At the start of each new semester, I have to help my students unlearn a lot of bad writing habits, the first of which is that good writing doesn’t just happen. It takes time, effort, and practice, which usually translates into multiple drafts. Nope, a writer can’t just magically sit down and write a single draft and be done.
Weird how I seem to have forgotten that over the past summer.
I finished the first draft of a novel last autumn, and have been struggling to rewrite it. I used it in my Lambda application in the spring, and even outlined the novel in my donorpage so people would know what project they were funding when they donated. But I haven’t actively worked on the novel since April, and at that point had only been rewriting for a month or two. By the time I turned in my Lambda application I was so sick of the book I set it aside.
Setting up my courses for the semester, and talking my students through the initial steps of the writing process, I remembered very clearly: this is not something people just know how to do. The writing process, that is. It is something which is learned through time and practice, and diligence.
And I have not learned how to rewrite, at least, not a novel. I have written 4-5 novels at this point, all first drafts. I have written and rewritten short stories, and even a novella or two. But my own rewriting process for those seems vastly different than the rewriting process for a novel. A novel is larger, and more complex, and thus, the rewriting process is probably equally longer and more complex.
In realizing that I didn’t know how to rewrite, I decided to recommit myself to this novel, and the second draft. But this time, instead of trying to race towards finishing what I would consider a “publishable” draft, and being frustrated that things were not perfect, I’ve decided this second draft is about me learning what my process of rewriting a novel is. This way, even if the second (or third, or fourth, or tenth, or whatever) draft comes out un-publishable, I will still have gained valuable insight and knowledge into my own process, which will certainly help with future novels and projects.
To that end, I’m going to be blogging periodically about my process of rewriting and revision, and what I learn along the way. I figure other writers might find it useful.
In this past week, I asked some friends who know more about rewriting for advice, tips, and suggestions. I’ve also Googled articles and blog posts on rewriting novels, and read and bookmarked a few. I’ve allowed the story to ferment in the back of my mind. Sometimes I jot down notes and scenes or descriptions.
This morning I started doing more “hard” writing, using some suggestions in this post, specifically focusing on the question:
What does my protagonist (main character) want? What will he do to get it?
The thing is . . . I found out that was the exact wrong question to ask for this novel, and that realization unraveled a whole host of reasons my first rewrite was not working.
From the start this novel has not been a work of mainstream genre literature. The first draft is first person, present tense, stream of conscious, and it shares more in common with books like The House on Mango Street than something like The Lord of the Rings. In my first rewrite, I attempted to make it fit more strongly into a genre work. There were politics of some kind, and an antagonist because they seem to be necessary in most genre work. But I didn’t enjoy what I wrote at all; it was, in some sense, a betrayal of the story that I had, that I actually wanted to tell. It’s an antifantasy fantasy that deliberately unravels the framework of traditional fantasy to get to the core of the story: the people, and the choices we make as human beings. It’s not about good versus evil, or even ordinary people having a huge impact on the world around them. It’s a small, intimate story of people dealing with the shit life throws them and making the best of it. They are changed, but the larger world is not.
I recognize that second and later drafts can and should be different from the first. But I don’t think that in rewriting, I need to sacrifice what I feel is the heart and the strength of the story itself.
This is why the question of what my protagonist wants and what he will do to get it is the wrong damn question. What he wants changes enormously through the course of the novel, just as what people want changes throughout the course of their lives. More importantly: what he wants is not important in this story. He is either not going to get it, or it is not going to come to him the way he expects. It’s more akin to that Rolling Stones song: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”
Since this story doesn’t adhere to a more “traditional” storytelling framework, I decided I needed to ask and answer different questions. Such as:
Where is the tension in the narrative?
What are the contradictions?
By addressing these questions I got a much clearer picture of well, everything. I was able to define not only the tension/plot, but also some of the thematic concerns, as well as the wants and needs of other characters, and how everything tied together.
Asking these questions — and recognizing that I was allowed to ask questions tailored to the story I was trying to tell — has allowed me to get the heart of some issues I had with the first rewrite. I’ve already done some mental revisions, and the picture I have of this story is the clearest I’ve had since I started the project a year ago.
All and all, a good start!