"A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway."
~ Junot DiazI'm still under the weather, and on top of that, I'm getting ready for both a writer's conference and my daughter's birthday--the one happening the day after I get back from the other. Which is a long-winded way of letting you know that this is going to be a rerun of an old post. But it's a post I need to revisit for myself because the writing (or the lack of it) is getting to me. I can't get to the computer for more than a few minutes at a time, and in those minutes, I wonder if I am spending my time productively.
Have you ever struggled with the decision to rewrite something? I'm excited about a manuscript I've got cooking, but I know I need to finish revisions on something else first. And I don't quite feel like I have a handle on the revision. I thought I had it. On paper I have it. But "it" is a slippery sucker. Every time I get it by the tail, it bucks and leaves me lying on the ground staring up at the stars. Until I figure out what's wrong, all I'm really accomplishing is word-polishing.
Have you been here too? Reading, rereading, fiddling with words? Eating chocolate and polishing again to make yourself feel like you're getting somewhere?
Finding the Courage to Start Over
So here's what I have to remind myself: it isn't the ability to complete a first draft or a revision that defines us as writers and helps us grow. It’s how we pick ourselves up, and start over, revise or rewrite, or start something new in a more logical, thoughtful way.
Creating fiction is a little like baking a cake. There are basic ingredients that can be combined in almost infinite ways with small artistic touches to create something unique and delicious. Of course, there are also hundreds of ways we can sabotage ourselves.
Fiction Has to Be More Logical than Reality
In fiction, we can’t just add elements willy-nilly. Readers expect fiction to make more sense than real life, and the farther we get from contemporary and mundane events, the more everything in the story has to be absolutely logical and believable. Because the second the reader doubts one thing and starts to question, she's gone forever.
There are a million stories out there waiting to be written. We all have drawers and notebooks full of ideas. And there’s nothing, nothing, that says we have to rewrite the first book if it doesn’t sell. But we shouldn’t ever give up on it without first taking the time to break it down.
Examining the Structure
To see what’s wrong with a story, we have to look beneath the words. We have to examine the concept, the shape, the balance of the layers, the way the flavors come together, the texture, and yes—the artistic quality of the frosting. We need to evaluate the key ingredients.
- Concept. Can you state it in a sentence? When CHARACTER(S) encounter INCITING INCIDENT, she must OVERCOME CONFLICT to ACHIEVE GOAL.
- Originality. Is your story different enough from what’s already out there? Is there some unique twist in the concept that makes it specific and exciting?
- Character. Examine your main character. Is she novel-worthy? Is she slightly bigger than life? What holds her back? What flaw keeps her from getting what she wants? What does she want and why does she want it? What does she actually need, without realizing that she needs it? How are those two opposed to create conflict for her? What's her character arc? What does she learn? Who is the antagonist? How does the antagonist keep the protagonist from achieving her goal? Is the antagonist every bit (or more) as smart and determined as the protagonist? Who are your supporting cast? Are they each unique? How do they complicate things for the protagonist? Have you built (at least for yourself) a backstory for each of your characters and used it to add conflict to the choices they must make?
- Theme. What does your story mean? How will it touch your readers?
- Structure. Do you follow the classic four-part story structure? Do you have a great opening and closing image? Does your rising and falling action make sense when you map it? Is it logical? Do your story milestones fall in the right places and have you set them up well enough? Do you have a solid hook, high stakes, a compelling call to action, and is it your main character who responds and actively makes things happen? Do you have enough sub-plots? Too many? Do they all tie together and do you resolve them all by the end? Is every element tightly woven into the fabric of your work, or have you cheated by using devices the reader will resent? Is there enough conflict overall?
- Scene. Is every scene necessary? Is there tension on every page? Does every scene have its own goal, motivation, and conflict? Does every scene have rising action? Does every scene start and end with a hook?
- Setting. What are your setting and background? Have you made these as interesting and unique as possible? Is there anything about them that would make things even more difficult for the main character and/or highlight parts of her struggle?
- Point of View. Is the point of view you are using giving the reader the best platform for understanding what's going on? Is your story told from the point of view of the person experiencing the greatest conflict? Do you avoid head hopping? Is each point of view unique?
- Voice. Does the voice of each character reflect her world view and backstory? Does she take a stand on what she sees, hears, feels, and experiences? Do we understand her from the things she says? Can we connect to her? Can we differentiate her from the voice of every other character?
The most important thing I am telling myself to remember is that I can't give up. YOU can't give up. Don't get discouraged. If you believe—BELIEVE—in your story with every sleep-deprived, unwashed, and family-estranged fiber of your being, then you CAN take it apart, add to it, delete from it, and make it into something bigger and better. More memorable. And more saleable.
It won’t be easy. It may not happen the first time. Or even the second time. If you're like me, you may be eager to move on to a different manuscript. You may feel overwhelmed by the revisions. But you're a writer. Everything you have learned so far--everything you will learn by doing this revision--will transfer into that new story eventually, and it will be even stronger by the time you get back to it. Sure you can quit and move on now. But if that first story haunts you, dredge up the energy to go back to it. Find the passion. Accept the delay and the brewing that's required. Accept it and rejoice in it.
This is what I'm telling myself.
It isn't writer's block. It isn't a road block. Life isn't getting in your way. It's giving you an opportunity to strengthen the bones of your story.
Don't Give Up
They say it takes ten years to get truly good at something. Well, it takes a whole lot more than that if we give up when the going gets tough.
So if you're facing a tough draft or a hard revision? Don’t. Give. Up.
Never give up. We'll all get there together.