We’ve all been there, haven’t we? FAcing the manuscript, the first draft, with the question “What’s next?” dying on our lips, and a growing realization sitting like a lead weight in our bellies: Rewriting. That’s what comes next. The Elysium Fields of publication seem to hurtle themselves back into the distance, once so close we could almost touch them, and that’s how we find ourselves staring at our computer screens at six in the morning, wondering how not to tear out our hair over the rewrite process.
I have some thoughts on that.
Take a clue from your normal writing habits.
This is assuming you have writing habits, of course. I’m an extremely disorganized writer, which means I’m writing at all times of days, usually in my pajamas with a cup of tea, but sometimes with a bowl of pretzels. Still, take a clue. Rewriting is often a point of contention because it doesn’t feel like “real writing”–it feels more like butchering something you produced while doing “real writing.” So put yourself in the same creative space, frame of mind, and habitual place as you would if you were generating new material–and make the leap to recognizing rewriting as an opportunity for creativity, too. Maybe if you feel the way you do about “real writing,” you can trick yourself into resenting it less! That’s my theory, anyway.
Pay attention to your body.
Some of the writers I went through school with ascribed to the “starving artist” stereotype, churning out reams of paper on old-school typewriters at 3 AM fueled solely by cigarettes and certain controlled substances. These authors were incredibly productive–to a point. They were also complete emotional wrecks who could do nothing else with their days than write (often disorganized) manuscripts. But you and I? We can’t afford to burn the candle at both ends, to let ourselves be eaten up by life-destroying fuels like these. We have lives and families to take care of, that we delight in taking care of, when we’re not writing. So writing, of course, has to take its place among an ever-changing, always difficult to manage, list of priorities … and the only way to manage them all is not to go off the deep end. So: pay attention to your body. You will produce your best work, and leave the most room for life outside of writing too, if you take care of this collection of bones and blood vessels and brain cells to the best of your ability. Write healthy, with a full meal under your belt and a full night’s sleep just over with. Don’t rely on anything that’s not good for you to be your brain fuel–even the seemingly harmless caffeine, which in point of fact is a strong bowel irritant and likely to break up your concentration with a half dozen bathroom breaks each writing session. (It also, naturally, will dehydrate you–even if you’re constantly chugging caffeinated liquids.)
Alternate between a “GET-UR-DONE” attitude & a more forgiving one.
Look, for some people, it’s never going to be fun, this rewrite thing. But constantly punishing yourself for not getting it done is counter-productive, and will leave you feeling more and more dissatisfied with the whole process over time, just as constantly forgiving yourself for not working on it will also snowball into a giant lump of self-loathing and regret. So: set yourself some deadlines, and carve out some time just to slam away at that keyboard. But also: establish some boundaries within which you can forgive yourself for not being as productive as you’d like, and etc. Always remember that rewriting, like “real writing,” requires moderation in all things. So alternate between those driven and those relaxed modes of working, and you’ll find yourself chipping away at the monolithic manuscript, despite your fear of the thing.
Duh, right? Only … no. This is actually the hardest part: reconciling your original vision for a book with what’s coming off of the page before you. There’s no more obvious place or time for this to happen than during the rewrite, when your analytical mind is hard at work trying to sew up loose ends and fix flaws. But producing something with a mind of its own isn’t a flaw–it’s a natural consequence of creating interesting characters who evolve past your original vision and into something greater, more complex, and … different. If you can, take a step back and admire the reality of what you’ve written instead of wasting time and energy bemoaning the departure from your intent. Then approach your book the way a professional editor might, from a mindset of: “This is what I’ve been given to work with, so how can I make it the best possible version of itself?” instead of feeling cheated of something different. You’re your own harshest critic, remember? And whatever you’ve put on the page, predicted or not, changed or not, is magnificent and wonderful–and we’re proud of you for it. Work with and not against this new and wonderful thing! You won’t regret it.
You are not alone. ♣︎