Here’s what I’m doing right now. I’ve written before about the urban fantasy I wrote several years ago, sold to a small press that promptly went belly-up, and have had trouble reselling to another publisher ever since. I love this book. I believe parts of it are better than anything else I’ve done. I love the lead character. I love the romance that develops as the plot progresses. I adore the secondary characters. I love the magic system, too, but I think it’s been problematic from a marketing standpoint, and I’ve come to recognize that other parts of the book are flawed. It’s not going to sell as I originally wrote it. About six weeks ago I had an epiphany about this book. I came up with a new magic system that is marketable — more so than anything I’ve dreamed up before, for any book.
So, I am in the process of rewriting my beloved book. I’m trying to salvage those scenes and plot points and character interactions that work, while weaving in a new magic system, a new plot, and some new characters. It is, quite possibly, the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer. I’ve been trying to come up with an analogy that does justice to the process, and so far haven’t been able to. I started with the basic car analogy — I’m keeping the body, but rebuilding the engine and drive-train and all that, but that’s really a poor comparison. A car has discreet parts that can be removed from one another. The elements of a novel are far more interwoven. There are things that I want to keep and others that I have to remove, and these parts are joined together like an old piece of gum wrapped in tissue. They simply can’t be separated; they have to excised.
Ultimately what I’m doing, to borrow the house building analogy that Faith used many months ago to describe writing a book, is rebuild the foundation and interior design of a house while maintaining the outer structure. I’m ripping out floors and knocking down walls. I’m taking out some weight-bearing beams and hoping to God that the whole thing doesn’t collapse before I can replace them. I’ve had several false starts with this. The first time I panicked and gave up, thinking that the new idea wasn’t as good as I’d thought. I was ready to give up, but quickly reconsidered. At this point, giving up probably means abandoning any hope of seeing the book in print, and I can’t live with that. The second time I realized that I wasn’t being bold enough. I was making changes around the edges. I was trying to recreate the original book with a few cosmetic alterations. I was afraid to attack those supporting beams, and so I wasn’t making it into anything new. I abandoned that effort and started again.
I’ve got it right now, though. I’m being more ruthless. I’m having to let go of some of what I loved about the original. Scenes and plot points that were dear to me are gone. Others are on the chopping block, because I finally have the narrative going in a new direction. And in the process, I’m discovering a few things. First, some of what I loved about the first version wasn’t as good as I thought. I’m cutting those things, because they deserve to be cut. Second (and this is related), I’m a better writer now. I’m able to make those original scenes that still work shine even more than they did. And the scenes and characters that I’m adding are better than anything I’ve had to lose. Third, and this might be the most important lesson, the characters that work and the elements of my story that were strongest, will have no trouble surviving these extensive rewrites. Put another way, a good character is adaptable. Effective relationships between good characters are dynamic enough to work under different circumstances. The things that worked originally will have no problem surviving the rewrite; the ones that didn’t work won’t.
One of the reasons this process has been so hard for me, and the reason I thought it was worth describing in a post, is that I have a tendency to grow too attached to my own work. As we’ve discussed here at MW, rewrites and revisions are hard. (We’re pulling for you, Faith!). It’s never easy to hear that your book is flawed. It’s even harder to come to that conclusion on your own (see last week’s post on self-editing). Part of the difficulty for me in editing myself is letting go of those passages that I like but that don’t work. We all know what’s like to confront our literary darlings — the little turns of phrase that strike us just so. I’m cutting those right and left these days. As I said at the outset, I love this book. Gutting it in this way has been wrenching. But it has reminded me that there is (or should be) a hierarchy of those things we care about in our own work. Characters and their relationships are far more important that the pithy turn of phrase. Narrative flow and structural coherence matter more than clever plot points.
This process has also reminded me that being a professional writer means being ruthless when it comes to editing my work. It means making certain artistic sacrifices for the market (something Faith tried to tell us all a few weeks ago). And it means challenging myself to take on tasks that I might have thought impossible not too long ago. I want to see this book in print. For that to happen, I have to tear it apart and put it back together in a new way. So that’s what I’m doing.David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://MagicalWords.net http://www.DavidBCoe.com