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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Author Daniel Nester’s Take on When You Hate the Book You’re Writing

Even as accomplished a writer as Daniel Nester, the irreverent author of How to Be Inappropriate (love that title!), occasionally hates his manuscript. What follows is my interview with Nester about his writing—when it’s going well and, er . . . not so well.

– Lynette

What are you working on these days?

I feel like I am always working on The Memoir; or, The Story of My Life. I had a draft of it once, got really close to publishing it, and then balked. At the time, the A-storyline was about my wife and I going through two years of IVF and other fertility treatments, which led to the birth of our first daughter, Miriam. I wrote about it for The Daily Beast and subsequently expanded on that.

Since then, our second daughter, Beatrice, was born, which deflated, happily, the narrative tension of that framework.

Daniel Nester with daughters

Plus, the B-storyline, which centers around the relationship with my father, has begged for reexamining/ revisioning/reassessment.

In short, I’m a mess.

How does working on your current project differ from working on How to Be Inappropriate and other projects?

How to Be Inappropriate is more or less a compilation of some of the shorter, funnier pieces I had been writing for some 10 years. It was at once easier and more difficult to work on. Easier because a lot of it was already written; harder because it takes a whole other skill to arrange a collection that makes sense. I already had an essay about farts in poetry, a cultural history of mooning, and memoir pieces that involve me dating crazy women; a lot of it seemed to fit together.

A rather late but fortuitous decision was to include the piece I wrote on leaving the New York Poetry scene and a re-envisioning of the IVF story from the scrapped Memoir (see above). [Note from interviewer: “Goodbye to All Them” is a brilliant essay. Don’t miss it.]

I am proud of the book and I think it’s better than some of the critics have written. Haters gonna hate. Anyway.

Why are you hating your current manuscript?

I think it’s good to hate your manuscript, at least while you’re writing it. You have to be able to embrace the inorganic as well as organic parts of writing, if that makes any sense. I had a horrible Summer of Writer’s Block last year, and now that I am on sabbatical from my teaching job, I have pledged to not let that happen again. I teach my students there is no such thing as a block, blah blah blah; here are some writing prompts for you; go do them. But for the first time last summer I just couldn’t practice what I teach.

I think I hate this manuscript specifically is because writing memoir is freaking hard and I may have to write it another way, but I have to let the process lead me to that decision. I want to tell my story honestly and also compellingly; I know that I have to pick on myself and show my many faults, and that is hard work. It’s not like you can just have a normal day after writing about one’s darkest thoughts. Or at least, I can’t.

And then there’s the whole organizing it as a story business, which I thought I had figured out, but now I am trying to find the story itself as I write. I’m usually more organized and anal-retentive than that. This book requires a different system.

How do you push through the hatred (or dread)?

For me lately, by taking it public. The way I am trying it right now is setting up a performance art installation called The Memoir Office. I sit in a gallery with an office plant, desk, chairs, card files, and write and talk to people. I hold office hours. I have already done a two-week “residency” at The Arts Center for the Capital Region in Troy, New York, where I wrote about writing memoir, why my efforts at writing The Big Memoir have failed, and what I can do next to make it work, to tell a story honestly. I’ll be doing it over the summer and into the fall, so if anyone needs someone to occupy an office for a day or two, I’m their man.

It’s all very meta, I know, but I think it’s providing me with a structure and it’s taken the heat off of writing my own life story to be able to tell it. If that makes any sense.

Anything else you want to say about hating your manuscript?

Right now I want to print everything I have written and spank it with a big cricket paddle. I do not want my manuscript to say, “Thank you sir, may I have another.” What I want the manuscript to do is give up and show me the way.

But I’m too busy spanking it to hear it talk back to me.


Get links to Nester’s poems. Keep up with his tweets @danielnester.

Follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton. And go ahead, subscribe to this blog.

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When You Hate the Book You’re Writing: My Solution

Lynette, in mother-in-law's garden

So, there I was a couple of weeks ago, proudly flipping through the completed first chapters of my memoir, My Mother’s Money.

I had the hook, followed by a gripping scene to introduce the story’s first complication. Then I plunged readers (and the main characters) into a big surprise. Chapter 4 shed light on how the whole conundrum probably originated in the first place. Nice.

Now it was time to stop the artistry and get down to plain old storytelling. I needed to describe the search my siblings and I would have to undertake to find the money our mother left us when she died without a will, nor even telling us an inheritance existed. And for that, I needed a chronological plot.

Of course, I couldn’t remember every conversation and action involved in the search—the roles various people played, our behavior, failures, and frustrations. I would have to draft a timeline, constructed from emails, letters, and the notes and journal entries I had made.

But reviewing and summarizing the contents of just the emails was so upsetting that I couldn’t work with them for more than a few minutes at a time—until I came up with a strategy:

My Solution

I pretend I’m an amanuensis—a secretary—just writing up notes about other peoples’ lives.

