Here's a quote. See if you recognize it. "Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date that shall live in history.. ." Know who that quote is from? FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president). He was responding to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which forced us into World War II. If you know your history, you might remember the quote differently. Even if you don't know your history, it's such a famous quote that you might have heard it anyway. And you might recall that FDR said, "a date that shall live in infamy" as opposed to "a date that shall live in history." So, which was it? "History" or "infamy"? And which is the stronger word? Even if you don't know the quote, I think you'll agree that infamy is the stronger word. History is general and neutral, while infamy is specific and sinister. "Infamy" is what he said.
So, if he said, "infamy," why am I saying, "history"? Any ideas? Well, he said, "infamy," but he wrote, "history." "History" was in his first draft—then he changed it to "infamy." The topic for this chapter is rewriting. "Writing is rewriting," says the old writing rule. Make sense? Maybe. We'll see. It's a good idea to beware of writing rules. They're not always correct or helpful.
"Writing is rewriting" is one of the good rules, but it doesn't tell us what rewriting is or how to do it, only that it's important, with the implication that we should do it. Nor does it tell us how much rewriting we should do. So, what do you do—go back, over and over, plowing through what you've written, hoping something will pop into your head that will make it better? And how do you know when you've gotten it right? Or is rewriting a specific process with principles and rules and guidelines just like we have for shaping stories, techniques for uncovering the energy and drama in our stories and ourselves? Yes to the second choice. Even though you're often all over the place when you're creating, rewriting is an orderly method of approaching your work that keeps you on track and working in the right area.
Rewriting—what is it exactly, and what do we do when we rewrite? Well, first, rewriting is not polishing. Polishing is changing words and phrases and sentences so that your story reads smoothly. Just like it sounds, it's a surface issue. (If polishing is a face-lift, rewriting is a heart transplant.) Rewriting is reworking larger elements of the story to make it more immediate and dramatic. It's changing, adding, or cutting characters, scenes, and other story elements. Fine, but how do you do it, and when do you do it?
Fiction itself is a process of creating order from disorder. Working with and even creating disorder are a natural part of the process. So, we need an orderly way to approach this disorder that we've created. But before we get to the actual techniques, you need to get a feel for how much of a part rewriting plays.
How many drafts do you imagine it takes to get a story right? What would you suppose would be an average number of drafts—the number most successful writers need to get the most out of their stories? Remember, nobody gets it right the first time. From my experience and that of writers I know and have worked with and read about, it seems that 5 drafts would be an average—on average most writers do 5 drafts. Ten drafts are common. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace 10 times. Aristotle wrote some paragraphs 80 times, and Hemingway wrote as many as 60 drafts of a single paragraph. So, you don't write the entire story the same number of drafts. You might write a single scene many more times than the rest. Some lines or paragraphs and even a scene will stay untouched. Writing a full scene without needing to change anything is rare. The point is that you need to give yourself enough chances to get it right. You can rehearse as many times as you like, then take the best parts of each run-through and piece together your best performance.
All right, so you need about 5 drafts to get the best out of yourself and your story. But that doesn't answer the question of how you will know when you're done. I once wrote 12 drafts of a story. My normal number is around 5. On this 12th draft, a new dimension of the character and the story opened up that gave the story a lot more depth. That was nice, but it put me in a quandary. If I got this out of 12 drafts, what might I get with draft 24 or 36? Maybe greatness was just around the corner—1 draft away. How could I tell?
The old writing rule says: You've rewritten enough when the last draft is not as good as the previous draft—when you've made it weaker with rewriting. Sound like a good answer? Make sense? Think about it —and remember what I told you about writing rules—maybe they're good, maybe not. The trouble with this rule is, it really doesn't address the problem. The problem is: You have no idea which draft is better. You're lost and need a method to find your way back, to regain some perspective. If you could tell which draft is better, you could go on rewriting and improving it.
I've heard jokes that were so funny I couldn't tell them without cracking up and wrecking the punch line. After a while, I was able to tell them well. And eventually they weren't even funny anymore. That's what happens when you write. The more you work your story, the better you know it. There are no surprises. You lose perspective and become almost illiterate in relation to your writing.
Now, with time, if you don't look at it for a week or a month, you'll have a fresh response to it—for a draft or two, at best. Then you're back to being illiterate again. If you're writing a long piece, like a novel, and you go straight through and don't look at the beginning until you've gone all the way through, you'll have a fresh response when you get back to the beginning and be able to rewrite well. But even with a novel, you can get stale, especially since you'll need to rework parts of it over and over. So, you can fall into the same rut with a novel.
For that reason, taking time off isn't a good idea—not to mention the risk of losing your edge, your nerve, or getting blocked during the break. No, time off is not the way to go. It's possible to refresh yourself, to regain your perspective, without having to forget what you've done.
