So ... you’re writing like a fiend, and your story’s developing as if by magic, like your characters are writing themselves and the plot for you. It comes so easily, you think you’re as close to literary genius as you’re ever going to get. Happily you hand over your masterpiece to your editor, basking in Writing Heaven, until–
Your editor reads your book and says something like, “Um ... your characters are all acting like idiots, for no apparent reason. Are they supposed to all be insane or taking mind-altering drugs? It’s hard to tell what’s going on here...” Or, “I thought Tess was in love with Vern. Why is she suddenly hanging out with Peter and deciding to marry him? The whole story takes a wrong turn from that point on, so nothing that came before seems to be relevant. And the ending ... where did that come from?” Or, “If your soldiers have nano-tracking devices imbedded in their bloodstream, why can’t anyone seem to find the commander when he’s kidnapped by insurgents? Is he out of range? What’s the range? Need more details here...” Or, “How did your character Boris suddenly appear in Chapter 32 to save the day, after you killed him off in Chapter 5? Did he experience spontaneous resurrection? Or was he just playing possum? There’s no explanation for this...”
Suddenly, you’re yanked out of Writing Heaven and tossed into Rewrite Purgatory – that nebulous state where you’re surprised to learn your story’s in a mess, and you’re not exactly sure how to fix it. The book can go either way, depending on how quick and clever you are to come up with a good solution. (Writing Hell eventually comes later, if you can’t write your story out of the mess it’s in.) So, you ask yourself, what went wrong? Why did the story seem so perfect, then suddenly become pure crappola after your editor read it? And how can you avoid Rewrite Purgatory in the future?
First of all, if you get a request for rewrites from your editor, don’t panic. Sometimes all it takes is a few quick fixes – maybe a sentence or two here and there, to tweak the existing scene and give it more credibility. Remember, you’ve been working closely on the story for some time, and your brain may be playing tricks on you to tell you everything’s fine when there are actually some missing pieces to your puzzle that you may have neglected to include for the reader. These missing pieces will quickly become obvious to an editor who sees your story for the first time. And it’s much better for the editor to catch these snafus, than for your readers to do it after the book is published.
If the rewrites are a bit more pervasive (like you mysteriously changed the spelling of one of your characters’ names midway through the story), you may have to go over large portions of the story more carefully, or do a search and replace to catch every instance of the wrong name spelling. Serious overall problems, like extensive punctuation errors (you forgot to use apostrophes in all your contractions, or half your quote marks are attached to the wrong part of your dialog sentences) can’t be fixed with a search and replace, but must be fixed individually. This can quickly become a time-consuming headache for an editor, especially when these types of pervasive careless errors shouldn’t even be in a final version of a manuscript. Most editors will opt to send the manuscript back to the author for rewrites and move on to the work of other authors whose writing is in better basic shape.
If even more serious pervasive problems exist, like lack of proper character motivation, or a flat ending, the fix is going to be more difficult. In this case, the editor’s only role is to point out the deficiencies and perhaps offer some suggestions for correcting them. Fixing motivation holes when a rewrite is requested can involve going back and studying characters by asking why they are doing what they’re doing in the story – and keep asking questions until the reason sounds reasonable and all possible questions are answered. What’s also important is to ask yourself why your characters don’t make alternative choices resulting in the path of least resistance – which could possibly end the story prematurely. The more complex and hard to explain your characters actions are, the more careful you will have to be in inventing reasons why obvious and easy solutions won’t work. If you haven’t answered those questions, then your readers will quickly lose faith in your ability to tell a believable story.
Flat endings come down to not fulfilling a promise you’ve made to the reader at the beginning of the book. Coming up with a suitable ending involves not only wrapping up dangling plot issues, but also resolving character conflict and motivational arcs – why characters have done what they’ve done, and what are the consequences of their actions. Remember, your ending, if right for the story and satisfying for the reader, will help sell your next book. It is just as important as the opening line, scene, or chapter that convinces the reader to buy the book in the first place. Once you hook your readers with a great ending, they’ll be looking for more books from you to read.
So ... how do you avoid all these story problems that can land you in Rewrite Purgatory? The best way to do this is to be your own editor and work from large to small, handling the big issues of plot and theme and character before going back to fix grammatical and punctuation errors. But first you have to finish a draft that can be edited.
At the very beginning of your writing project, let your imagination run wild and play around with possible ideas. Write down your flash-inspired scenes and great lines of dialog that pop into your head. Save all your notes and brainstorming ideas until you’re ready to actually start writing the story itself. But before you start writing, seriously plan your writing project. Ask yourself what you want readers to take with them when they read your story. If you’re a dedicated outliner, work out the mechanics of your story in your outline. If you hate outlining or think it saps your creativity, at least draft a short narrative about your key plot points, so you have some idea of what you want to happen in the story, and what kinds of character interactions you want to see take place. In other words, know where your story is headed before you really get started on your book. Having an idea where you’re going with the story will more easily allow you to take a detour. You can look at your preplanned map and see how far it’s going to take you away from your original destination. This loose plan is not carved in stone – you can change your mind. But at least you’ll have some idea of what you’ll be losing in the story if you do make changes. Planning ahead will, rather than stifling your creativity, give you a safety net so you can experiment without worrying that you’ll write yourself into a corner and not be able to find your way back out.
With that glimmer of an idea for your characters and the general plotline, start asking yourself hard questions about your characters so you can get to know them – their backgrounds, fears, needs, hopes. Write them down. Then decide how much of this background information is necessary to explain why your characters do what they do. Also decide just how much the reader needs to know to understand your characters. Don’t give the reader more than what’s needed. Nothing bogs down a story faster than too much background information. This background-writing exercise may seem like a waste of time, but really what it does is give you time to get to know your characters so you can come up with reasons for why they act the way they do within your story. Once you have your plan set and are familiar with your characters, you can actually start writing. Refer back to your plotline and character bios frequently to keep yourself on track. Tweak your guideline information when necessary to make the story more involved and interwoven. Your objective is to get the story down on paper. At this point, don’t go back and start trying to clean things up. This is your three-sheets-to-the-wind first draft. Have fun with it.
When you finish your first draft, you'll have something to work with, the objective being to fashion it into a finished and well-rounded manuscript. Let the draft sit unattended for a week or two so you can come back to it with a fresh mind. Then you can start shoring up weak spots and expanding scenes or deleting those that don’t seem to belong. You can check character behavior against prescribed motivations and make sure your characters are being reasonable within their set parameters. Once you get the major issues taken care of – plotline, character arcs, and a satisfying story theme – then you can concentrate on cleaning up the nitty-gritty, like fixing grammatical errors, smoothing out awkward sentences, correcting spelling and word usage, and making sure proper punctuation is in place. While you’re doing this, imagine yourself as the reader, and try to gauge what reader response will be to your story. If you feel uncomfortable about some sections, reexamine them to make sure you’re saying what you want to say in the most effective way for the story. When doubts pop up, there’s usually a reason for it, so pay attention to your feelings as you read your story.
Once you’re satisfied with it, then and only then should you send it off. Don’t worry about the occasional minor error – there will always be something you miss. But if you feel confident that you’ve done the very best you could do with the story, it’s probably ready to send off. The important thing to remember is to be honest with yourself. Don’t just tell yourself that it’ll be okay, nobody else will notice all those little flaws and inconsistencies in the story, like plot holes and characters doing things that don’t make sense. If you know there are problems, fix them before you send your manuscript out. And respect your writing enough to care about it. You’ll take greater measures to ensure it’s the best you can do, and hopefully that will keep you out of Rewrite Purgatory.
Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing