Learning to Love the Rewrite

I love it when people are unintentionally funny. Take NK Jemsion in this interview, when she says, “That’s not my usual writing process, though — who can afford to write every novel twice?”

Ahahaha. Oho. Oh boy.

I know there are people out there who only write one, maybe two drafts and then go in for edits. I believe these people exist mostly because they stand up and claim to exist, and one can hardly suspect they’re all blog-bots or liars.

But man oh man. To answer your question, Ms. Jemison — Me. And people like me, who are out there somewhere, and read things like this and think something is wrong with them. I’ve written a few novels, some of which have died merciful deaths while others are still alive and well. With the exception of the very first one, which I hope is vanished in the utmost sense of the word, I have rewritten all of them at least twice.

Yes, I said twice, and yes, I said at least. Because there is one I’ve rewritten three times. Three entire blank page holy-shit-I’m-doing-it-again drafts, plus the first go-around, so that’s four times I have walked through the entire thing.

Who can afford to do this massive rewriting? New writers, for one. Pantsers, for another. People who write reallyreallyfast without any editing as they go. Anyone who’s ever arrived at the end of a novel and realized the story they thought they were telling was all wrong, and now look here’s an ending to a book they haven’t even written yet. And anyone who has ever written a messy, cliche-ridden, incoherent yet somehow invigorating first draft, and wanted to make it better.

Rewrites are a cool opportunity for a writer. It’s like being able to read a book again for the first time, only to find out the book is even better than you remembered. The colors are brighter, the characters are themselves from page one, the plot makes more sense, the unnecessary scenes vanish, and the story settles into its pacing without all the fits and starts from before. Secondary characters leap off the page, so bright you feel tempted to write their stories too. Other characters manage to pull out sneaky you-thought-you-knew-me moments that fascinate and amaze, even as you hastily type out their new-found depth. Details become specific, and you can only wonder at how you lived in that gray, washed-out world before. Themes become both thicker and subtler, weaving deeper into the story rather than floating along on top. Even the prose comes more smoothly, because you settled into the voice by the end of the first draft, and now you’re starting strong. Now you’re putting your best foot forward.

All of this excites me. From what I can tell from the internet (which is always what you should use as a standard of comparison) this is more than a little weird. There are certainly people who are okay with rewriting, but there are also people who dislike it, too. And I have yet to find anyone else who gets excited by the prospect of saying, “Yup, it’s a mess, so it’s back to the old drawing board for me.”

But is it better to do a hasty patching of a messy draft, or to go back and seep the changes into the story organically? Is there anything wrong with wanting to make sure the reinforcements are more than just skin deep?

Some people write neat, almost-finished drafts. Good for them! But I’m young, my first and second drafts were awful, I saw the potential and went for it again. And good for me, I say. A rewrite doesn’t have to be the scourge of the writing world. It’s an opportunity to take the mess you made and clean it up, to find the one budding flower among the thorny brambles. It’s as much a Go-For-It! moment as writing the first draft itself — and it’s even more rewarding.

(And for those who are wondering…yes, I wrote this post twice. From scratch.)

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