Endless Rewrites and How to Stop Them

Someone shared the above graphic in Taylor Stevens Facebook group recently. Podcaster and really good guy Stephen Campbell of The Author Biz commented: “For me, the erasing and retyping what you just wrote areas need to be larger, which probably shrinks that already small purple section.”

It was a call for help. Not really, but it felt like one and it got all my “gotta fix this” neurons buzzing. Our group was just wrapping up a conversation about how annoying it is to get unsolicited advice, so instead of telling Steve what he should do, I am tossing my thoughts here where people can stumble upon them and be awed by my wisdom (yeah, right).

NOTE: None of the thoughts below are commentary on Steve’s writing or his processes. The first is quite competent and the second I know nothing about. These are my thoughts, generated in response to his statement.

What does it mean when you keep rewriting the same scene, paragraph, sentence, over and over? 

  1. You aren’t clear about your characters’ motivations.
  2. You know something is wrong, but you don’t know what.
  3. You don’t believe the way you write is good enough and you’re chasing “Style.”
  4. You’re afraid.

Which one it is depends on the nature of your rewrites.

CHARACTER MOTIVATION

If you keep changing what your characters say and do, if you’re unsure what should happen and how it should happen, it points to not being grounded in who your characters are and why they do what they do. Maybe you are too focused on the what and not enough on the why.

Action starts with motivation. If you know what motivates your characters, you don’t have to invent what happens next. You just have to ask them how they’re going to deal with matters as they stand.

Inventing a character’s motivations and personality from scratch is, to me, an overwhelming process of “if X experienced Y, she is now motivated by the need for Z and is likely to do A, B and C.”

After five novels, I am more comfortable inventing characters. In the beginning I drew on people I knew – in some case, soup-to-nuts, with their permission. (BTW, I don’t recommend this. It has worked for me, but with the caveat that I have to consider how they will feel about what I do with them in my books.) Most authors do this to some extent.

Pick your boozy Uncle George to be the alcoholic father of your victim, but make him a plumber instead of a stockbroker, make him 50 pounds lighter and shave his head. This gives you plausible deniability.

When your detective questions him, you’ll know exactly how he will respond and what he will say because you’ve been watching Uncle George all your life. Perhaps you’ve given George sixteen tentacles or super strength. You still understand him well  enough to know what he’d do what that kind of power.

This is a form of working backwards, taking an existing personality and unpacking it. You may never have considered why George acts the way he does, but you start out instinctively knowing what he will do. Over the course of your book you can explore NotGeorge and discover important things about him that will enrich your story. Meanwhile, you will have a believable character with consistent behavior.

The bonus of this strategy is the events in your story evolve in an organic fashion, with solid grounding, and complications will emerge on their own.

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT’S WRONG

Something in your story isn’t working, so you keep rewriting bits, hoping it will come together. The rewrites aren’t helping because they don’t address the real problem. There are three issues that will kill a story:

Your lead character isn’t compelling enough. The character isn’t sympathetic or admirable. They don’t have to be perfect. It’s better if they’re not. But you do have to give us reason to care about them or your story will fall flat and readers won’t finish your book.

Your story lacks structure. A story is like a house. If it doesn’t have all the parts we expect, nobody will buy it. This topic is beyond the scope of a blog post, but there are many books on the subject.

The stakes aren’t high enough. You haven’t communicated why all the drama in your book matters. Ho hum.

CHASING STYLE

You want to be a wordsmith with a unique voice. I get it. We all want that. Pursuit of a “mature” style was something everyone aspired to during my years in art school. The thing is, if you pursue it for it’s own sake, you are likely to wind up sounding like someone else or very contrived.

Imagine we are all ice cream. We look around us and we see Sally, who is chocolate ice cream. David is cherry cordial ice cream and Becky is black raspberry chocolate chip. And there’s us, and we’re just plain old ice cream. No flavor. It’s horribly demoralizing.

