loathe rewriting (which is likely why I am so bad at it).

    I’m getting more tolerant, but the entire process is just agony for my (melodrama in the morning!). I’d rather listen to an nSync video marathon than sit and not only improve the story, but realize all the errors I made when I spasmed it out of my mind. I also start to realize how I am not completely over dyslexia – all the little mental tricks I do aren’t as foolproof as I assumed.

    I am getting better about my laziness though, and I hope what I write is becoming better for it. Thanks for all the words on the process – now it’s time to actually shape and form that process into something that works.

    • Again, never assume you need to engage in a rewrite alone. I mean, the *actual* rewrite is just You Versus The Manuscript, but the lead-up may best be framed in a conversation. For my novel, the changes to the first chapter initially came out of a great conversation (though the larger changes are married to the document itself, which is fine). And for the script, we really pounded the shit out of it via six different conversations with six different advisors. It really, really helped just to talk it out. Talking it out makes you think about it and vocalize your reasons. You can hear when you’re lying, when you’re bullshitting, when you’re excusing. It’s an excellent process.

      — c.

  • Yeah, that is pretty much what I do when I am forming the plot out; I talk to Maggie or call up my buddy in New Mexico and bore them to tears for an hour or so. I’ve just never used that approach to rewriting.

    I like it though. Makes me tingle. Like a little birdie. On an electric fence. Being peed on. Yeah baby. Yeah.

  • I look at it this way:

    Your draft is a hunk of meat.

    Sure, meat is tasty and fulfilling. But you need to do stuff to it first to really enjoy it. You know the difference between a hunk of meat and a well-cooked steak? That’s the difference between the first draft and the final one.

    You have to slice off the fat. Spice things up. Rub some herbs into it or let it marinade in the fridge over night. Toss it on the fire, flip it over, come close to burning the sucker. In short, you kinda have to abuse it.

    But in the end, you’ll have a product of much higher quality that more people will be interested in consuming, rather than appealing to the mad cannibals who think they gather strength by consuming the flesh of their fallen enemies.

    What was I talking about? Right, rewriting. It’s good. It’s worth doing. And it goes great with A1.

  • Perfect timing. To the point where I wonder if that’s actually my regular peeping Tom outside or you.

    I’m facing down a bunch of red lines on a page and felt pretty bleak about it. And it’s totally like your first excuse: waaah, it’s broken and if I couldn’t get it right the first time, how can I get it right the second time? Or eighth? But that’s stinkin’ thinkin’.

    I’ve just bookmarked this post to remind me to quit that shit and get to work.

    • Stoney: Kick ass.

      Josh: Also, kick ass. I’ll deviate from your metaphor a little, though, in that thinking of it as meat undoes the reversibility of the process. Once I cut the fat off the meat, the fat is gone. Once I cook the meat, it’s cooked. By thinking of instead as an evolving recipe — that can be changed on the fly — you have a dynamic push-and-pull. You can go back and play with the recipe, introducing new ingredients or reintroducing old ingredients you removed. You may make a tiny change (“needs salt”) or a big change (“forget the cream sauce; let’s see what it tastes like when marinated in the blood of the infidels!”).

      Of course, YMMV, and all metaphors are inherently false, as they are, well, metaphors. :)

      — c.

  • Great post!
    I love edits. At least they feel 10 times easier to me than a first draft. First draft is an utter relief to get to the end. Not that I do not enjoy the voyage, but so much work! I always look at edits as so much easier. All the real hard work of general plot, characters, setting, etc are already done! Now I just have to tweak! Though sometimes having a plan, or knowing what exactly needs fixing can be problematic.

    And like you said, options can be beautiful things. There’s been more than one short story that bugged the heck out of me till the light went off and I realized a change of POV was what it needed. And voila! Story improved by tons!

    Thinking of each edit/reqrite as an improvement is totally the way to go!

  • Great stuff in here. I love rewriting. I think I’m pretty good at it, too. It’s getting the material out into existence in the first place — and finding people with whom to have the rewriting conversation — that’s hard for me.

  • Great post! I love editing and reworking a story. It is always the first draft that gives me fits. Once the story is actually down on paper, I love getting the chance to look at it from all angles and tear it apart. Options are a wonderful thing and should always be considered. As a stage performer, I loved the fact you continued to play with the show until the closing performance to see if different choices bring something new and better to the story. I view writing the same way…nothing is set in stone until the final curtain comes down and the book is on the shelves.

    • It’s interesting how different many writers are from one another, and how unique their habits.

      I’m pretty comfy with first drafts. I can bang out a draft with no fear, and I can do so swiftly — but it’s the revision process that used to have me trembling like an anemic schoolgirl standing knee-deep in snow.

      In other news, the novel edit is off to the races and in the hands of Uber-Agent Decker!

      — c.

  • As a potentially interesting note that is surprisingly apropos, I read a couple stories that the big problem with Transformers 2 is that it *didn’t* get any rewrites. The writing team got stalled out by the strike, and Bay wouldn’t adjust his shooting schedule to compensate. Apparently some of the scenes were literally written the same day they were shot.

    Next time you think you don’t need a rewrite, look at what happens when even the pros try to get by without one…

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