Thursday, October 18, 2007

Rewriting vs revising vs editing

I'm learning something hard . . . The draft isn't there for me to fix. The draft is there to give hints about what I'm supposed to write next.

Let me share a little bit of my first draft to illustrate.

The children in sixth grade at Brookview sensed how fast they were growing up and that their lives were propelling forward into new territory. They had been cocooned together for seven years or—in the case of the new kids who had arrived in first grade—six years, and they were winding up their last weeks of elementary school. Next was coming the junior high school with all of its academic and social unknowns, with many more kids, including kids from some of the schools where they were all snobs, where there would be older kids who they didn’t know, where they would have to go to different rooms and corridors for each class, where they would have gym instead of P.E. and they would have to wear special gym clothes for that and have to shower afterward. It was the last soccer season and last baseball season when they just signed up for it—hereafter they would have to try out for school teams and only the kids who were fast and skilled would get to play. After this year there would be school dances and even parties they had heard about through an older brother where everyone drank J.D. and people made out.

I opened this chapter this morning to think about rewriting, and it was very discouraging, because I remember this intro being colorful and engaging. But it's obviously barf, and presumably there's a lot more of that in the rest of my first draft.

The first thing I wanted to do was to start editing. If you go through one sentence at a time, you'll see lots of opportunities to clean it up. The first sentence is awkward and clumsy, and I could easily rewrite it for more clarity and impact. The second sentence has that problem plus the problem of having extra detail that is probably unnecessary. I could make the tough choice to chop that out. The next three sentences each start with weak verbs and abstract subjects.

And so on, and before long what I'm actually doing is more like editing the book at the sentence level. But what this paragraph--and probably the whole chapter--really needs is a rewrite. And I don't mean a sentence-by-sentence rewrite.

I mean I need to look at it, decide what the real story buried underneath it is--the powerful metaphor, the meaningful plot points, the honest behaviors of the character--and pull those out and write the chapter again to emphasize all that. Instead of trying to make this paragraph flow better, I need to treat this paragraph as a big clue to what the story is really trying to say and then write that down.

That distinction is going to be tough to remember. The temptation as I'm reading through will be to just stop and fix each individual sentence trying to find the right word. But I'm not to the point yet where I should struggle to find the right word. I'm still trying to find out who my characters really are and what they want and what they're going to do to surprise one another.

So all those exercises I'm doing while I have the draft put away really serve two important purposes. One, they help me figure out more about my character and story. Two, I'm trying to get the important stuff established so well in my mind that the urge to tell the real story swamps any urge to line edit the draft on the page. I have to get something into my head more powerful and important than the words currently on the page.

To put it another way, the draft isn't there for me to fix. The draft is there to give hints about what I'm supposed to write next.

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