What I need to understand is I’ve got a flavor, I just don’t know what it is and I need to grow into it. Other people can see it but it’s invisible to me because it’s just the way I do things, and since I do it all the time, it’s nothing special.

True style grows from the inside out. It results from your unique tastes, sense of logic, and priorities. If you ignore everything else out there and listen to yourself when you look at your work, what makes a sentence or a paragraph fulfill its purpose—in your eyes, you will get there.

Focus on the story and what it takes to tell it. Please yourself in the process. Style will take care of itself.

Chances are you have heroes who are amazing wordsmiths. They didn’t start out that way, and it takes years to learn enough—about writing, about yourself—to make tweaking every word a productive enterprise. In early days it’s more likely to be a case of polishing the deck on the Titanic.

Focus on your story and getting it told. Get it all down on paper, and expect much if not most of it to be written badly. Put it away for a month and when you come back, apply yourself to structural issues. chances are, your issues are there, not in how you word your sentences. If you tell a good story, 95% of readers won’t notice that you’ve used “that” ten times on one page.

Save line editing for the third go round. Focus on whether your sentences flow well and convey what they need to convey, no more. If you spend a lot of time prettying up your verbage, you risk creating “darlings,” those precious but useless sentences we refuse to cut because they are so adorable.

You’re allowed to own a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, but read it and forget about it.

FEAR

Endlessly rewriting your stuff can be a means of coping with fear. You can sit down at your computer and work on your book every day without ever coming close to having a finished manuscript. This keeps you safe from ever having to face public opinion.

The way to reduce fear is to manage your expectations. Very few writers launch their careers with bestsellers. If they did, chances are, Like Harper Lee, they had extensive mentoring and editing before they published. (Taylor Stevens is another matter. We won’t talk about her.)

Most big name authors published not-so-great stuff under a different name before they hit upon their secret sauce and big success. I’m talking Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, and even Lawrence Block, who wrote lesbian porn early in his career. Tami Hoag published meh romantic suspense early in her career before she wrote A Thin Dark Line.

But what about first books that became NYT bestsellers? The Celestine Prophecy? The Christmas Box? Fifty Shades of Grey? Slammed? In every one of those cases, the author wrote a book to please themselves, one that was not available in the market place. The books were personal and originally not intended for the marketplace. The books took off because their authenticity resonated with the public.

Fifty Shades and Celestine Prophecy (along with many titles by very successful self-published writers) have been castigated for sub-par writing. That should tell you that the average reader cares more about good storytelling than they do about perfect English. If you tell a good story, people will forgive a lack of eloquence as long as your writing is adequate.

The other thing you you need to accept is there is no way to get around your fear except to plow through it. Tell yourself, “Yes, I’m terrified, but if I don’t finish this book and get it out there, I will look back on my life as a failure to pursue my dreams and I will wind up old and bitter and have nothing to show for myself. I would rather give it my best shot and fail than live with never having tried.”

4 thoughts on “Endless Rewrites and How to Stop Them”

  1. “If you keep changing what your characters say and do, if you’re unsure what should happen and how it should happen, it points to not being grounded in who your characters are and why they do what they do.” —– Nailed it!

    This is a huge problem for me, especially early in the writing process. After ten more minutes catching up with social media obligations, I was planning on “massaging” the first three scenes of my WIP, based on a better understanding of character motivation. Now I’ve changed those plans and instead will take a take a deeper dive into what makes this particular character tick. Thanks 🙂

    1. Donna – Thank you! It’s nice to know when someone finds my posts helpful. I can’t claim to be an expert on writing and have no ambitions to be one. My craft posts are always inspired by friends with writing dilemmas. Long after they ask a question or express frustration (and are no longer around), thoughts are buzzing in my head and I have to get them out.

      If you want to hear more from me about writing, ask a question. I can’t resist giving advice. It’s one of my bigest failings, though at my age I have hopefully learned how to separate topics about which I am and am not qualified to comment on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *