Monday, December 8, 2014

Faculty Voices with Laura Ruby: A Lot of Rewrites

A few weeks ago, one of my students asked me how many times I rewrite a book. My usual answer is something like “umptyjillion” or “HAHAHAHAHA.” I’m only being somewhat facetious. I honestly don’t have any idea. All I know is that it’s a lot.

Pictures of the “Alot” ©  Allie Brosh
Hyperbole and a Half

Many people believe the primary work of a writer is getting that first draft down. Even professional writers believe this. Drafting can be so painful and take so long—months, years. Who could bear to imagine that the first draft is only the beginning? Who could stand one more holiday with your dad saying, “Are you still working on that thing? When do you get paid for this stuff? Somebody’s going to pay you, right?”

So, as we’re drafting, we don’t think about revision much at all. We can’t. (I can’t). Instead, we tell ourselves: “This is working really well!” and “I’ll just have to fix this little thing here or there!” and “I love this story sooooo much!”

©  Allie Brosh
Hyperbole and a Half

 These little tales are a defense mechanism, stories we tell ourselves in order to survive the drafting process. Because if we didn’t tell ourselves stories about how much work our books don’t need, all the rewriting we likely won’t have to do, we might scoop out our own eyeballs and use them as martini garnishes.  

Which is why critical feedback from readers, advisors, agents & editors can be such a shock, and why this feedback can make us feel so frozen and resistant. If you’ve talked yourself into believing that the hard part is done, that the only thing your book requires is a few minor tweaks, it’s devastating to hear that your whole plot is bananas (and not in a good way).

Here’s what people like to imagine revision is:
·         Correcting and/or defending one’s charming little grammar idiosyncrasies
·         Futzing around with a line here or there
·         Reworking that one annoying chapter in the middle of the book
·         Spellcheck!
·         Cutting adverbs and/or the words “sigh” and “shrug”
·         Giving your main character an interesting pet (a hedgehog named Amelia!)
·         Futzing around with a few more lines
·         Swapping out the interesting pet for an even more interesting pet (a quokka named Coughdrop!)

But this is polishing, not revising. This is what you do with a manuscript that’s already been revised.

Here’s what revision really is:
    ·         Starting the book in a different place
·         Ending the book in a different place
·         Ripping out entire characters or plotlines
·         Amping up conflict in every scene
·         Building a tangible world using all five senses
·         Deepening characterization across the board
·         Reordering scenes and events across the narrative for maximum effect
·         Recasting the book in a different tense or POV
·         Keeping the characters but inventing a new story
·         Keeping the story but inventing new characters
·         Identifying and focusing in on primary themes
·         Rewriting the opening chapter till your fingers bleed
·         Chucking the entire first draft and starting fresh
·         Doing a whole bunch of other stuff I can’t even think of right now because YIKES 

Tackling any of the above work is difficult, but not as difficult as simply accepting the idea that any of this work must be done.

Plus, complicating the revision process is the fact that you will get conflicting feedback. One reader tells you that he loves the voice of the piece but thinks the plot is wonky. Another reader says that the plot is amazing but the voice is off-putting. You revise the plot to please the first reader, and then he comes back and tells you the voice is off-putting. What are you supposed to do with this except to conclude that everyone, everywhere is insane?

When you first start out as a writer, you try everything people suggest. They say the beginning is slow? You speed it up. They say the ending isn’t earned? You rework it. But Neil Gaiman said: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” (Well, maybe not your Hamline advisors, ahem).

When I was working on my latest novel, my agent told me that she really wasn’t that keen on Roza, one of my point-of-view characters. She didn’t like Roza as much as she liked Petey, another POV character. Maybe I should cut Roza, she suggested, and write the whole book about Petey. My dear friend Anne, on the other hand, told me that Petey was taking over the whole book and that maybe Petey should be cut back.

Needless to say, this was confusing.

What I had to do was take in this seemingly contradictory advice and drill down to the essential issue. Why would these two amazing readers have such strong opinions about these two characters? Why favor one character over the other? And the issue, I decided, was one of balance. Roza’s voice was so quiet that her chapters couldn’t stand up to the passion of Petey’s. To solve the balance problem, I had to amplify Roza’s voice as well as dial up the drama in her chapters. I took Roza’s chapters out of the narrative and completely rearranged and recut them (at least four different times). In a sense, I took the advice of both these readers, but I found a way to solve the issue that didn’t conflict with my vision of the book.

I call this the 13th way. 12 people will identify 12 different problems, but it’s up to you to find the real problem underlying most of them. Then you have to find your own unique solution to that problem.

You do that for each of the problems identified. Over and over and over again, times umptyjillion, HAHAHAHA.

Revision is a ton of work. And it can be exhausting. In an interview with NPR, the late Kent Haruf said, “It doesn't seem to me there's a scarcity of talent among students who want to write. But what there is a lack of is a talent for work, that it's so difficult to write and it takes so long to learn how to write well that most people give it up before they get good enough.”

So, tell yourself all the tales you need to as you draft. But when it’s time to revise, do not give up before you get good enough. It often takes many sweeps through a manuscript, many drafts before you find the real story you needed to tell all along.

This is Jacqueline Woodson on her Tumblr, relating an exchange she had with her daughter about her National Book Award Winning novel BROWN GIRL DREAMING. 

The 12 year old: Mommy, how many times did you rewrite Brown Girl?

Me: I stopped counting after 31.

©  Allie Brosh
Hyperbole and a Half

Some revision links:


  1. God, Laura. You are a truth-telling genius. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Laura. This is just what I needed, having just finished a first draft that is now in "basket stage," that is, I have to store it in a basket because the various parts just don't hang together. Umptyjillion, you say...

  3. Awesome, thanks Laura! Good to know we're not alone as we do the painful business of revision, many times. Darcy Pattison book is also a great resource (NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS) and like you she tells it like it is: hard but necessary. It's all about trying to let the story we mean to tell come forth....even if that means moving things stone by stone and building again, bloodied hands and all. Where there is a will there's a way, and where there's cake, there's always a will.

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  5. Excellent post & painfully true. The first draft seems an eon ago but if you believe in your work the revisions have to be done. Thank you:-)

  6. Hello.
    New here.
    Appreciations to Laura for this article.
    I'm revved up to slash away on the d r a f t.
    After some Egyptian licorice tea!

    happy new year,

    Jan Annino

  7. OH! OH! OH! The pain of it all. You nailed it.. Well said. I am just glad I am not alone and I only hope something comes out of all this work. UGH!!!! I am also glad I am not counting on this for a pay check! BUT I'll keep my nose to the grindstone and hopefully some day my publishing dream will come true. Thanks :)

  8. Terrific article. Thank you! "it’s devastating to hear that your whole plot is bananas (and not in a good way)." So true! I wrote a clever poem to print with some of my artwork. Thought I nailed it for sure. One critique, however, heavily contradicted all the others. The weightiest advice: my 7 foot iambic lines were too long. She's not a picture book writer, and our styles are vastly different, so felt justified in my impulse to completely reject her comment. But a few days have passed and GULP! Now that I've swallowed a goose egg-size hairball of pride, I'm able to see the validity of her point. The thought of restructuring the entire piece feels daunting, considering the amount of work I've already put in. But I'm gathering up the strength to take it on. It's for a poster I want to self publish and it has to be perfect!