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On Rewriting

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten.”
—Michael Crichton

“Listen, you can’t polish a turd”
Geoffrey Stokes

I love the above two quotes. I love them because they’re, in some ways, opposed. In other ways, they completely encapsulate my struggle as a writer; and my process. Maybe yours, too?

You write a book. That’s the first step. In some ways, it’s not even the hardest part. Which is horrible, because after you’ve spent months (okay, years) writing a book you don’t want anyone to come along to tell you it isn’t the hardest part. But it is, usually the most time consuming, and so take a little solace from that.

The next part is evaluating what you have. Is it good? What’s the germ? Why do people read it? Where’s the fun of it? This, I think is the hard part. Because it’s all your story and it’s all, kinda, crap. And you need to decide if you’re going to keep it or toss it out. And if you are going to keep it, what are you going to keep.

There are also all sorts of narrative elements to consider. Is everyone important getting a full narrative arc? Is the protagonist affecting the action throughout, and especially in the end? Etc. I’m especially guilty of mistakes here that need major corrections. Sometimes my act structure is weak. Sometimes my protagonist/POV characters have insufficient motivations. It all needs to be cleaned up. Re-written.

In Michael Crichton’s full quote, he mentions seven re-writes. “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

Seven is an interesting number, and I guess he’s not around for me to ask him why he chose that. (As if he’d answer my fan boy phone calls anyway.) But in my experience re-writes get a little grey toward the end. You’re making continuous changes. Major changes on top of minor changes on top of more major changes. Where do you stop and say “that was a re-write?” It’s blurry, is what I’m saying.

But in the end, you’ve polished. If it was a turd, it’s going to stay turdish. If it was a thunderegg, maybe it’ll be amazing.