Books aren’t written — they are rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it. — Michael Crichton.
By PJ Parrish
I am a sucker for make-overs. I cut my teeth on Glamour magazine’s Do’s & Don’ts. I never missed an episode of What Not To Wear and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. I binge-watch the Home & Garden channel for house renovations.
Which is probably why I love rewriting. It is the ultimate make-over. The only way that your ugly duckling novel becomes a sell-able swan is through the painful surgery and ruthless eye of rewriting. And to answer the question posed by the headline — no, your first draft does not look good naked. No one’s does.
We’ve covered this subject often here at TKZ. To review: Rewriting is done on two levels. First, you rewrite at the sentence level, tightening your paragraphs, deleting and switching words around. It’s what’s call line editing. But you also rewrite at the structural level. You ask the big picture questions: Is the plot sturdy and believable? Are the characters well-drawn? Is the setting well-rendered? Have you chosen the prime dramatic moment and best point of view from which to begin the story?
Most beginning writers get bogged down in line rewriting. They get hung up finding the right adjectives or rearranging sentences, and they never step back and look at the big picture. They’re too busy picking out the color of the wallpaper or what kind of flooring they like when they should be worrying about how strong the foundation is and whether the walls are plumb.
To recap, here’s are some things you watch for in rewriting:
- Stereotypes in personalities, looks and even settings. When creating a character or a place, go against the norm, fight the instinct to use the expected.
- Too easy/stock description. Avoid words like tall, beautiful, handsome, etc. Be creative, be original.
- Writing clichés: Character looking in mirror for physical description. References to celebrities for character description.
- Confusion in your timeline.
- Wasted dialogue, unnecessary adverbs, extended or overwrought description.
- Repetition of the story’s hidden message or theme, or constant references to a character’s flaws or demons. Trust your readers to “get it” the first time.
Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Rewriting is hard work. And sometimes, when you’re so close to your story, it’s difficult to see what needs to be done. So today, I want to give you some BEFORES and AFTERS. To borrow from another one of our favorite TKZ tropes, I’m going to try to SHOW you how to rewrite, instead of TELLING you. Let’s look at our first ugly duckling:
The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries against a bleached, predawn sky. The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees, loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.
Louis stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees as he scaled the slippery slope.
He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Louis rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.
Here’s the AFTER:
The sky was a bleached gray, the bare trees rising like black veins against the clouds. The ground was soft and wet, a mire of dead leaves. With every cold breeze, the three men were sprinkled with the remnants of last night’s thunderstorm.
Louis Kincaid stumbled, cursing softly as he pulled his boot free of an old vine. The fog that hovered near the ground had thinned, but it was still opaque enough to mask his view of the orange vest of the hunter ahead. Louis quickened his pace.
At the top of a hill, the hunter in view again, Louis paused and pulled up the collar of his deputy’s jacket. He turned and looked back, waiting for the last man of the trio to puff his way up the hill.
If you can’t guess, this is from one of our own books. The rewrite is not only shorter, it also is more emotionally involving. If you’re into word counts: Our first draft of this chapter clocked in at 1,864 words. The rewrite was 969. Every word counts.
Here’s our next make-over candidate BEFORE:
Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.
And at his feet in the vermin-ridden humus lay a young woman. A woman who, until a day or two ago, had hoped, planned, and dreamed. Maybe even loved.
Now she lay dead. Violently wrestled from life before her time. And it was his job to find her killer.
He started when, with a flap of wings, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. As the regal bird disappeared from sight, couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was his Jane Doe’s soul wafting to the Land of the Dead. The way the dove in Ulysses had carried Euripides’ soul.
Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him. Instinctively and unselfconsciously, Jon Abellard crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.
Here’s the rewritten AFTER:
Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide and seek behind dark clouds. Distant rain scented the still air and Spanish moss hung like wet netting on the giant oaks. The rotten-egg smell of the bayou was heavy when he took a deep breath.
Jon Abellard wiped the sweat from his brow and looked down at the body. She was the third young woman this year who had been left to decay in the Louisiana swamps.
With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. Against the slanting sun, the bird was little more than a white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.
Abellard looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.
“God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”
I got rid of the “writerly” junk and made the scene feel more active. (ie turning the Godspeed reference from thought to dialogue.) I changed “cloying acridness” into the more specific “rotten egg smell” and pruned extraneous words like “now,” “and.” Most folks know egrets are regal so it’s unnecessary. Ditto for “swampy” (a bayou is by definition marshy). And “instinctively and unselfconsciously” crossing himself is a waste of precious words. Also, I deep-sixed the overwrought imagery, like the egret bearing the dead woman’s soul to the Land of the Dead like the dove did for Ulysses. Why lose that image? Because we are in a scene where a man is looking down at a dead girl. Unless he’s a literature professor, would he be thinking of Euripides? Doubtful…he’s a rookie cop and the writer’s effort to impress is getting in the way of what should be a good set-up scene. I also added “ma cherie” to drop the hint that the protag is Creole and I told readers where we are (Louisiana). More info, more emotion…in twenty fewer words.
Our third candidate isn’t quite ready for her close-up. BEFORE:
It was the first time Tina had ever been to a fancy restaurant and she so wanted to impress Nancy Browne. She’d only known her a few days but if there was any chance that she’d be allowed to join the exclusive Orchid Book Club, Tina knew she had to prove herself worthy. And at this moment, proving herself worthy meant knowing what all the utensils were for and what kind of wine to order.