So, it takes 5-plus drafts to get the most out of your story, but that still doesn't answer the question of how you know when you're finished. Now, we're talking about doing your best work at your present skill level—not writing the perfect story. The more stories you write, the better you get. You don't want to wear yourself out trying for perfection on a single story. You get it down the best you can at this time, within reason, and then move on. You can always come back and rewrite it later when you're a better writer.
John Fowles, author of The Collector (his first big novel/bestseller/movie) and later The French Lieutenant's Woman (also a bestseller and a movie—and a great example of a present omniscient narrator), also wrote a bestseller, The Magus, in between these two novels. Fowles, ten years after the success of The Magus, decided to rewrite the entire novel, which he did. This second version of The Magus was also a critical and commercial success and a bestseller for a second time. So, there are two versions of The Magus, each considered equally valid and different enough from the other to justify its own book. Your library should have both. If you want to see what happened to the author and how he changed as expressed through his craft, you could read both versions.
So, when are you done? Never. But when you've gone through all the story and rewriting techniques, touched all bases, you will have gotten on to the page most (nobody gets all, not even Fowles in his second time around) of what you have at this stage of your writing. You're done for now, as far as you can tell. But maybe not for all time. If one of your stories comes alive in you sometime down the line (usually more like years than months), if you find new excitement in it because of new ideas or (more often) new skills, you can always redo it. This reworking of old work is most often done on unsuccessful pieces you're attached to rather than on successful ones.
Another good comparison is a story written twice by Flannery O'Connor. The first version was called The Geranium, written in 1947 as part of her M.F.A. thesis. The second version, called Judgement Day, was done in 1964. There was a great difference in the way O'Connor approached this story the second time. Both versions are in Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories, published by the Noonday Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Another excellent example of the craft in progress (rewriting) is F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon. There's a paperback version, published by Scribner's, titled: "The Last Tycoon (unfinished) with a foreword by Edmund Wilson and notes by the author." The important part is "notes by the author." The novel itself is 126 pages. Following the novel is a synopsis pieced together from Fitzgerald's notes and things he said to others while writing it. Then, most importantly, we get Fitzgerald's notes to himself—notes that appeared on the manuscript pages along with diagrams, outlines, and notes from his notebook. The most instructive part of it, for our purpose, is to see not only how he worked, but how much trouble he was having, how he struggled with getting the novel into shape.
Now, that doesn't mean his way will be your way. You may develop a simpler, more straightforward approach or one that's more complicated and roundabout. Every author works differently. Go with what feels right to you, but don't be afraid to try different approaches to see if they'll get you there more easily.
Story is about experience. So, one thing you do when you rewrite is relax and reread what you've written to see how it affects you and how much of an experience you get. Since it's all about emotion, you need to feel your story. But we know that you can lose your way in your feelings just as you can while writing. You may not be sure how your story feels or what's the better choice.
So, you're lost. What can you do? How do you find your way back into your story? Any ideas? Where do you go first, always? When you're in trouble, what do you do?
Michael Jordan: the plan. Jimmy Connors: keep your eye on the ball. CRAFT. Go to your craft. Yes, here they are again: WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION. We just went over them in the last chapter, but you need to go over them again and again. We're going over them several times in the course. Even if you feel they're a pain or think you know them already, go over them anyway whenever you run into them. You need to. We all do.
WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION: go to them first—always. Check for those elements before you do anything else. If you don't, and if the problem is a lack of those elements (which it almost always is), you will waste a lot of time and energy working elsewhere and never fix the problem. It's like waxing your car when it needs a new engine. No matter how much you get it to shine, you'll never make it run right.
So, once again, the first question always is, WHO WANTS WHAT? If no one wants anything, that's the problem. That's where you need to work. But don't gloss over it. Don't decide the character wants and wants enough without taking a careful look at what you have on the page. Do not work in your head. The only thing that counts, the only thing that exists, is what's on the page. So, find the want on the page and mark where it first appears. Then answer these questions: Does it appear as early as possible? How strong is it? Could it be stronger? Is the character as determined/driven as he can be to get what he wants? Does he feel that he absolutely cannot go on with things the way they are, that things must change or else? (Is he as in love as Romeo or Scarlett or Gatsby, as obsessed as Ahab or Hamlet?) Why does he care? What are his specific and personal reasons?
Note that the want does not always express itself first. It's always there, but not visible until it is denied or thwarted, as in Hamlet when his father's ghost appears or in my Larry scene when I see my wife kissing Larry. Hamlet was not wishing, I hope Dad doesn't show up and order me to avenge his death. Nor was I thinking, I hope my wife's not cheating on me. Nevertheless, the want must be there even though it's buried since it's satisfied.
