The Mechanical Rewrite

As an editor, I often ask authors to write new material for their manuscript. I may suggest, for example, that a character needs a few extra scenes to remain vital later on. The quality of the responses varies tremendously. Some writers write freely to achieve the proposed aim. Others, though, write only limited material, as though a teacher had assigned a lesson and they are doing the minimum required to discharge an onerous burden.

Whenever an editor, or a colleague in a writing group, makes a suggestion, that doesn’t change one salient fact. It is still your book. You want all parts of the book to be equal in quality. If the new material isn’t as good as your original draft, the book is going to sag in those sections. It is true that writing inserts can feel less creative than the first blush of enthusiasm. So how do you overcome the feeling of writing by rote? You need to make the suggestion your own.

Let’s say the developmental note asks for a background story for Howard: one incident of his father’s verbal belittling. The example serves as the rule. You may have an example that jumps to mind right away. You know a perfect story, very possibly because you yourself were belittled as a child. Yet other times the response is not so immediate. The suggestion hits you in a vulnerable spot: yes, you did make up the verbal abuse because it seemed to fit Howard, but your own father was always supportive of your efforts. So you write a quarter page of an incident that lacks good details or emotions—because you really don’t know what to do.

Okay, so let’s stop right there. Remind yourself: whose book is this, anyway? The editor’s/writing friend’s or yours? If you think it’s a good idea, you need to show it. First off, do a global search for all other material related to the father. Read over what you’ve already written. Now think about Howard: what qualities of his show his lack of confidence? Think through these issues, then jot down a few points.

What you’re doing is synthesizing the suggestion so that when you come up with a creative response, it is your own, stemming from what you already know about your characters. You’ve set yourself a new puzzle, the same way you set yourself all those other puzzles while you were writing the first draft. And you knew how to solve them—according to your own feelings.

Exercise: When you stop worrying so much about how to respond to a suggestion, you can relax and let your mind drift. You may find, for instance, that you remember a story a friend told you a long time ago about her father’s constant comments. Maybe that is related to the night she finally erupted at him. There it is, a nice half-page back story, and it fits Howard very well.

“Thought is only a flash between two long nights, but this flash is everything.”
—Henri PoincarĂ©

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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