by J.D. Rhoades
Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing.
– Richard North Patterson
I don’t make any corrections. Everything’s down there just the way I want it. That’s the way it’s going to be. -Jack Kerouac
I’ve had the subject of rewriting, or revising, or editing, or whatever you want to call it, on my mind this week, because that’s the stage I’m in in the current work in progress. And, after four books, I’m doing it differently than I’ve ever done it before.
This is the first book I’ve written where I didn’t revise as I went. In the past, I’d obsess over every setence, every paragraph, writing each in a dozen different ways until I liked it enough to go on. Sometimes after an evening of writing, I’d have written one page. I cussed a lot on those days.
It was even hairier when something new would occur to me or I had one of those bolts from the blue that sent the story off in a new direction. I’d make the change, then I’d have to immediately go back to what I’d written before, scour it to eradicate continuity errors, and change things around so that the new direction would be at least plausible.
Not this time. This time, I just put my head down and pushed to the end. If I wasn’t happy with a chapter or a paragraph, I just muttered “fuck it, I’ll catch it in the rewrite,” and kept typing. If a premise changed, I gritted my teeth and let it ride until I got to the end of the first draft.
Lawrence Block, one of my heroes, is not a fan of this approach. In fact, in his excellent book TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, he takes a distinctly ambivalent attitude towards rewriting at all, going so far as to title the chapter on the subject “Washing Garbage.” When I write “The End”,” he insists, “I mean it…all a sloppy first draft teaches you is to be sloppy in your writing.”
Now, some of Block’s feelings on the matter could have arisen out of the fact that he was writing his treatise in the era of the typewriter. Back then doing another draft didn’t mean going through, deleting, cutting, and pasting blocks of text. It meant sitting down at the typewriter and doing the whole damn thing over again. But even now, with computers, I know of at least one very well-known thriller writer who nonchalantly claims that when he gets to “The End”, he just closes the document and e-mails it off. Or so I’ve heard.
Stephen King, on the other hand, in HIS excellent book ON WRITING, suggests putting the book in a drawer for, oh, six weeks or so, then pulling it out, reading it all the way through (in one sitting, if possible), letting your trusted “First Readers” look it over, and begining revisions.
So, having done it both ways, what have I learned about which is preferable? Well, the way where I revise as I go has its points. When I wrote THE END, the books were done. Mostly. I didn’t quite have the balls to just e-mail it off that same night, but except for checking spelling, punctuation, changing some word choices, and chopping long, run-on sentences into a manageable size, the things were finished. I was so sick of them I never wanted to see them again, but they were done.
With this one, it’s true that I wasn’t totally sick of it when I got the first draft done. There was one other problem, though: the book was a giant pile of horseshit. It was freaking incoherent. There were things in it that made no sense. Characters suffered abrupt personality changes for no discernible reason. Sometimes, their very names, heights, and hair colors changed. But, like the optimistic kid in the old joke who received a giant pile of dung for Christmas, I grabbed my shovel and got to work. Because I knew there was a pony in there somewhere.
I’ve been hacking away at it, adding, subtracting, moving, and yes, chopping those sentences into bite-sized pieces for a week or so. And I’m getting happier with it. I know there’s a pony in here. I can hear it whinny.
So writers, how do you prefer to re-write? As you go, or after the god-awful first draft is done? Rreaders, do you know any other writers who claim they never revise or revise as they go?