August Q&A 2
Thanks, Kay, for asking:
How do you approach a rewrite? Do all the suggestions come from your editor, or do you have second, or additional thoughts about the first draft?
A: The last few times Iâ€™ve been asked to do a presentation at one writing conference or another, Iâ€™ve chosen to do one on The Art of the Rewrite. And if I ever write a how-to book, itâ€™ll be called just that.
The first draft is all about passion, excitement, exploration. Every character is thrilling, every plot twist is a thing never before seen in fiction, every setting is vital and immediate: the air in the book has never been breathed before.
Thatâ€™s the mad flush of a first draft, and if it sounds as if Iâ€™m talking about an illicit affair, then Iâ€™ve captured the sensation. No room for doubt, no critical glances, no desire to do anything but think about the object of your desire.
But if youâ€™re considering the long term for this fling, sooner or later you need to stand back and think about how to reshape the affair into a marriage.
Which is when you realize that every character in the book is much like the next, that the plot twists are either tired or nonsensical, the settings are incompletely constructed. You send the manuscript to your long-suffering editor with a cover letter that protests its roughness and unsuitability for her eyes, and she looks at it and agrees that it needs some work. You take a deep breath from the stale air that emanates from the stack of pages, and dig in.
Normally, as I go through the first draft, the small voice of the Critic on my shoulder mutters doubts. I dutifully write those doubts and questions down, and ignore most of them. But when Iâ€™ve finished the raw first draft, when Iâ€™ve crawled out of my writing cave, blinking and myopic, and restored the house and my life to some sort of order, when Iâ€™ve reestablished my presence in the lives of friends and family, I return to the manuscript, with the list of criticisms pinned to the board in front of me.
These are the big, thematic questions, that more or less boil down to: Does this make sense? And if the answer to that question is, No, it doesnâ€™t, then I have to see how to go about dragging the plot, the characters, the themes back into line. Chapters are sliced and shifted, pages inserted with notes that tell me what I need to establish at this place in order to have the story unfold properly. Unwritten chaptersâ€”those that Iâ€™ve just typed the chapter number and a few notesâ€”are either fleshed out or scrapped, if the material I vaguely thought would need to go there turns out to be not really necessary, or else already included elsewhere.
And if this sounds a ridiculous amount of work to you, like retiling your bath three times because you canâ€™t decide which color works best, then youâ€™re probably someone who outlines. Iâ€™d like to know before I write just where the book is going, it would make this part of my live enormously easier, but that simply isnâ€™t how my head works.
As an illustration, the other day my sister bought some Chinese Broccoli at the farmerâ€™s market, sort of a cross between broccoli rabe and kale. Iâ€™d never cooked it before, but I stir-fried the stalks with a bunch of garlic and added the chopped leaves and when they were done, I tasted it. Nice and bitter, but monochromatic. So I added a handful of dried currents for a sweet note, and a few pine nuts for visual and texture contrast, and it was perfect.
And thatâ€™s how I write. Only the writing goes a lot more slowly than stir fry.