Let’s distinguish rewriting from revising. Revising is when you tinker with stuff you’ve already written. That’s fun! Rewriting is when you throw away what you’ve written and start over again. Start a new computer file. Go through the whole story or novel again, typing it from scratch. That can be intimidating. It can be overwhelming. It can feel like a complete waste of time, when you encounter paragraph after paragraph that, as far as you can tell, doesn’t need to change. Why bother? There are more novels to be written. The Red Sox are on TV.
In my post about outlining, I stole an image from E. L. Doctorow of writing as a car journey in the darkness, with only your headlights to guide you as you make your way towards your destination. What happens when you reach that destination? Do you really want to start the journey all over again?
Well, yes, you do. If you’re like me, you accumulate notes during your journey — should have made a left turn here, should have driven a little faster in this stretch, should have taken a shortcut to totally eliminate that stretch. Some of these notes may be the basis for revisions, but often they call for much more. Generally, for me, they accumulate to the point that I need to start from the beginning.
The most obvious example of this was when I figured out that I had come up with the wrong murderer in Senator. That required rejiggering the whole novel. Everything needed to be recalibrated, from the opening sentence to the ending. I’m currently rereading my novel Dover Beach, and I recall one ultimate plot twist that I figured out only when I had finished the first draft. Without the twist, something basic about the book was out of whack. The twist occurs at the very end, but I needed to prepare for it throughout the plot. I can no longer tell exactly where I made the changes, but I figure that’s a good thing — everything in the final product needs to be seamless.
Rewriting is less fun than revision, because it’s more work. But I find it deeply satisfying. And it goes much faster than the first draft, which is what causes me to sweat blood. I have never done more than three drafts — but maybe my work would be better if I had! At some point I’m content to take the latest draft and revise it. And revise it, and revise it.
And still I can look at it later and see where the thing has still fallen short. Here is the famous quotation from Paul Valéry:
A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
This applies to novels, as well, except you have a hundred thousand words to tinker with instead of a hundred. You can tinker forever, so at some point you have to stop. But if you stop too soon, you’re not doing your story, or yourself, justice.