Rewriting: When it’s Time to Start Over

I’ve heard Mary Wasmuth’s diary entries and essays in the journaling class I lead at the Weston (Massacusetts) Public Library. They’ve moved me, and made me laugh. And I’m pretty sure they’ve made me smarter.

I’m thrilled that after several years of inviting Mary to contribute to this blog, she has agreed.

Enjoy her guest post! May you be wiser after reading it.
– Lynette

Mary Wasmuth

Mary Wasmuth

I need to start this novel over. Again. No, I mean I want to start over—really. I have a framework now that retains the plot and characters; pulls the story together; and, in a death-defying feat of writerly liposuction, surgically removes great droopy hunks of midsection.

Then why am I spending my time writing this post? Shouldn’t I be starting a new folder, opening a new document, giving it my new title? Why do I sit in front of Call the Midwife—unlikely, I thought, to inspire binge watching—instead of my computer? I’ve seen eight episodes in five days. And why did I choose this moment to reorganize my writing files? Toss out my reams of painful early drafts?

It’s because I’ve started over so many times, so blithely. And, though I really believe (as I keep telling myself), I’ve found an approach that works, my memories of all the other hopeful starts paralyze me. I shouldn’t have gone through those files.

You see, I taught myself to write—with a great deal of expert help and guidance, though perhaps a little late in the game—by writing this novel. I learned and revised, learned and reshaped, learned and rethought and reshaped again. I eliminated narrators (whittling ten down to four) and killed off characters, including my carefully crafted, and re-crafted, second protagonist. I believed I was nearly done.

Thinking to polish things up a little, perhaps add a few final touches, I took the “Setting, Subtext, and Suspense” class in Michelle Hoover’s terrific novel series at Boston’s Grub Street. I rewrote three scenes in the one-day class, and I caught a glimpse of how much richer they could be, how much richer the novel could be. Which gave me the courage to cast a coldly objective eye over my first chapter. I deemed it . . . not good enough. I started to rethink. Again.

Of course, this is how you do it if you want to do it right. I know that. In Do Not Hurry—a blog post I reread whenever I start over, Michelle Hoover makes it clear that writing a novel simply “takes as long as it takes.” No way around it.

This time, at least, I know what to do, and I know why. Rather than the story of a mouthy, defiant girl who starts a punk rock band (called Fatgirlz), the novel will be a fictional history of Fatgirlz, a fictional punk band started by a mouthy, defiant girl. Suddenly, the four narrators make sense. Bands are unstable amalgams of individual musicians; a band story would have to incorporate several personal stories. Why, I could bring back some of my lost narrators!

I pause briefly to squelch this idea.

The new structure will be cleaner. More coherent. Maybe even funnier—because I am going to sneak in one more voice, a music critic. Band histories require critic-penned introductions. The more obscure the group, the more florid and pretentious the preface—and Fatgirlz is very, very obscure.

This could be fun. I really should just make that new folder. Open that new document. Call it Meet the Fatgirlz instead of Tastee Girl. And start over. One last time.

Have you ever decided to rewrite (and rewrite) a piece you’d considered finished? What was your approach? Did you take a break first? Tackle the thing head-on? Or, decide to catch up on all five seasons of Breaking Bad? Perfect your jump shot? Spring clean your apartment? Write a post for Tools and Tactics for Writers?

I hope that's not her novel in that bag.

I hope that’s not Mary’s novel in that bag.

When she’s not avoiding rewriting her novel, Mary Wasmuth works as a librarian and job-search coach. She’s president of the advisory board for Framingham Adult ESL Plus and recording secretary for the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. Mary has studied at Grub Street, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and in Lynette Benton’s journaling class.

Follow Mary on Twitter.

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11 thoughts on “Rewriting: When it’s Time to Start Over

  1. My novel Hangar 18: Legacy was a complete rewrite of my very first novel. But I wrote 4 novels between the rewrites, over a span of about 12 years, so I’d learned a ton about the craft by the time I rewrote it (at least I hope so!). I didn’t even look at the original once I decided to do the rewrite–just sketched a brief outline and jumped in. I took out a bunch of boring parts and added aliens. It came out about the same length as the original, but much better, I’d like to think!

  2. Great tips, Jennette: taking years off, writing different novels, starting over from scratch–and adding aliens! Thanks.

  3. I’ve written quite a few books over. The dream just doesn’t let go. I rest the ideas for a long while before I go back to them. They feel fresh when I begin again.

  4. Hi Mary,
    Wonderful post, indeed!
    I’ve used the approach of completely re-writing a few short stories. I have to admit the resulting stories certainly very different to the original ones I started with.
    Thank you.

  5. I hope you found that your re-written stories were not only different from the original, but improved! Good luck with your writing, Hiten, and thanks for your comment.

  6. Love your approach, Jennette. In fact, from now on, when any of my writing gets boring, I’ll add aliens. Should really perk it up, since I write nonfiction! 🙂

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’m seeing a near-consensus in favor taking a break–something I’m not very good at. Oh, and Lynette, I can’t wait to read your alien-studded memoir!

  8. Rewriting is always a process! The main point is to remember why to make changes in a piece. When I help edit a rewrite, I always try to make it really clear why and not just ask someone to change their work because I say so. I would suggest taking one point at a time, even if it takes weeks, just one point at a time; otherwise, you’ll become overwhelmed.

  9. Thanks for your comment, Anita. I try to do the same when I edit someone’s work. By having to explain to them why I’m suggesting the edit, I clarify it to myself.

  10. Oh, boy, this is exactly where I am right now. Like you, I am teaching myself to write a novel by writing a novel. And suddenly I suspect that I am a crappy teacher with an impossible dullard for a pupil.

    I found this article, BTW, by a circuitous method after I googled “suddenly I hate my manuscript.” Yesterday, having paused in the midst of Draft 4 to write a synopsis in order to give myself a fresh “bird’s eye view” of something I’ve been slaving over for 18 months, I was suddenly horribly depressed, as I have not been since beginning it. It is horrible, flat, insipid, dull, lame, and any further tinkering will only make it worse, I thought. I knew what was needed — a completely new take on the whole story. I seriously thought (well, for a few hours) about abandoning it as a lost cause.

    This morning I woke up even more depressed about the whole thing. No dreams containing the solution, just a determination to avoid thinking about the mess for a few days. Then I checked my email, including a message with some advice from some writer that struck a tiny chord in me. And the next thing I know I’m scribbling away, with a fresh, new idea about how to get inside my protagonist’s head and heart to get to the real nature of her predicament. It’s going to require a complete rewrite, but that no longer seems so daunting.

    So, as soon as I have sketched out the new shape of the plot — a lot of scenes will probably get cut and (horrors) a some brand new scenes added, and everything completely rewritten from scratch. But, please God, I may actually wind up (someday) with the story I’ve been wanting to tell all along.

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