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On Rewriting Your Manuscript: Beautiful Storytelling

Yesterday I talked to you about your book’s big, bad rewrite. I gave you one example of how it might go, and then started into a bit of a pep talk.

Now it’s time for me to tell you about application, to tell you how to do your rewrite. That’s a tricky task. I don’t have a prewriting document for you to update this week, because your job is updating the book itself. And I can’t tell you exactly what to change in the book, because it’s taken you three weeks of endless read-throughs to figure that out yourself.

Surface Tension

I can get back to the pep talk a little bit, though, and give you some specifics. It’s nothing glamorous, nothing blindingly brilliant, but it’s a handy little trick I’ve used for years.

One of the metaphors I used yesterday was, “making that first incision.” It’s a good one. I find myself thinking of Spies like Us, or any of a dozen similar slapstick scenarios in which someone who’s not a doctor is forced into the position of pretending to be a doctor.

Staring at my manuscript, it’s like I’m standing there over a living, breathing person, with a scalpel in hand and some desperate relative anxiously urging me on to make the cut, while I know better. I know as soon as I start slicing, I’m going to do irreparable damage. I’m going to expose the delicate innards, and healthy or not, they’re not going to be made better by my clumsy poking and prodding.

It’s a special kind of surface tension, a whole manuscript that doesn’t want to be broken. I can scroll right to the spot where I know I need to add a half-page of exposition by the masked villain, but then as I read through the page I see the seamless transitions, the clever interplay of dialogue as-is, and it just seems impossible to wedge something new in there.

Here’s what I do. It’s going to get technical, so bear with me. I’m usually working in Google Docs, and occasionally Microsoft Word, but the same process should work equally well in OpenOffice, or whatever word processor you use.

Here it goes:

  1. Place the cursor in somewhere close to the right spot.
  2. Hit Enter a couple dozen times.

That’s it. That’s the first incision. That’s enough to break the surface tension. It gives you a workspace, right there in the middle of your document.

Go to the middle of your new gap and start writing. Add new sentences, paragraphs — get the whole thing you need written in that gap, and then start thinking about how you’ll stitch it back into the space above and below.

Maybe you’ll grab a paragraph above the gap and move it below. Maybe you’ll merge it into the new text. Maybe you’ll rewrite it. The key is getting that gap there, and coming to terms with it.

The easiest way to do that is to take a deep breath, hit Enter a bunch of times, and then immediately type something there in the middle. After that, your psyche will relax its grip enough to let you be a writer again, for another half hour or so.

Support Materials

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopAs you’re working, don’t forget your support materials! You spent weeks in October writing them up, and I had to remind you to use them during November.

Now you’ve spent weeks more updating them through all your various read-throughs, and it was all for this moment. As you scroll through the document, as you make your incisions, remember to go back to your prewriting to see what it is you need to get done in there.

If you’ve managed them right, they should make an excellent structural overview of your document. They’re your X-rays and CAT scans, your blood work and test results. They tell you in shorthand what shape your story is in, and where it needs to be.

Critical Review (Creative Writing Exercise)

Speaking of which…there’s another useful shorthand for the state of a novel: the critical review. As you work through your book this time (or, better yet, after you’re done with it), spend some time thinking about it as a reader. Imagine you’re a book critic, and evaluate the story you’ve managed to build.

When you’re done, write a critical review of your finished product. Is it an engaging read, or a big snooze? Where does it falter? Where does it excel? Think about writing a 100- to 300-word review like you post on Amazon, recommending the book or warning off unwary readers.

It’s a handy exercise. In fact, I’d recommend making this your updated support document for this read-through. Go ahead and write your review before you do your rewrite. Write it based on the three reads you’ve already done, and based on the snapshot provided in your prewriting. Write a really detailed inventory of the books strengths and weaknesses.

Then take a deep breath or two, try to relax (because an exercise like that is bound to get you a little worked up), and do your rewrite. Work all the way through your book with an eye to fixing every flaw in your critical review, and polishing even the strengths until they absolutely glow.

Then, when you’re done, go back to your review and and give it what-for. Slash out all the criticisms you’ve fixed, heap up new praise for the characterization and style and pitch-perfect pacing you just added.

Give yourself credit for the book you’ve made. I wouldn’t let you take too much back at the end of November. But now? Now you’ve written a book.

Congratulations. I’m proud of you.

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