My beta reader and I sat down at Peet’s, over mint tea and a chocolate Frappe, to discuss the first draft of my novel. For three hours we analyzed the characters:
Why is Morgan a stand-up comic? And if she is, she needs to be funnier. More snappy dialogue. And Mike? He’s a dud. Instead of a comedy club owner, he’d be better suited as an arborist. Pruning bushes.
Oh, we laughed about that.
And would Morgan really end up with him? That relationship wouldn’t last.
There’s the sequel.
We laughed about that, too.
The parents, we agreed, were interesting. The mother is living a zany life in Berkeley, and the father…well, he can’t be that clueless, that naive.
And, as she pointed out, there are too many names that start with the letter “M.”
We talked about the missed opportunities for scenes:
There needs to be a serious conversation between Daniel and Morgan. And when the mother finds out blahdeblah…that can be a whole scene. Another thing…Morgan has major insights. She can’t be that self-aware. Show how she discovers the insights.
We homed in on superfluous characters who show up in one flashback scene, and whether they could be combined into one or two people, or carried into other scenes.
We questioned the believability of situations. We speculated on what Morgan had done in the years leading up to the novel, and what her life would be like in the future, as if she was a real person. We discussed the literary voice and the witty romance voice and whether both could exist in the same novel. And what genre would this fit into?
“You can duke that out later, with an agent,” she advised. “Write the book that you want to write…the best you know how to do.”
We poked and prodded at what I thought was a lifeless manuscript, a manuscript that I was close to shredding, and came to the conclusion that there was something living in there, something worth nurturing.
After a major overhaul.
And many, many more drafts.
This, my friends, is what rewriting is all about.
On the afternoon prior to this discussion, I had come to the conclusion that I had nothing left to give creatively. The well was dry. I was banging my head against a brick wall, trying to come up with answers. I wanted to quit. I wanted to stop the rewrite. Stop blogging, tweeting, writing book reviews on GoodReads, stop anything that smacked of writing.
“If you can pull this off,” my beta reader said, “merging the snappy dialogue with the beatnik literary stuff, you’ll have something beyond your wildest imagination. Who doesn’t love a comic? Who isn’t fascinated by the grittiness of the Beats? You can do this. You’re a good writer.”
Maybe I can. Maybe I can find the fun in writing again.
But first I need to fill the well.
“Never quit on a bad day,” Jerry Cleaver advises writers in Immediate Fiction. In the wake of the Robin Williams tragedy, this advice can be applied to life, too. If at all possible, never quit on a bad day.
But it’s okay to step away. Get some perspective. I was out taking a walk and I saw a falcon fly over the roof of a church and circle a grove of redwoods. And then another glided over. And another. And another. I watched, open-mouthed, as ten falcons swirled overhead. I’d never seen ten at once. It’s a sign, I thought. And later…a sign that I need a bigger perspective.
So I’m taking a break from it all. A month, I’m thinking. I’m going to read some witty romances to get a feel for the genre. I’m going to read more about the Beats. And I’m going to let the images and ideas come, and jot them down, but not write. Not until I’ve filled the well again.
And then I’ll sit down and pound out draft number two.
So, until next time…
Takeaways this week:
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: before tackling a rewrite, set your manuscript aside. The longer the better. Write something else. Short stories. Essays. Or what my sister the singer/songwriter calls Write-Aheads: short pieces written quickly, and then saved, to plunder from in the future.
After some time away, you’ll be able to see your writing as a reader. You’ll be able to catch the “big picture” problems. Here are some things to look for:
* Are the character’s actions and motivations believable? Are the situations plausible?
* Are there any missed opportunities for scenes? Is something told, rather than shown? Do the relationships need to go deeper?
* Are there any scenes or characters that can be eliminated or combined into one? If a scene doesn’t drive the action, cut it. If a character doesn’t serve a purpose, delete them.
* Is the character all good or all bad or all anything? Make each character dimensional. Give them flaws as well as good qualities.
* Is the voice of the narrator consistent?
* Let the reader in on the protagonist’s inner thoughts. How does he or she figure things out? How does he or she arrive at conclusions or insights? “Any good book is an exploration of consciousness,” my beta reader said.
It’s not a bad idea to read other books in the genre that you’re writing to see how characters are introduced, how flashbacks are woven in, where the climax happens, how things are resolved. Look at pacing and narrative voice, too.
And find a good beta reader. Someone who will toss ideas around with you. But wait until you’ve finished your first draft so you both know where the story is headed.
In case you missed it, my rewriting journey began here.