Monday, March 21, 2011

MGOC Extra Essay: The Art of the Rewrite by Scott A. Johnson

Once you've finished your first draft, passed it off to your first reader (if you don't have one of these, you really need one), gotten notes, cried, cursed and pouted, then let the cold realization that your words aren't perfect when freshly vomited from your brain set in, then it's time to do that thing that every writer I know hates: Rewrites. Keep in mind, this is a crucial part of the whole writing process. This is the point where the actual "craft" of being a writer comes in. So sit down in your chair, pour yourself a big mug of coffee, and dive in.

There are several things to look for when rewriting your novel. In my mind, they break down to two categories: Technical and Creative. On either side are things that could make or break your novel, and while one has hard and fast rules (that we break all the time, so they're more like guidelines than actual rules) at which you can point in making corrections, the other is a much more diabolical, and easily offended, aspect.

These are part of the craft, the reason why your copy of Strunk and White is dog-eared and falling apart, and why you drive your family nuts. This is spelling, grammar and punctuation, sentence structure, flow, and figuring out little things like if you kept the characters' names consistent throughout the novel. Did Gerry turn into Jerry at one point or another? Do you find yourself correcting your significant-other's grammar, and has he or she knocked the hell out of you for it? Do you find yourself correcting the "10 Items or Less" sign at the grocery store? (It should be "10 Items or FEWER," dammit!) Then you're in the right mindset. A few things to watch out for on the technical side:

* Spelling - Don't just run "Spellcheck" and walk away. That marvelous little program won't differentiate between "here" or "hear," "bare" or "bear," or even "there," "their" and "they're." All of them give vastly different meanings to sentences, but are spelled correctly.

* Grammar - In the case of narration or prose (particularly when you're not writing in first person or if you're writing something other than dialogue), there are common pitfalls in grammar that need to be addressed. While I'm not saying you should have every line grammatically perfect, you do want to come across as at least fluent in your native language.

* Adverbs - The bane of the existence to many writers is this one part of speech we cannot do without. Adverbs, in and of themselves, aren't bad things. The overuse of them, however, will kill your book. Take a look through your manuscript and question anything that ends in " -ly." If there's a better way to say it, or if it turns out to be redundant, cut it. Case in point: "He ran quickly down the street." "Quickly" here is unnecessary. Why? Do you run slowly? No, unless you're trying for comedic effect. But the word "ran" implies "quickly," so the second word is unneeded.

* Run-Ons and Fragments - Run-Ons are a real no-no in writing, as are fragments. But we can get away with using the latter. Like now. The former, however, is not a device I've ever seen effectively used.

* Passive Voice/Tense - Readers like to feel they are a part of the action. They like for the story to pull them in. The best way to accomplish such a lofty goal is to keep the story active, or at least in active voice. Avoid phrases like "had been (verb)ing" or, really, anything with the word "had" attached to a verb. "He had run." What's wrong with saying "He ran?" Also, phrases that begin with "was." "He was running." Again, nothing wrong with "He ran."

* Had - The word "had" should, nine times out of ten, be used to show possession. He had a ball. Using it to modify a verb ("He had gone to get a ball") indicates far past tense, and doesn't engage the reader as well as saying "He got the ball."

This is a really sticky wicket, and one in which the Ego Monster rears his ugly head. At their core, most creative-types (myself included) are both insecure and vain, which means somewhere along the line (often at the same time) we believe our work to be both brilliant and garbage. This is why I recommend doing the technical read-through, then waiting a while before doing the creative one. That time spent away from the manuscript helps to give you a more objective eye when attempting to do something as soul-crushing as rewriting. Presented below are a few things for which to watch. There are, of course, others, but these are the ones that usually hit hardest, or that leap out and grab me by the nostrils.

* Plot Holes/Disappearing Characters - Where'd Bob go? What about that gun we found in the first quarter of the book? Didn't that character walk with a limp earlier? So why's he running like a track star now? Little things that you may have glossed over in the first draft can come back and nibble on your buttocks afterward. Particularly a problem for "Pantsers" like me.

* Repetition - Sure, repetition can help build the tension, but if every sentence starts with "she," you may need to rework that section.

* POV - Is it deep enough? Do you head-hop? Do you use phrases that drag the reader out of the Point of View? Here's an example: We're in deep, 3rd person POV, which means the narrator is basically in the head of one character, without it being in 1st person. With me so far? Good. The line, as written, reads "What a bastard, she thought." But the words "she thought" takes us out of the POV and sets us a little further away from the character. We're already in her head, so why do we need footnotes telling us "she thought?" This goes double for "she thought to herself." First, it drags out out of the POV. Second, who the hell else is she thinking to? Unless she's actively attempting telepathic communication, of course she's thinking to herself. There's no one else in her head, right?

* Characterization - Does every decision for every character work for that character? Can you point to how they would react differently in the same situation? Do your characters have their own voice, or do they all sound the same?

* Dialogue - This is similar to the one above (Character, for those not paying attention), but I felt it deserved its own entry. Does the language sound the way people talk? Do your characters speak in a manner that is consistent with their education level (not yours, theirs), social status, and background? Do you have a wino who never finished grammar school who speaks like a Harvard graduate? Read the dialogue out loud. If you trip over it, or if it sounds weird to you, chances are, it needs work.

These are just a few suggestions, but it gives you an idea of how difficult and intense the whole rewrite process can be. The lists above are, by no means, comprehensive. They're just suggestions. There are thousands of things you can look for when picking your novel apart. The ones above are just the top things I look for when rewriting mine. The bottom line here is to take your time and learn as much about your craft as possible. It's a tough, but rewarding, process. Leave your own tips in the comments section below!

Write on!

("The Art of Rewriting" originally appeared at American Horror Blog, January 27, 2011.)

Scott A. Johnson is the author Vermin: Book 1 of the Stanley Cooper Chronicles.

posted by heidi

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