The second question is always WHAT'S THE OBSTACLE? Where does it first appear on the page? Find it, and mark it. Does it appear as early as possible? Could it be stronger? Is it as determined/driven to block the character as the character is determined to overcome it? Could the character do nothing and suffer no injury? If the character can ignore the obstacle and get away with it, you have a false obstacle/false conflict, which means no conflict, no drama, no story.
Once you have the want and obstacle cranked up to the maximum (without violating the sense of your story—a character can be driven without being as whacked out as Ahab or Hamlet), then it's time for ACTION. WHAT'S THE CHARACTER DOING TO OVERCOME THE PROBLEM? Is he making an all-out direct attack upon (or defense against) the obstacle? Where does this action first appear on the page? Find it. Mark it. Could it happen sooner? What else could the character do? Could he do more? Is he using himself to the maximum? If not, make it happen. Remember, thinking is action if it's struggling with and planning how to attack or defend against the obstacle. Remember, the obstacle must counterattack/fight back/resist with equal force.
Now, if you have WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION working, it's very rare that you'll be in any real trouble. The RESOLUTION, which is simply a matter of a victory or a defeat, should not be a problem if you have a deep want, a threatening obstacle, and a character who is using all he has to overcome the problem. With those elements, the one, two, three of dramatic momentum, working, it's impossible to have a weak story.
Want, obstacle, action, and resolution are elements of form. The other crucial concern is not form, but a product of it. It's EMOTION, and it's more of an ingredient, a seasoning, that's all over the place, rather than part of form. But it doesn't matter what we call it, as long as we're aware of what the character is feeling at all times. A good way to get to the emotions in the character is to ask what the character's worries, fears, and hopes are at every important moment in the story. These should appear on every page and often several times on a page and should be expressed through both the character's inner thoughts and his actions, which are not always the same.
Anyone who is wrestling with a threatening problem that can harm him or something dear to him will be worried and afraid of what might happen while, at the same time, hoping that he can do something to win out. With such a threat, the emotion is intense and nearly constant and needs to be expressed in the character whenever you have the chance. Go through your story and ask of every line possible, "What are the character's worries, fears, and hopes?" Remember, emotion is the payoff. It's where the ultimate connection is made, where identification occurs, where the reader becomes the character. If the reader doesn't know where the character is emotionally, he doesn't know where he himself is, and he drifts away from the story.
The other concern is a matter of technique: SHOWING. Showing is creating the experience, making it happen right before our eyes, word for word, moment by moment, rather than describing it or generalizing about it. Showing is your constant method of presenting your story, your ongoing concern at all times. The purest and most effective form of showing is scene. You need to be showing as much as possible.
Those are your basic elements—CONFLICT (WANT + OBSTACLE), ACTION, RESOLUTION, EMOTION, SHOWING. They need to be working not only in the overall story, but in every single scene. For every scene and every chapter, you must deal with want, obstacle, action, resolution. Every scene is a struggle/confrontation between two forces, between the want and the obstacle. Every scene has a resolution —not a final resolution, but a scene resolution. In other words, every scene is a little story in itself. And at the end of each scene, things are worse than at the beginning. In stories, things get worse and worse, the plot thickens and complicates, until the final resolution—victory or defeat.
Romeo and Juliet, for example, is one complication after another. Shortly after Romeo and Juliet are secretly married, Romeo tries to stop his friend Mercutio from fighting with Tybalt, but instead causes Mercutio's death. In his anguish and fury, Romeo kills Tybalt and is later banished for it. Her lover gone, Juliet is despondent. That's bad, but to make matters worse, her father proposes that she marry Paris. When Juliet objects, her father flies into a rage and orders her to marry Paris and sets a date for the wedding. Shakespeare heaps one difficulty after another onto the "star-crossed" lovers. Stars are crossed—who crossed them? Shakespeare.
Things may get better in a story, or seem to, briefly. If they do, it's only a setup to knock them down and make things even worse—to reenergize the characters and the drama. Each scene needs to end in the mind of the character, who is more upset than he was at the opening and stewing over the new complication besetting him and what to do now. If things aren't worse at the end of every scene and every chapter, your story is marking time, standing still. If the story isn't moving, the reader will move away.
It's these basic elements that make you or break you. They're all you need. If you get them right, any other mistakes you make won't matter. Every story that I've seen that failed was lacking in one of these basic elements. So, the first thing to do when rewriting, always, is to go over your story and check for these elements.
Once you're sure that you have these elements working, you're ready to try the other rewriting techniques in this chapter to get the maximum out of your story and yourself. You can take each of these techniques and go through and apply it to your story. There's a lot here, and it may seem like an exhausting list, but with practice, you'll master them and be able to apply several if not all of them simultaneously.
Was this article helpful?