why rewriting both sucks and is the most exciting part of writing

Rewriting for me is ten times harder than writing first drafts. It took me seven years to realize I had to rewrite after buckling down to the craft of writing as an adult. But at thirty-two I realized I had to rewrite everything I wrote and by thirty-three, I had sold my first semi-pro novel. I might have just been writing plotty smut, but my plotty smut made more money than my brilliant, gold-pen swinging mother-in-law who writes Canadian literature that matters.

I don’t struggle with coming up with things that happen to characters in the moment. The work of rewrites that exhausts me is finding all the different ways I can make what happens in the first draft matter more to the characters so that the choices they make matter more to the reader’s experience.

But talking with Barb Galler-Smith this morning about Intern Ben made me realize just how little time there is in even a novel-length work to put characters through events that don’t have the possibility of changing them. Whether they go through the open door thematic problem of their story depends on exactly how much growth or regression they’ve had since the last time their core values were tested.

And yes, all stories don’t necessarily have to have every event matter to the character on a deeper level than mild curiosity or professional curiosity. Sure. But a story in which mild curiosity or professional duty drives the character’s choices is far more difficult to write than a character with multiple levels of stakes in the game.

And to do in a story that chooses to take shortcuts by telling the reader what they need to know to through dialogue and exposition instead of showing the reader the character’s actions to solve their problem is winning a Spades tournament after declaring before a card is dealt the player intends to win each hand just by shooting the moon.

I’m saying it’s hard, if the metaphor is too specific.

If there’s one thing I wish I could have said in my program, had I had the academic freedom to speak freely without fear of harsh over-supervision from my instructors and further retaliation from my Chair, it would have been that the sooner they learn to show the reader what they only know how to tell, the closer they would be to learning how to make those choices matter for plot reasons. And after they matter for plot reasons, they have to matter for thematic ones.

I would have gone so far as to say that the “choices” were shortcuts in which what is told is only imagined being played out in the author’s mind. The reader won’t share that frame of reference until the characters’ motivations are established. Telling the reader is something that can’t be shown works in a pinch. A punch of it is telling too much the reader doesn’t have the context to imagine how it would have happened yet.

I can’t tell you how many times I was told that if a structural foundation could be broken in interesting ways in work still remembered to this day, it couldn’t possibly be necessary for either of the stories in the particular we were reading that week.

And no one could explain to me how this method actually taught the learner how to achieve their goals for the work. I’m mostly embarrassed it took me three years to realize I couldn’t figure out the program’s pedagogy because it didn’t have one.

Planning to write first drafts of work that don’t need structural edits and is still the best version possible of the story is the most difficult method of learning how to write there is. But it was taught as the only way. Without teaching students the tools to make a constructed story feel at least on par with an organic one, the UBC only taught each story couldn’t be improved on at any other level beyond the prose level.

After a four-month delay, changes I need in my WiR are as easy to see as though I’d left myself detailed notes as to what I had intended but hadn’t quite achieved when I’d clearly thought I’d nailed it exactly. What needs to happen in the second draft shows exactly the thematic growth of the characters in ways that can echo a deeper understanding of who these characters are or think they are or need to become to succeed. One of them will have to make a choice that had he not met the secondary protagonist, he could not have made. It will cement his fame forever so that the nth grandchild of his will still wear his name and the fact they wear it matters.

In the first draft, that character didn’t change throughout the entire book and the “does something to make his name a progenitor’s line” happened sometime between book one and two. Rewriting is the most frustrating part of the entire process, but the results pay off better than being an establishment politician.

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