Rewriting: Time to Let Go

Thursday, June 30, 2016
“This just isn’t working.”

I had suspected the manuscript had a problem when I decided to run it past the editor on a weekend retreat. No, I wouldn’t have minded if she had said “This is brilliant and I want to buy it,” but that wasn’t the message I received. What she told me loud and clear was that I had a hot mess on my hands. Oh, joy.

We had received her comments in an e-mail before the event. I could have taken the time to create a defense – this is why my manuscript is fine just the way it is. Instead, I reached into my folder and pulled out three chapters. “You’re right. I like this version a lot better.”

You should have seen the poor woman’s relief. Instead of each of us defending our opinions, we had a productive conversation about how to come up with a stronger title, what definitely needed to go into the manuscript, and how best to format it.

I’d spent a year on the picture book version of this manuscript but when it didn’t work I kicked it to the curb. I want to love it, but more than that I want an editor and young readers to love it too. It doesn’t really matter why I chose to do X and Y. If it doesn’t work, I need to come up with a new way to tell the story.

Not that that is an easy decision to make. “But I’ve spent so long on this version! I have to make it work.” I say this even when, with each rewrite, it gets clunkier and increasingly awkward.

What I need to do, and I eventually do, is walk away from the project for a while. Weeding the garden, I think about what inspired me to tell this particular story. I think about the audience. I contemplate what’s working in the present form. Only when I have these things in mind do I sit down again to write.

But I don’t open the old clunky file. I open a new document and start from scratch.

“What? How can you do that when you’ve spent so much time on the other version?”

Truthfully, if it isn’t working, it doesn’t matter how long I’ve spent on it. It is time to start fresh with a clear vision in mind. Every time I’ve done this, I’ve been happy with the results. That said, I generally wish that I’d gotten to this point much sooner instead of continuing to struggle with whatever hot mess I've created.


Sue is the instructor for our course, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins on August 1, 2016.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--I've done the same thing in the past. I had a hotter-than-hot mess of a manuscript (even I wasn't crazy about it) and had to scrap the whole thing.

I chalk it up to "prewriting." All the crappy writing we do, to prepare us for the "real" project/draft, is worth it. And honestly, I think that early drafts are part of the prethinking/working out of the story. It might SEEM like wasted effort, but I think it's crucial in the circuitous route we have to take in order to end up at our destination: a great draft.

Angela Mackintosh said...

I agree, Sue! I think there's a certain freshness and edge when you first start a manuscript, and it's either completely awesome and just needs tweaking or it doesn't work. Trying to reshape the whole thing creates a hot mess. I recently decided to start from scratch. In my case, I've sat on it so long that I don't feel in the moment anymore. I want to feel passionate about what I'm working on and immerse myself.

Margo Dill said...

We all do this I think--I sure have clung to mistakes. Thanks for the reminder!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I really like Sioux's idea -- to consider it prewriting. The stuff I do before I write a solid draft. Apparently, I am now "prewriting" a middle grade novel!

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