Having basically “finished” the novel I’m working on, my main task for the past year has been on editing and polishing my manuscript. Most of the time this consists of cutting things out, changing words, and rearranging sentences and paragraphs for a better flow, a clearer plot, a more enjoyable read. Of course I come upon parts that cannot be fixed by mere tweaks. The whole sentence, the entire paragraph, has to be thrown away and begun from scratch. Sometimes its whole scenes and chapters that I discover need to be scrapped and rebuilt.
My story is absolutely littered with bits like this, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an author who doesn’t feel the same way, at least in the early stages of editing. But a problem I have, I’ve found, is that I become fixated on fixing a certain part of the story. I lock myself in place, insisting that it must become perfect before I can move on. It’s when I get like that, that I’ve found I really reap the benefits of my MFA program.
For my first submission of my second semester, I rewrote my beginning, rearranging the first few chapters and redoing whole bits of it. Still, I was not entirely happy with it, and mentioned to my mentor that I wanted to rewrite it again for my second submission. He advised against it, saying I’d just be “spinning my wheels” if I kept focusing on the same spot. So I moved on, worked on other parts of the book, and now when I go back to those pages I can’t remember what my big problem was.
This semester, my issue is with the ending. In my workshop, my fellow students pointed out that the way my villain is defeated doesn’t make sense for the characters I’ve built up. Since they shown the light on that, I’ve been DYING to figure out my problem and fix it. But even though my mentor wholeheartedly agrees with the workshop’s assessment, she continuously steers me away from reworking that part. Her reasoning? Together we’ve been working on polishing up the first half of the manuscript, getting the characters and their motivations down. As I’ve been doing this, parts of the story have been evolving with the characters, and my own perception of how they’d act in different situations has changed. My beginning still needs work; things continue to change, and my mentor pointed out to me that if I work on the ending now, I’ll only have to go back and edit it again when I’ve gotten everything else down pat.
So what have I gotten from these two situations? First, I know that if I focus for too long on one part I’ll just wind up grinding it away to nothing. I to distance myself, let my anxieties fizzle out, andthen go back to see what I have. I also have to make sure I don’t get ahead of myself; if I jump all over the place in my edits and rewrites, I’ll just create more work for myself in the end. And, while I’m learning how to figure these things out on my own, I think I really do need someone to help point out where my focus should be — right now it’s my Lesley mentors and workshop buddies, but it could be anyone, friend, family, writing group member, who’s willing to read my rough drafts to help me figure out when it’s not working, where I need to focus, and when I’m just spinning my wheels.
When you rewrite, how does it work for you? Do you have someone to help? (Or does the thought of revisiting your work make you want to tear out your hair?