Thursday, October 23, 2008

The courage to re-write, and even to re-think

Writing can feel overly precious at times. When you craft a passage you're fond of, letting it go or allowing yourself to re-think it can feel almost sacrilegious. Adrianna fell in love with a two-chapter sequence in her most recent book, but she also understood that they really should be combined into one leaner chapter. The first reason was balance -- if she devotes two chapters to one period in the life of the 19th century author she's writing about, that will inaccurately indicate to the reader that this period of the author's life is of outsized importance, and it isn't. The second reason was pacing. Although Adrianna loved her longer passages that detailed minutiae in the author's world, she also knows that readers by definition usually care less. She has devoted her life now to writing this book, but they are doing her a favor by giving her a few hours of their lives, and she can't take advantage of that by boring them, or they'll walk away.

So she combined the two chapters into one, and pared it down by fourteen pages. That felt painful at first, but she is comfortable with what's gone, and it passed a crucial test: upon re-reading, she didn't miss any of it.

The chapter still doesn't "work," however. It's not badly written, but it needs vigor and coherence. It needs pacing. I've advised her to lay it aside for now and move on to the next one, with the promise to herself that she'll return to fix it when it feels fresh again. She may have to consider actually re-writing part of it, or even re-thinking it at a fundamental level. Although words can feel inevitable or unchangeable once you've written them (Alastair Fowler said they tend to harden, like concrete hardens, if you write too soon), they're just words. You can re-state, scrap and start over, try fresh approaches, anything! And the re-write is usually faster than the original, because your mind now knows what it wants to say, so it's simply a matter of stating it in an engaging and accessible way.

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