Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Starting Over from Scratch

by Elizabeth S. Craig @elizabethscraig

After the Rain--Arnold-Marc-Gorter-1866-1933

I was recently working on revisions when I realized I wasn’t 100% happy with a particular scene.

I thought the beginning was ‘okay.’ But the more I looked at it, the more it really started bothering me.

I tried approaching it from a couple of different directions. I switched one scene with another as a lead-in.

Then I revised a long scene and made it much shorter.

I took out a phone conversation that I realized was unnecessary and instead started the next scene with the person doing the action they’d discussed on the phone.

Some of the sentences seemed longer than needed, so I broke them up into shorter ones, which made them read a lot smoother.

After all these changes, it was much better. But it still wasn’t the beginning I knew it could be.

I decided to pretend that I hadn’t written the beginning at all—that it didn’t exist.

I rewrote the entire first chapter, using a different approach. The nice thing about word processing is that we can easily see which one works better and cut and paste the different beginnings in.

The first beginning had a lot of set-up written in. I incorporated it with humor, but a duck is a duck. It was set-up. And set-up slows down the pace—and is boring.

With the second beginning, I ditched the set-up. Instead I included foreshadowing to let the reader know to keep an eye on a particular character.

I completely removed, in my rewrite, several passages that were unnecessary. For example: I needed to have a particular character at another character’s house. In the original beginning, I’d had a whole sequence to set that visit up. Boring.

In the second version, I just opened the scene with the visit and put in a passing reference to it in dialogue, “I’m glad you could come by, Jill, and help me out…”

Looking back at what I did, I’m thinking now that I should just immediately have done a total rewrite of the entire first chapter. Instead I spent a lot of time doing surface work on something that had a deeper problem. Yes, it did read better when I changed scenes around and toyed with my sentence structure. But, for this instance anyway, I got much better results with the radical rewrite.

Update Oct. 2011—I’m actually doing a lot of revision work right now and have again noticed that rewriting a scene can be much better, time-wise, than tinkering with a badly-written scene in twenty different ways. I also tend to get better results. It helps, I think, if I haven’t memorized the old scene…and only know the gist of it and what I’m trying to accomplish.

Have you had success with radical rewrites?

Note—this post is part of my Retro Wednesdays that I’m running to help me find extra writing time through the end of the year. This post first ran in December 2009.