Rewrite Hell

I have been rewriting the novel The Crashpoint Cascade for years (very part time though, because of family and work obligations). It has gone through about four major drafts and is now into its fifth. Some of that has been due to me learning how to write a novel. But a lot of it is just the requisite work needed. With two readers having poured through an entire draft, I have a pile of edits to put in. This is a real rewrite, more so than the others, because it is based on input from two other human brains that are not mine.

Rewriting is creative destruction in its purest essence. Favorite chunks of prose are slaughtered, ideas are belittled, put on the stand, and often executed. Characters become collateral damage. The process can seem endless, pointless, and will make you question why you ever bothered to show the world how you are a no-talent idiot that doesn't have the sense to recognize the foolishness of trying something so far beyond your abilities. Sometimes you have to write some new stuff that you know will be trashed just to get you a couple more steps on the journey to better understanding the story or a character. And sometimes you don't realize that it will be trashed until later on during a quietly sober moment of despair.

And then, while rewriting, you'll see a story point snap into place. A character steps into some contrived dead end you are sweating and takes the story in a better direction. You find some really cool chunks and they point you to new changes. Edits that you or the readers suggest spawn a whole series of new ideas and you are off and running again. Crest and trough, crest and trough.

Other writers have talked more eloquently about rewriting hell than I have, (Elizabeth Bear has this excellent post about rewrite hell here and and elsewhere she recommends this post by Justine Larbalestier) but experiencing this first hand is worth sharing.

One of the key things they and others mention is that you have to persevere. There won't be a light at the end of the tunnel for a long while, if ever, and if you stop, all is lost. If you don't go far enough, the finished product won't be good enough. Rewriting makes everyone feel like an abject failure and question their use of talent and time on writing. It never goes away, apparently. Or, as Woody Allen put it, 90% of success is showing up and by definition, not giving up.

There's a reason why many published writers' first complete novels sit in drawers, unpublished but not unloved, but never to be returned to. It could be that these novels are the necessary learning failures, never ready for primetime. And maybe each is the scar that reminds the writer about hard won lessons driven home about slogging through the rewrite stage, the bionic right hand that constantly reminds what impatience, inexperience and lack of commitment can result in.

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