It’s good I hit on this approach, because now I’m inserting into the timeline information from journals and the notes I took while my mother was dying, and the only way I can do this is to distance myself from them.

It’s still not easy. In fact, it’s pretty depressing. But I’m detached enough most of the time to persevere. I think the story needs to be told (besides entertaining readers, it might serve as a warning), and no one else is going to do it.

To protect myself enough to get this book written, I need detachment. As Heather Sellers, author of Chapter After ChapterPage After Page; and the memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, says in an insightful interview about memoir writing, “You have to be completely in it and completely out of it, both at once.”

More Resources

If you found this post helpful, you might like Why I Write About My Painful Past, by Darah Zeledon, The Warrrior Mom.

Also see When You Hate the Book You’re Writing, Part 1, and agent Rachel Gardner’s post, I Hate My Book!

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Judi Coltman: When You Hate the Book You’re Writing

It’s not uncommon for writers to experience intermittent loathing for the books they’re writing.

I hate the one I’m working on because it forces me to recall unpleasant details of my search my mother’s money—and it shines a spotlight on previously unknown tensions in my small immediate family.

However, writer Judi Coltman, author of Is It Just Me? or Is Everyone a Little Nuts?, is unhappy with her published book in a completely different way. Here’s what she says about it.

“I don’t hate my book itself. I only hate it because, being my first book, I chose a genre that is easy for me. I have always been known as a humor writer. My blog is a humor blog; it’s pretty much who I am. But, the truth is, I write in many genres. I just haven’t published a book in any other genre.

“Everyone expects another humor book. I now understand actors who fear type casting! But I have moved on to a a project that is more about writing than about making fun of myself. It’s in a much more challenging genre. Now that I am working on a murder mystery, I find myself struggling with the voice, my readers, and the whole concept. I second guess myself, asking, “Am I making a mistake?” And I get to a point where I wonder if I should scrap my mystery and write more humor.”

Judi’s book, Is It Just Me? or Is Everyone a Little Nuts? is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and on Kindle.

Read more from Judi at her delightfully honest blog, My Life in a Nutshell. Follow her on Twitter @JudiColtman.

If you can hardly stand the sight of your manuscript these days, you might be interested in When You Hate the Book You’re Writing, Part 1.

To read about another writer who’s hating her book, please see also “When You Hate the Book You’re Writing, Part 3.” She’s got strategies to help her keep working on her manuscript. And I promise to share the ones I use to make myself continue writing My Mother’s Money.

Please leave a comment if you hate the book you’re writing.

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When You Hate the Book You’re Writing, Series Introduction

It’s riveting. It’s exciting. If I wanted to, I probably could make it read like a thriller. Yet, here’s a conversation I have at least once a week.

A friend says, “How’s your memoir coming along?”

“Which one?” I ask, hoping this friend is asking about the other one, the one I’m writing that I don’t hate. But it’s seldom that one.

“The one about your hidden inheritance.”

“My Mother’s Money?” I ask in a tone designed to discourage further probing.


“I hate it.”

“Why? I can’t wait to read what comes next. It’s very suspenseful.”

“Well, yes. It’s a good story. But I hate writing it,” I reply.

“But, why?”

Why, indeed.

It’s probably a persistent peril of memoir writing—the fact that you, the writer, already know the (sordid) story, and how it turns out. You’ve lived it. And it’s strangely both upsetting and boring to relive it through your work.

When I mentioned on Twitter that I hate the memoir I’m writing, I got more immediate responses than for anything else I’ve ever tweeted. One published writer even said hating her story is one of the reasons she won’t write her memoir.

It’s seems that disgust with the manuscript-in-progress is a predictable phase (along with doubt) we must endure in the course of writing. (Afterward, along comes profound embarrassment at the book’s flaws, no matter how much acclaim it garners.)

But, this is different. This isn’t a question of quality. This is trial by memory—more like, “How many times do I have to think about this lousy, although ultimately enriching, experience?” with a little bit of “Maybe I should just tell people what happened and not write about it” thrown in.

Now I’m in the research phase of the memoir. I’m going through my journals, emails, and accordion files to remind myself of the sequence of events: When did this lawyer tell me he never got paid for work he did for my siblings and me just after our mother died? When did that lawyer call me out of the blue to offer to help us get another portion of our inheritance money—at a steep percentage for himself. I’m looking at real drudgery.

So how do I get past this ennui?

I’ve got a few strategies to kick myself beyond my bad attitude. I’ll share them in a later post on this subject. See When You Hate the Book You’re Writing, Part 2, to read what another writer says about hating her book.

If you’re hating your manuscript, whatever it is, and wherever you are in the process, please share your troubles and triumphs in the comments!

Find out more about My Mother’s Money: A Memoir of Suspense.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains affiliate links. That means that purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!