The wisdom of the staircase/rewrite

Another November has come and gone and the easiest 50k I’d ever written is sitting on my hard drive. I’d stopped my last nano just before the last scene to get out Deadman’s Coin, something I had never done before but set a very bad precedence for all of 2015 as I leaped from unfinished project to new sparkly one. It was a year of only finishing two things despite the seven projects on the go.

But, that’s okay. I never went back and reread the first draft as I rewrote the beginning, but once I got to a point where I thought I could copy over some earlier work, I realized the first draft was terrible. I hadn’t written a story where characters walk to a place and talk to a person in years, but this story didn’t even have the other person in it. The MC was just walking. Things were “happening” ie: the other character was telling him stuff, but nothing was happening on the page.

I had a person read the first draft, and of course I thought she just didn’t get it when she said the world was interesting but the characters didn’t work. But when I reread it, the world was interesting and the characters didn’t work. But if I’d sat down to rewrite the first draft again without having written what I had, I’d probably have defaulted back to a character who walked and listened a lot. The world was just the smallest iteration of the fractal it could have been. You don’t have to write infinite worlds, but making it feel as though it is endless is part of a great setting.

Rewriting it, new problems and challenges, motivations and conflict kept coming to the surface. I wrote the first draft in late 2014 so it’s not that I’d matured as a writer that much in that time. Rewriting rather than editing is a massive mulligan. I hadn’t finished the draft, but I’d gotten to the point where I knew where it was going to end, and being able to rewrite that in the beginning as something organic to the plot set the characters on a completely different parallel journey.

It’s a huge opportunity that writers with typewriters would have assumed had to be done. It’s only in the age of the word processor that the first draft could ever be called the final draft without the writer’s fingerprints on every line, in every draft. Shakespeare never blotted a word, but you’re probably not Shakespeare.

And if you’re at a point where your first effort truly is your best effort and nothing needs to change or can plan a novel without writing it that includes all the organic twists and turns that us non-preplotters get handed to us at two a.m. or in the shower as our subconscious mulls over unrelated plot points until they are related, great. Do that thing. For the rest of us, really, great books aren’t written, they’re rewritten applies to almost everyone. Letting your book sit for six months before rewriting it applies, too. Just tidying the prose of the first draft might give you a neat second draft, but it won’t give you the best possible one for most.

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