Groundhog Day, Time Loops, and Writing

Saturday, February 02, 2013
So it’s Groundhog Day. And though lots of folks will be keeping an eye on Punxsutawney Phil and that whole shadow thing, I’ll be writing—and hoping to keep Groundhog Day time loops far away from my manuscript.

Do you know what I mean, about the Groundhog Day time loop? It’s from the 1993 movie with Bill Murray. The actor plays a journalist caught in a time loop who’s forced to relive the same day—February 2nd—over and over again. Basically, the poor guy is stuck until he figures out what he’s supposed to figure out.

It’s a very funny movie. But getting stuck in a time loop is not that amusing in real life. And now you’re re-reading that line, because you think time loops don’t happen in real life.

But they do, my writer friends. Only we call them…(dum, dum, dum) rewrites.

Now, sometimes a rewrite or two can make the difference between a so-so story and a scathingly brilliant story. But other times, when a writer gets stuck in the same manuscript, over and over and over again, it can drive one right over the edge and into the abyss of…well, I don’t want to think what might be in the abyss.

I have thought about the problem of endless rewrites, however, and I can tell you why I get stuck in a manuscript: I keep trying to make a story (or an article) work without really figuring out what I want to say. And so in my rewrite loop, I move a paragraph here or a chunk of text there. I revise the opening fifteen times or obsess over a sentence until every individual word shines. But when I read what I've (re)written, it still doesn't work. Because moving words around doesn't help me figure out what I want to say.

It’s awful, getting stuck in that rewrite loop. And it’s even more awful when it’s a 60,000-word novel manuscript rather than a 2,000-word article or a 500-word essay. But the way to get unstuck is the same, no matter how many words are on the page.

Step back from the words and think. Think about the point you want to make, the theme you’re trying to convey. Strip away the pretty phrases, the chunks of subtext, and get down on the page the very basic idea you started with when you began to write.

Then go back to your work and craft the words into sentences, the sentences into paragraphs, the paragraphs into story. Your rewrite might be a completely different manuscript than the twenty that have come before, but at last you will have figured it out. Birds will sing, the sun will shine, and you and Bill Murray and yes, even Punxsutawney Phil, can finally move on.

~Cathy C. Hall


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--Thanks for this post. It came at the perfect time. I am working on a pesky piece (a NaNo that told me "No no") and perhaps if I figure out the stripped-down version of the story, maybe I can move forward on it.

By the way, I LOVED your post that included the little-known facts about the movie Groundhog Day. Ramis and Murray never talking again...the movie chronicled 38 days...Murray getting bitten by the groundhog three times...a FAMILY of groundhogs were raised for the movie...


Missionary Mayhew said...

Thanks for another great post, Cathy! I think I need to write my theme at the top of every page to make sure I'm not wandering off on a tangent - which is waaaaay too easy to do. I needed this reminder!

Marcia Peterson said...

This is great advice and I LOVE that movie. I have used the "what am I trying to say here" technique when tackling tough parts of my drafts, and it does help. When a paragraph isn't working yet, sometimes I ask myself how I'd say it to a friend.

Angela Mackintosh said...

dum, dum, dum...the rewrite loop! LOL I despise rewriting. It's probably why I can never finish a novel-length piece. So I've decided novels aren't for me, but I'm going to dig up some old short stories and rework them for a couple of contests and your advice will come in handy. Since so much time has passed, I think that's what I'll do: take the basic ideas of the story, put the story aside without looking at it, and rewrite it from a new perspective. Thanks, Cath!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sioux, I love interesting facts like the Groundhog Day movie trivia--so much more fun than yet another rewrite! ;-)

Wishing all y'all luck on your rewrites (and a happy Groundhog Day!)

Linda O'Connell said...

Oh the dreaded rewrite, but a necessary evil. Great article and tie in to Groundhog Day.

Anonymous said...

This post made me laugh because I could really relate. I don't know how many times I've been lost in the fuzzy haze of an undirected article and had to stop and ask myself, oh for the love of humanity, Jule, what's your point here? What is it you'd like people to know or learn by the end of this piece? I need the compass--all the pretty words aren't going to create a destination on their own.

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