Rewriting How-To

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 27th, 20132013-08-27T17:45:07Zl, F jS, Y at 10:45 am2013-08-27T17:45:07Zg:i a

Whether you are writing a script, novel, essay, short fiction or non-fiction book, you know that really, there are four parts of writing:

1) Thinking about writing, jotting down notes, getting inspired.
2) Actually writing.
3) Procrastinating about writing.
4) Editing and rewriting.

Overall though, they say that writing IS rewriting.

Most of us look at a piece we’ve written and immediately start changing word choices and making small changes like that.

Word tweaking falls under the rewrite aegis of looking for and eliminating alliteration (words that sound the same, or are inadvertent tongue-twisters) and word repetition. But sometimes word repetition can be used for comedic (or other) effect:

Example from The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson:

People who see what’s coming have faulty chronology, that is all. Treslove’s clocks were all wrong. He no sooner saw the woman than he saw the aftermath of her – his marriage proposal, and her acceptance, the home they would set up together, the drawn rich silk curtains leaking purple light, the bed sheets billowing like clouds, the wisp of aromatic smoke winding from the chimney – only for (all of it) ….to come crashing down on him in the moment of her walking past.

She didn’t leave him for another man, or tell him she was sick of him and their life together, she passed away in a perfected dream of tragic love – consumptive, wet-eyelashed, and as often as not singing her goodbyes to him in phrases borrowed from popular Italian opera.

…he would sometimes catch himself rehearsing his last words to her – also as often as not borrowed from the popular Italian operas….

So in this case we have word or phrase repetition – for a comedic effect. It works. This is not a mistake. But there are many times when writes use and overuse favorite words relatively unconsciously.

So look at the words in your piece (script, essay, fiction) and asking yourself:

*Am I overusing a particular word?
*Is this word or phrase alliterative? (Susan saw sheer cycles suddenly)
*Is there a more effective word here?

But there’s more to rewriting than simple word changes.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but the next most valuable step is simply to look at your word count.

Word count, like blood pressure, can indicate many things very quickly.

First – how many words are you shooting for?

For flash fiction, you’re going for no more than 1,000 words.
For a novel, about 80K words overall, and about 2K words per chapter.
For a script, you’re looking at 100 pages (we don’t count words in scriptville).
For a short story, you’re looking at around 5,000 words.

These are all rough, by the way (except flash fiction, there really is a defined limit).

Now – why do word counts matter as far as editing?

Too many words might indicate that your story is rambling too much and not covering the basic structure of beginning, middle, end. It could affect the story in any of those areas – could be your beginning is verbose and not getting to the central dramatic point soon enough.

So what’s wrong with that? Taking too long to actually arrive at the central dramatic point of the beginning, middle OR end could mean losing the interest of your reader. So it matters.

Word count generally points to the efficacy of your structure. Simply reducing excess words in and of itself will address this.

Having just done something to address structure – let’s see if it was effective.

Look at your piece (and this applies to essays, short fiction, flash fiction and your novel because structure can be broken down into the macro and the micro) and try to identify the beginning, middle and end. If you are writing a script you better damn well be able to identify your 3 acts or I’ll give you what for :)

Can you find organic end-points for each? Can you identify the breaks between your set up (beginning) the meat of the story itself (where conflict piles up and questions are raised) and the ending (where all comes to a head)?

This ability to identify your story as having a beginning, a middle and an end will serve you very well when you have to ask yourself what the reader will “get” from your story. Again, this is a prerequisite of screenwriting and no joke.

What was your story or script REALLY about? It’s never REALLY about the actual events – it’s about the theme. And the theme is communicated through the arc of the character.

Character Arc

In scripts, characters very often go from one, lesser, less evolved way of being to a newer, better, more evolved way of being. That’s what movie audiences want – to cheer for GOOD change.

In short fiction and flash fiction, characters often sink into their own morass. This is not a strict rule, but a generalization. It really doesn’t matter whether your character rises into a new, better way of thinking or whether they do not – as long as there is some movement in either direction – some change that peaks into a new way of thinking and being – or peaks and …. falls back into ignorance. A near miss.

In Revelation, by Flannery O’Connor (full text here for your enjoyment), my personal favorite short story of ALL TIME (no bias there!) our main character is an ignorant racist who, it would seem MIGHT be gaining some insights – she MIGHT – but at the very end of the story we see she actually has gained NO insight and the omniscient narrator of the story makes that plain to us.

Revelation is a tragic journey from ignorance to the possibility of awakening back to ignorance.

A definite ARC happens in Revelation – in three parts.

Often, when we write, structure comes to us relatively organically – we don’t necessarily need to think it through consciously. You will often, in other words, look at your piece later and see a structure and character arc. You probably will. But if you don’t – you need to make sure it IS there as you rewrite.

You must attempt to distance yourself from the story and ask yourself does it all pay off ? Does your story conclude – somehow in some way, for better or for ill? Does it all add up? What will the reader take away from this?

Thematic Arc – what did it all mean?

We know the more sophisticated what we write is, the more ephemeral what the reader will take away – they will have something to chew on, to discuss, to relate to – that is the nature of great writing. So it doesn’t have to be pat – but it has to be something. You owe it to your reader.

Good story tellers have a point – even one that is not easily accessible. Again, for screenwriters, your point and theme and character arc generally need to be plainer.

If you are writing an essay the same ideas apply – MORESO.

Say I’m writing an essay on self-confidence. The essay starts with how I didn’t have any (beginning) it segues into a situation in which I learned it (middle) and then it concludes with how I am now changed and how good (or bad) that is. The ending wraps your whole point up. If you can’t easily identify your ending you may need to ask yourself what your point was after all.

You need to be much more pointed in an essay than you do fiction, since fiction by definition is more open to subjective analysis.

So writing really IS rewriting. Developing the skills to take your word dump and then give it a shape.

So to review the steps of rewriting:

Word tweak to your heart’s content. You know you want to, get it out of your system – and it is an important aspect of rewriting.

Look at your word count and make sure it is servicing your story and the medium in which it is written.

Examine the structure. Separate your story into beginning, middle and end and make sure that your character has an arc – even an arc that ends up going back to square one.

This means that in the ‘middle’ conflict and action should happen that impacts your character – again, even if that means it ultimately drives them back to their old beliefs. OR gives them an epiphany and insight that leads to a new world view, a new view of things.

Warning: You can rewrite forever. It is possible to tweak a piece to death. You begin to lose the magic, lose your voice, and drive yourself crazy. So how do you know when enough is enough?

Usually a short story or essay that is published has been rewritten from 1 to 50 times – so only you know when you’ve done enough and it is time to let it go.

You will usually know by your gut feelings. When you begin to get sick of the story, when you hate rewriting it, when it feels like a chore – you’re past done.

Rewriting should feel GOOD because every change you make is improving and improving the story or piece.

One way to check in on yourself is to get a read from a friend or peer. Do that more than once – get another pair of eyes on the piece. You might just need to step. Away. From the. Story.


Treat yourself to Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas

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