25 Things You Should Know About Revising And Rewriting
Previous iterations of the “25 Things” series:
1. Forging The Sword
The first draft is basically just you flailing around and throwing up. All subsequent drafts are you taking that throw-up and molding it into shape. Except, ew, that’s gross. Hm. Okay. Let’s pretend you’re the Greek God Hephaestus, then. You throw up a lump of hot iron, and that’s your first draft. The rewrites are when you forge that regurgitated iron into a sword that will slay your enemies. Did Hephaestus puke up metal? He probably did. Greek myths are weird.
2. Sometimes, To Fix Something, You Have To Break It More
Pipe breaks. Water damage. Carpet, pad, floor, ceiling on the other side, furniture. You can’t fix that with duct tape and good wishes. Can’t just repair the pipe. You have to get in there. Tear shit out. Demolish. Obliterate. Replace. Your story is like that. Sometimes you find something that’s broken through and through: a cancer. And a cancer needs to be cut out. New flesh grown over excised tissue.
3. It’s Cruel To Be Kind
You will do more damage to your work by being merciful. Go in cold. Emotionless. Scissors in one hand, silenced pistol in the other. The manuscript is not human. You are free to torture it wantonly until it yields what you require. You’d be amazed at how satisfying it is when you break a manuscript and force it to kneel.
4. The Aspiration Of Reinvention
I’m not saying this needs to be the case, and it sounds horrible now, but just wait: if your final draft looks nothing like your first draft, for some bizarre-o fucking reason you feel really accomplished. It’s the same way I look at myself now and I’m all like, “Hey, awesome, I’m not a baby anymore.” I mean, except for the diaper. What? It’s convenient. Don’t judge me, Internet. Even though that’s all you know. *sob*
5. Palate Cleanser
Take time away from the manuscript before you go at it all tooth-and-claw. You need time. You need to wash that man right out of your hair. Right now, you either love it too much or hate its every fiber. You’re viewing it as the writer. You need to view it as a reader, as a distant third-party editor flying in from out of town and who damn well don’t give a fuck. From subjective to objective. Take a month if you can afford it. Or write something else: even a short story will serve as a dollop of sorbet on your brain-tongue to cleanse the mind-palate. Anything to shift perspective from “writer” to “reader.”
6. The Bugfuck Contingency
You’ll know if it’s not time to edit. Here’s a sign: you go to tackle the edit and it feels like your head and heart are filled with bees. You don’t know where to start. You’re thinking of either just walking away forever or planting a narrative suitcase bomb in the middle of the story and blowing it all to H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks. That means you’re not ready. You’re too bugfuck to go forward. Ease off the throttle, hoss. Come back another time, another way. Cool down.
7. The Proper Mindset
Editing, revising, rewriting requires a certain mindset. That mindset is, “I am excited to destroy the enemy that resists good fiction, I am ready to fix all the shit that I broke, I am eager to shave off barnacles and burn off fat and add layers of laser-proof steel and get this motherfucker in fit fighting shape so that no other story may stand before it.” You gotta be hungry to fuck up your own work in the name of good storytelling.
8. Go In With A Plan Or Drown In Darkness
You write your first draft however you want. Outline, no outline, finger-painted on the back of a Waffle House placemat in your own feces, I don’t care. But you go to attack a rewrite without a plan in mind, you might as well be a chimpanzee humping a football helmet. How do you know what to fix if you haven’t identified what’s broken? This isn’t time for intuition. Have notes. Put a plan in place. Surgical strike.
9. Don’t Rewrite In A Vacuum
You write the first draft in isolation. Just you, your keyboard, a story, some industrial lubricant and a handgun. All other drafts are part of a team initiative. SWAT, kicking in windows, identifying perps. Beta readers, editors, agents, wives, friends, itinerant strangers, hostages, whatever. Get someone to read your nonsense. Get notes. Attend to those notes. Third parties will see things you do not.
