A good book isn’t written, it’s rewritten. ~Phyllis A. Whitney, Guide to Fiction Writing
Every writer who has ever written those two words has figured out the sad truth: THE END is a lie.
You see, THE END signifies completion, and with completion comes perfection.
The only problem is… what you see on the page is far from perfect.
After writing the final sentence, you realize that the backstory for your protagonist changes on page 35. Suddenly, he is the son of a wealthy internet tycoon instead of an orphan.
At first, your antagonist wanted the protagonist dead because he is the last magical vampire alive. Then, on page 117 the antagonist says that he wants your protagonist dead because he is the last dragon-riding wizard alive. Then, on page 313, the antagonist doesn’t want the protagonist dead at all, but simply wants to capture him because he is the last radioactive mutant alive.
Excluding the divine few who get it right first time, this is the experience of most writers after they write THE END and check back over their work. Things are disjointed, there are errors. The pieces don’t always seem to fit.
The truth is, many writers are not satisfied with what they see on the page. It’s sad but true. THE END was supposed to be a beautiful and fulfilling experience. Everything was supposed to fall into place.
Only it didn’t. You don’t feel finished at all, you don’t feel done.
At this point, many writers can lose heart. “It was supposed to be perfect,” you say. “I was supposed to be finished.” You then spend the next few weeks looking over all the published works that you revere, and mope around, feeling bitter and unloved, wondering where it all went wrong.
It’s okay, buddy. We’ve all felt like that. Here, have an internet hug 🙂
But here’s the thing, we can’t find satisfaction because we haven’t started looking for it yet. Our great novels evade us because we don’t understand the game being played.
The secret is in the rewriting process.
I like to think of writers that are in the process of writing a novel as being stuck in a “while loop”.
Explained in a not-so-rigorous manner (that is likely to make the programmers reading this cringe), a while loop is a statement in computer programming that allows a code to be executed repeatedly, based on some Boolean condition (a Boolean condition being a query which, when evaluated, returns the value of either TRUE or FALSE).
So for a writer, the “while loop” would take on the following form:
While writer is unsatisfied with novel
Execute the writing process
If I were ever asked to explain what writing a manuscript looks like, the above would be the most nerdy yet succinct way I could put it. While the condition “writer is unsatisfied with novel” evaluates to TRUE, the writer must continually write and rewrite until the condition evaluates to FALSE, at which point the novel is as good as it can be, the writer is satisfied with their effort, and the work is done.
I believe it was Ernest Hemmingway who said, “The only kind of writing is rewriting”.
The old chap wasn’t lying. The game being played isn’t one that takes us from A to Z. Instead, it takes us from A to Z and back to A again. Over and over until the writer is satisfied.
The power of writing is the ability to rewrite, to go over old ground and make it new. You have to polish the stone and turn it into a diamond.
When you first type the words THE END, put the manuscript away for a while. A week, a month, six months, a year. How long you leave it is up to you.
The point is, you have to give your tired eyes a break. Give them something new to look at, read other novels, watch some movies, go outside and get some sun.
Try to forget the ordeal of finishing a manuscript (easier said than done). You mustn’t take this step lightly because, by the end of it, you’ll have a brand-new pair of eyes, designed to see crappy writing.
At this point, you must revisit your manuscript. Read your work as though it belonged to somebody else. Analyze it, scrutinize it, be mean to it. Chop, cut, trim, shorten, expand, deepen, widen.
Do everything and anything you feel needs to be done.
Then, when all that is over, put the manuscript away again, and start all over after some period of time.
This is the process you must repeat to craft the best novel you possibly can. This is the game being played. The writing process isn’t a one-and-done sort of thing. It may take two drafts, or one-hundred and two.
But this myth of just sitting down and getting it all done at once is – while not impossible – unlikely to ever occur for most of us.
We have to write. We have to rewrite. Then we start all over again.
By the end of it (and the end will come eventually) you’ll finally be satisfied.
9 Steps to be happy with your novel
As a final recap before we close out:
1. Remember that finishing a novel in just one draft is like finding a parking spot on Christmas Eve – if it happens, count yourself extremely lucky!
2. After writing the last words of your manuscript, put it away for a while (how long you leave it is up to you).
3. Enjoy your life. Do other things, forget about your manuscript.
4. Go back and read your manuscript as though it belonged to somebody else. Be extremely critical; pretend you bought it at an exorbitant price. Make notes on all the problems you find. If you don’t find any problems go to step 8.
5. Revise your manuscript based off of the notes you made in the previous step.
6. When you are done with step 5, put your revised manuscript away again.
7. Repeat step 4.
8. Ask yourself if you are truly satisfied (perhaps get BETA readers to give your novel a read, hire editors etc). If you are confident that you are finished, celebrate and try to publish (if publication is indeed your goal).
9. Reward yourself with some kind of cake. Don’t share it with anybody.
So, do you believe writing is rewriting? Is “perfect” writing even attainable? Can a writer truly be satisfied with their work? Share your thoughts in the comments section, and don’t forget take the discussion to social media!