Writer’s Rant: Rewriting Is Torturous

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Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today-explode-fly-apart-disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture.”

Ray Bradbury

God, Ray Bradbury. I love that man.

And he certainly had one thing right: fixing your writing after you’ve spewed out the first draft is absolute torture.

I hate it. It’s like having to pack up your toys neatly into their boxes after you’ve spent a glorious day playing with them. It’s like having to turn a stinking, collapsing pile of turd into a five-star restaurant chocolate cake in five seconds. It’s like giving birth, but in reverse, which I am sure, if it were possible, is infinitely more painful than the usual process (better in than out, as they say).

And I am bad at it.

Awful, in fact.

I am quite good at the exploding part, when you just write, pen flying across the page, without a care in the world, having as much fun as possible imagining scenes in your head and letting them pour out as words. It’s by no means easy, I’ll grant you that, but it has its pleasures. For the first draft, you are basically caught along the current of your imagination, flowing downstream at breakneck speed. It’s exciting.

Unfortunately, at some point, most likely when you spot the edge of the world, you have to pick up your oars, and start rowing furiously back the way you came, against the current—and we all know how hard fighting against resistance is. That’s what editing is like. Swimming against the current. Picking up the pieces, especially the body parts, after the bomb has exploded.

See, after your first draft, at least for me, what you have sitting in front of you is a mess. It’s rubbish—useful rubbish, of course, but still rubbish. It’s unpublishable. For instance: In the first chapter a character kicks the bucket and expires in a cloud of withering ectoplasm and flies; then five or so chapters before the end of the book, you’ve decided to bring him back to life, and he becomes prominent player in the climax scene. Crucial, in fact. Which means you have to change all the pages in the book before those last five chapters, which is practically, let’s be honest, the entire book, in order to include that character in every scene, every exchange, otherwise his pivotal role at the end won’t make sense.

And that’s not all (it never is all, is it?). Sometimes, the pieces don’t fit right. There are wonky parts. Pipes corkscrewing out of walls where there should be windows. Rooms without doors. A dog sitting in the cat basket. So you have to do some serious re-arranging, and I have trouble even re-arranging my bed in the morning—usually I just leave it rumpled—so to expect me to do the same, except on a much larger scale, for an entire fantasy world, is kind of a tall order, wouldn’t you say?

Then there’s the small matter of sentences being hard to write, and write, and re-write. It’s hard to write sentences. I find it hard to write sentences. Come on, let’s not be ashamed, this is the Writer’s Support Group, we understand and we do not judge. When I say I find it hard to write sentences, I mean I find it hard to write sentence after sentence after sentence, several thousand times, as you must do for a novel, and make each one interesting, different, relevant, rhythmic and pleasing. There’s a rhythm to words. Some words are better for leading one sentence to the next than others. You need to have short sentences interspersed with long ones, hyphens placed where needed, the commas in all the right places. Even the “shape” of your sentences has to be taken in consideration. Sentences that end in words like “brother” or “kathir” are not as good as sentences that end with “minion” or “dentist”, because the letter “r” feels open-ended, incomplete, like someone dangling out into space on the end of a ladder. See what I mean?

Writing is an art form, and a very complex one. At least ten components come into play with every scene you write: characterisation, imagery, sentence structure, pace, rhythm, dialogue, the effectiveness of one’s metaphors and similes, the effectiveness of the scene itself, the point of the scene. I think that’s nine, but, hey, who’s counting? Not me, certainly. On top of that, you have to make sure you don’t get caught up in making the words sound smart and pretty and sacrifice substance in the process. Oh, and even if, after slaving away for a year or two, you finally get all the sentences and scenes right, upon re-reading it all the way through once more, I guarantee that the book will still feel incomplete.

Sometimes this is because, as writers like to lament, books never feel finished. Or it could very well be because it does actually need a little more work. And most of the time you don’t know whether it needs more work or whether it’s the simple dissatisfaction inherent in all things existing in reality. So you just end up editing it until the very sight of the manuscript makes you want to put a gun to your head—I’ve often heard that’s a good way to know when you’re done.

It’s just awful. It’s as though someone upended a box filled with a million jigsaw puzzles over your head, each piece as small as the head of ant, before proceeding to ask you to finish the puzzle and leaving the room, making sure to lock the door behind them so you can’t escape until you’re done.

Unfortunately, as Ray Bradbury also tells us, in the end, it’s all worth it. Sooner or later, regardless of how long it takes, in the end, you end up with a finished book, and that, to a writer, is always worth every drop of sweat and blood spent improving the first draft. And the second. And the third. And the thirtieth.

What is the greatest reward a writer can have? Isn’t it that day when someone rushes up to you, his face bursting with honesty, his eyes afire with admiration and cries, “That new story of yours was fine, really wonderful!”

– Ray Bradbury

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