10. Embrace The Intervention Of Notes
You get notes, it’s tough. It’s like coming home and being surrounded by friends and family, and they want you to sit down and listen as they talk about getting you unfettered from your addiction to obscure 80s hair-bands and foul Lithuanian pornography. But listen to those notes. They may be hard but they’re both instructive and constructive. They are a dear favor, so do not waste them.
11. But Also, Check Your Gut
When someone says “follow your gut,” it’s because your intestinal tract is home to an infinite multitude of hyper-intelligent bacterial flora. It knows what’s up if you can tune to its gurgling frequency. You get notes and they don’t feel exactly right, check the gut. Here’s the thing, though. Notes, even when you don’t agree, usually point out something about your manuscript. It may highlight a flaw or a gap. But it can also be instructive in the sense that, each note is a test, and if you come up more resolute about some part of your manuscript, that’s okay, too. Two opinions enter, one opinion leaves. Welcome to Chunderdome.
12. When In Doubt, Hire An Editor
Editors do not exist to hurt you. They exist to hurt your manuscript. In the best way possible. They are the arbiters of the toughest, smartest love. A good editor shall set you — and the work — free.
13, Multitasking Is For Assholes
It is the mark of the modern man if he can do multiple things at once. He can do a Powerpoint presentation and mix a martini and train a cat to quilt the Confederate Flag all at the same time. Your story will not benefit from this. Further, it’s not a “one shot and I’m done” approach. This isn’t the Death Star, and you’re not trying to penetrate an Imperial shaft with one blast from your Force-driven proton penis. You have to approach a rewrite in layers and passes. Fix one thing at a time. Make a dialogue pass. A description pass. A plot run. You don’t just fix it with one pull of the trigger, nor can you do ten things at once. Calm down. Here, eat these quaaludes. I’m just kidding, nobody has ‘ludes anymore.
14. Not Always About What’s On The Page
Story lives beyond margins. It’s in context and theme and mood — incalculable and uncertain data. But these vapors, these ghosts, must line up with the rest, and the rest must line up with them.
15. Content, Context, Then Copy
Behind, then, the layer cake of editing. Start with content: character, plot, description, dialogue. Move to context: those vapors and ghosts I just told you about. Final nail in the revision coffin is copy: spelling, grammar, all those fiddly bits, the skin tags and hangnails and ingrown hairs. Do these last so you don’t have to keep sweeping up after yourself.
16. Evolution Begins As Devolution
Two steps forward, one step backward where you fall down the steps and void your bowels in front of company. Here is a common, though not universal, issue: you write a draft, you identify changes, and you choose a direction to jump — and the next draft embodies that direction. And it’s the wrong direction. Second draft is worse than the first draft. That’s fine. It’s a good thing. Definition through negative space. Now you can understand your choices more clearly. Now you know what not to do and can defend that.
17. Two Words: Track Revisions
You know how when there’s a murder they need to recreate the timeline? 10:30AM, murderer stopped off for a pudding cup, 10:45AM, victim took a shit in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese, etc? Right. Track the timeline of your revisions. Keep a record of them all. First, if your Word processor allows you to track changes and revisions, do that. If your program doesn’t (Word and Final Draft both do), then get one that does. Second, any time you make a revision change, mark the revision, save a new file every time. I don’t care if you have 152 files by the end of it. You’ll be happy if you need to go back.
18. Fuck Yeah, Spreadsheets
Spreadsheets seem anathema to writing, because writing is “creative.” Well, rewriting is clinical and strategic. A spreadsheet can help you track story beats, theme, mood, characters, plot points, quirks and foibles, conflicts, and so on. Any narrative component can be tracked by spreadsheet. Here’s one way: track narrative data per page or word count. “Oh, this character drops off the map for these 10 pages of my script.” “This plot needs a middle bit here around the 45,000 word mark.” “Not nearly enough laser guns and elf-porn at the turn of the third act.”