And it didn’t start well. Nancy Browne didn’t order for her, as she had hoped. She was left there, staring at the menu as if she couldn’t read English and when she finally ordered a Pinot Noir wine, she knew it was wrong by strange expression on the waiter’s face. Then she asked for Hidden Valley ranch dressing and — good grief! — ice in her wine. She had had known this was going to be disaster and she was right.
God, she was just a white trash orphan from Marked Tree, Arkansas and there was no sense in pretending she was anything else. When the waiter brought the key lime pie – wasn’t it supposed to be green not yellow? — she rushed from the restaurant in tears.
I like the idea behind this fish-out-of-water scene, which creates empathy for the protag Tina. But this is a classic example of telling not showing. This was a chapter from a romantic suspense novel my sister Kelly wrote eons ago. (unpublished). Here’s how she rewrote it once she grasped the concept of show not tell. AFTER:
“What are you doing, dear?”
Tina looked across the table at Nancy Van Horn. In the dim light, the sixty-six year old woman looked as well preserved as a corpse in an upscale funeral home. Every time Nancy picked up her wine glass, Tina got a whiff of lilacs from the rustle of Nancy’s chiffon sleeve. Tina discreetly tried to smell her armpits, wondering if Nancy could smell her fear-sweat.
“So, why do you want to join our book club?” Nancy asked.
Tina had a mouthful of peas. What should she do? Swallow quickly, hold up a finger or calmly keep eating?
Nancy saved her by looking away and signaling the waiter. He was young, with a lock of black hair that coiled over his forehead. The kind of man Tina knew would never give her a second look. Handsome men in Nashville – even waiters — could smell the Delta mud on a woman, no matter how much Chantilly cologne she splashed over it.
“I’ll have a Pinot,” Tina said, remembering the name of the wine from the Real Housewives of Atlanta TV show.
“Grigio or Noir?” the waiter asked.
Tina stared at him, her mind blank. He was staring back, laughter swimming in his brown eyes though his lips were drawn in a impatient line. And Nancy…she was staring, too.
What are you doing in Cabrelli’s, little girl? Who do you think you are?
Dirty white trash, she thought as she pushed from the table. Just dirty white trash.
Yes, this is longer. But it’s more telling in its details, which adds layers to the characters, especially Tina. And it takes GENERAL information that was conveyed only via thought and converts it to SPECIFIC dialogue.
Got time for more? Here’s another cop on the scene BEFORE:
The sight of the body sickened him but the possibility that the murderer could be hiding in the house geared him into action. He checked the bathroom and closet on the second floor then searched the first floor but found no one.
Opening the back door, he shouted for Healey, but there was no response.
Until this instant, Palm Avenue had been his favorite place in Palm Vista. In all of Florida, as a matter of fact. Neat green lawns bordered large single-family homes set back from wide curving streets. There was old money here. Front doors featured beveled glass. Windows edged by white curtains. Wide entry halls crowned by large chandeliers.
And here’s the AFTER:
The sight of the body sickened him but the possibility that the murderer could be hiding in the house geared him into action. He drew his gun and went quickly but quietly down the hall. Lots of closed doors, too many places to hide.
He kicked open the first one. A marble bath. Empty. The next two were vast bedrooms but something told him this wasn’t where the killer would go because there was no way out.
He looked down the staircase then slid along the wall, gun raised. No one downstairs either.
Where the hell was the killer? And where the hell was his partner?
His voice echoed in the cold marble foyer.
What’s the lesson here? Two points: Convert narrative into action and dialogue. (SHOW us the cop shouting for his partner via in dialogue instead of embedding it in narrative. Dialogue is action. Dialogue breaks up blocks of narrative. Also, when you’re in a tense action scene, keep the writing style short and sweet and don’t take detours of the neighborhood in thoughts.
Action scenes are good places to look for rewriting opportunities. Like the example above, this next one is a tense physical scene. But it can be better in rewrites. BEFORE:
As he was walking slowly down the hotel corridor, someone hit him on the back of the head and pushed him forward. He felt the world go black. His body flailed, hitting the plate glass window and shattering it. The glittering shards caught the throbbing glow of red neon as they fell, like the tails of fading fireworks.
He fell to his knees and looked up into the chiseled face of his attacker.
And here’s the AFTER:
He walked with his head bent, scanning the front page of the New York Post. The hallway was dim, the slow blink of the red neon from the lone window lighting his way.
The blow came out of nowhere. So quick, so hard, blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. He stumbled forward, his head hitting the window.
An explosion of sound and glass. A rush of cold air. A flood of warm blood.
He dropped to his knees and looked up.
The face above him pulsed red. Then it was gone.
What was improved in the rewrite? The wavering point of view was eliminated. The first version shifted into omniscient and a man falling out of a window wouldn’t notice “glittering shards in the throb of red neon” or that his attacked had a “chiseled” face. That’s the writer getting in the way. And the second version puts the POV firmly in intimate third. It’s more exciting and visceral.
So, don’t dread rewriting. Think of it as BEFORE and AFTER. Write your first draft as quickly as you can and pour your heart and soul into it. Make mistakes and move on. Put it aside for at least three weeks. Then go back, print out your book (on paper!) and get out a red pencil. Read your book with a hard cold eye, looking for plot holes, digressions, flaccid or stereotyped characters, and anything that is even slightly confusing. Oh, and look for boring stuff. If it seems even a little boring to you, you can bet your royalties it will be ten times as boring to a reader.
Go forth and rewrite your novel with a happy eager heart, my swans. Oh, and you might want to rethink that man-bun.