Friday, June 1, 2012

Romancing the Rewrite

(in which I reveal the downside of wandering through the thicket of the narrator’s outpourings sans outline, just in case there’s anyone on the planet besides me who hadn’t already figured this out)

Whenever anyone asks me about writing, and my process, and turning out prose, I tend to support chaos. I tend to jump around insisting that there is no one true way to go about this. If you like to outline, I cry, outline! If you like to write mostly at 4 a.m. while sobbing and exploring your inner angst, go for it! If you get up at 6 a.m. and have a cup of Earl Gray tea with clover honey, after which you sit in your office writing 1250 words before lunch, when you take a run through the woods with your Brittany spaniel, go you!

The problems with this non-system are not immediately evident when writing picture books, probably because I can keep a whole PB in my head as I work. But with novels, there’s an element of whoopsie upon seeing the first draft. The first draft of the novel I just sent off to my agent 9 days ago was an enormous, lumbering tome.

It weighed in at 107,000 words, and not because it was a multi-generational saga spanning several continents and two centuries.

Nope, it just had thousands and thousands of words of subplots and back story and really cool characters who didn’t actually belong in the book. People quote Faulkner’s, “Kill you darlings,” when they talk about revision. I had to kill entire clans, tribes, and marauding hoards of darlings, pests, and downright pills.

The problem with killing, say, 30,000 words, is that even though those words involve completely ridiculous elements that don’t belong in the book, there is a whole lot of characterization in there. Bits and pieces that are relevant to the whole book are now discarded. Even though the story is way better without them, the characters now have missing pieces. The reader now has no idea how the characters react to large numbers of completely superfluous situations.

So then the whole book has to be rewritten and all of the remaining stuff has to be improved to convey all of the necessary elements now moldering in the 30,000 word trash bin. So I did. Over and over. It was torture.

All hail the outline! I swear to God, next time I’m going with one of those.


  1. Oh, Ann, I really enjoyed reading this. I'm a terse, sparse writer whose revisions consist of editor's prodding to 'add more!" so in a perverse way I was thinking as I read your post that I should stop feeling sorry for my writerly struggles.
    Kudos for getting it done.

  2. I'm just dying to hear how an outline works for you. I'm not an outliner myself, but I am starting to see the virtues of certain organizational efforts.

  3. Congrats on getting it done. I sometimes plot too much, which is kind of funny because I don't use my planning when I draft (unless I get suck).

  4. I'm so happy to hear from you! But have to tell you all, turns out, this post was a tad premature. I'm not done yet. I just got some great feedback and I think I have maybe 50 more pages to chop off, only in tiny little pieces. Very doable, since I'm so into literary massacre.