19. A Reiteration Of Opinion Regarding “Creativity”
If you looked at that note about spreadsheets and thought something-something blah-blah-blah about how it will destroy your creativity and ruin the magic of the story, then form hand into fist and punch self in ear. If you need every day of writing to be a nougat-filled boat-ride through Pez-brick tunnels, you’re fucked. Rewriting is hard. Creative comes from “create,” and often, revision is about destruction. In other words: harden the fuck up, Strawberry Shortcake, ’cause the boat ride’s about to get bumpy.
20. Put The Fun In Fundamentals
You can’t revise if you don’t know how to write. Same if you don’t know the tenets of good story. How would you fix basic fucking problems if you can’t find them in the first place?
21. A Trail Of Dead Darlings
Don’t misread that old chestnut, “Kill your darlings.” Too many writers read this as, “Excise those parts of the work that I love.” That would be like, “Beat all the positive qualities of your child out of him with a wiffle ball bat.” You should leave in the parts you love… if they work. Killing your darlings is about that word: “darling.” Elements that are precious preening peacocks, that exist only to draw attention to themselves, those are the components that deserve an ice-axe to the back of the brain-stem.
22. Look For These Things And Beat Them To Death, Then Replace
In no particular order: Awkward and unclear language. Malapropisms. Punctuation abuse. A lack of variety in sentences. A lack of variety in the structure of the page. Plot holes. Inconsistency (John has a porkpie hat on page 70, but a ferret coiled around his head on page 75). Passive language. Wishy-washy writing. Purple prose. An excess of adverbs. Bad or broken formatting. Cliches. Wobbly tense and/or POV. Redundant language. Run-on sentences. Sentence fragments. Junk language. Cold sores. Mouse turds. Light switches that don’t turn anything on. Porno mustaches. Dancing elves. Or something. I need a nap.
23. Clarity Above Cleverness, Or, “How Poetry Lives In Simplicity”
Poetry gets a bad rap. Everyone always assumes it’s the source of purple, overwrought language, like it’s some kind of virus that infects good clean American language and turns it into something a poncey 11th grade poet might sing. Poetry lurks in simple language. Great story does, too. You don’t need big words or tangled phrasings or clever stunting to convey beautiful and profound ideas. In subsequent drafts, seek clarity. Be forthright in your language. Clarity and confidence are king in writing, and the revision process is when you highlight this. Write with strength. Write to be understood. That doesn’t mean “no metaphors.” It just means, “metaphors whose beauty exists in their simplicity.”
24. Don’t Make Me Say It Again: Read. Your Shit. Aloud.
I don’t care if the dog is looking at you like you’re crazy. If you’re on the subway, hey, people think you’re a mental patient. Oh well. Seriously though, I hate to repeat myself but I am nothing if not a parrot squawking my own beliefs back at you again and again: Take your work — script, fiction, non-fiction, whatever — and read it aloud. Read it aloud. READ IT ALOUD. When you read your work aloud, you’ll be amazed at the things you catch, the things that sound off, that don’t make sense, that are awkward or wishy-washy or inconsistent. Read it aloud read it aloud read it aloud read that motherfucker aloud.
25. Loose Butthole
Ultimate lesson: clinging to a first draft and resisting revision is a symptom of addiction — you may be huffing the smell coming off your own stink. The only way you can get clean is when you want to get clean, and the same goes with revisions: you’re only going to manage strong and proper revisions when you’re eager and willing to do so. Relax your mind. Loosen your sphincter. And get ready for war. Because revising and rewriting is the purest, most fanfuckingtastic way of taking a mediocre manifestation of an otherwise good idea and making the execution match what exists inside your head. Your willingness to revise well and revise deep is the thing that will deliver your draft from the creamy loins of the singing story angels.
* * *
If you dig on the apeshit crazy-face no-holds-barred profanity-soaked writing advice found here at terribleminds, then you may want to take a wee bitty gander-peek at: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY, which is available now! Buy for Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), Nook, or PDF.