It’s the little things, stupid …

Worse than journeying into the land of Mordor is the voyage through the Swamp of Rewrite Hell.

Example 1: You’re on page two of rewriting and you suddenly realise that a minor character’s motivation – that you hadn’t given any thought to a year ago – suddenly becomes very important. Why would he be doing what he does now, when later in the book what he does is … ohmigod, the alarms go off. You scurry through the text, looking for every appearance of this character – what does he say? Does he compromise the plot? Does he make sense any more?

Example 2: On re-reading the description of a character’s relationship with his brother, you see that you’ve seriously undersold that relationship. The way the book has turned out, you need to beef up the conflict between them … while at the same time making it clear that there is a profound feeling between them that never gets expressed. All you’ve done in the book as written is to maneouver them around the plot, enabling them to interact with your protagonist but not actually developing them as individuals in their own right, and with a relationship to each other that turns out to drive the conclusion of the whole story.

These are examples from only the first six chapters of a 46 chapter book, and show how difficult it is to construct something that is logical, compelling and makes sense at even a superficial level. Well, difficult for me, I should say.

This book was the result of the most lucid and complete planning process I’d ever worked through … and still there are flaws in the motivations of characters. Partly this is because of the fact that as you write, the story continues to develop. Better ideas occur to you than did when you were in the planning stage. Or writing a character brings them to life in such a way that they begin to drive the story in a different direction to that which you’d planned.

I knew all that, and was ready for it.

But what I’ve learned is that not only must you have the direction of each scene planned – the way in, the conflict, the outcome for the protagonist – but you must also examine the motivation of each character in the scene. Why are they there? What do they want? How did they get themselves into this situation and what will they do as soon as they leave this scene? Obviously this is important for you to know about your protagonist and your major characters. But I’m realising you also need to know these things for your minor characters, too. Otherwise, a year down the line, you start to re-read and suddenly find yourself saying, ‘But that doesn’t make sense. Why would he do that? Given what happens later … ‘

Actually, this isn’t Rewrite Hell. This is the part I like best. Fixing it. Spotting the inconsistencies. Bottoming out the characters. Tying together the plot points so that they’re evident to the reader as well as to me.

But it’s frightening when you come across something plainer than the nose on the Wicked Witch’s face, and you didn’t spot it two years ago. In the immortal words of Jay Leno, ‘What were you thinking?’

Explore posts in the same categories: Good writing, The Writing Life

3 Comments on “It’s the little things, stupid …”

  1. bob Says:

    Time to employ Word Redrafting Wizard?

    How does it look after the break? I agree that this is the best part – not that I’ve ever written anything as long or as complex as a novel – but at least you feel you’ve really got something to work with.

    Good luck.


  2. Simonne Says:

    Ooo, (cooed in reverence), the fact that you two enjoy the rewrite as the “best part” deserves a moment’s silence methinks…

    …That’ll do.


    That first unleashing of words on the blank page is the absolute best bit for me, so the rewrite stage can feel a little tedious, but I can see the joy in making something better than it was in the first place; that has its own sense of freedom I guess!

  3. Dee Marie Says:

    Oh, I totally understand both the frustration and exhilaration of an extensive rewrite. I remember the evening my novel was finished (or at least I thought it was). I had just dozed into slumber, when a dark and sullen knight sat on the side of my bed and insisted that I include “his” side of the story (along with his motley crew of friends.).

    I woke from my lucid dream…screaming, “Noooooooo! The book is finally finished…I cannot possibly add five characters, each with a complicated storyline.” But, add them I did, and I was glad that I did, as they brought a richness to the story that was originally missing in the previous draft.

    Keep up the great work, and I look forward to the publication of the second book in this series.

    Dee Marie

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