Questionable: Balancing Drafting and Rewriting

Micki asked:

How do you move from writing relatively polished scenes to brand new scenes? I’m finding my clumsiness sort of disconcerting, even though I intellectually realize that I had the same kind of problems when I was writing the earlier drafts of the polished scene.

This is one of the reasons you shouldn’t polish scenes until you have a full first draft (or the majority of a first draft) done. It’s almost impossible not to rewrite as you go, but a polished scene is one that is perfect, or so close to perfect that you never want to change it. If it’s your last draft, that’s good. If it’s your first through forty drafts, it’s bad. A polished scene is so shiny, it becomes impervious to change. The other scenes still in draft form then have to conform to the polished one because you don’t want to damage the shiny. And that almost always knocks things completely out of whack; you want the entire story staying fluid until the very last draft.

Another reason is that a polished scene is often a dead scene: there’s no excitement in writing it any more. A new scene is still living and breathing. Yes, it’s lousy, but that’s okay, you’re going to rewrite it; the important thing is that it’s all new, it can go anywhere as long as it’s not tied to some damn polished rock, so it’s giving you the fun of writing something new all over again. New scenes rekindle passion that rewriting undercuts. That’s why I think you never stop writing new scenes to polish stuff you’ve already written. Make yourself write ten new pages of rough draft (or whatever number works for you) a week (or whatever span of time works for you). You need to keep generating story until the first draft is done. Then go back and look at the story as a whole, and that’ll tell you what to polish.

As somebody who has cut beautifully rewritten scenes, I can tell you that polishing before the first draft is done is a waste of time and stifler of creativity. The only thing worse than cutting a scene you’ve slaved over is not cutting it if it doesn’t work in the book. My best advice for scenes that are polished brightly before the first draft is done: delete them. But since nobody wants to do that, bury them someplace deep in your hard drive and generate that full first draft, reveling in the excitement of the new scenes and reminding yourself that first drafts are supposed to suck. Then when it’s done, cut and rewrite until the whole thing is shiny.

Polish the story as a whole, not its parts.

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

25 thoughts on “Questionable: Balancing Drafting and Rewriting

  1. Also, even if you were capable of polishing as you go, there are plotting and thematic risks, even for experienced authors. Lois M. Bujold doesn’t outline and polishes one chapter (not one scene or one beat) at a time. In “Diplomatic Immunity”, she wrote herself into a plot/POV corner she couldn’t get out of: she wasn’t using Ekaterin as a viewpoint character, but she put Miles (who was the viewpoint character) into a medical coma with major plot cliff-hanger threads still dangling loose at about the 3/4 mark. This unbalanced the ending in a way she regrets.

    — Jim Leinweber

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    1. Gotta quibble — Bujold says she does a rolling-outline technique before she writes. (More on her process here, about half-way down the interview/chapter: http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/1416556036/1416556036___3.htm). I think one of the big problems with Diplomatic Immunity is that she was also finishing one of the Wide Green World novels at the same time. (Can’t find where I read that! It might be on her mailing list where she discussed the problems of working in two different worlds at once.)

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      1. I always thought that part of the problem with DI was that she owed Baen a novel (or maybe 2) and just wasn’t into it anymore and it showed. The Ivan-centered book wasn’t much better. I remember asking her on one of the mailing lists about a prequel bit of text that she shared – with it the antagonist’s motives made more sense but she cut it on purpose. I forget why – probably to jump right into the story from Miles and Ekaterin’s point of view.

        As someone who used to write fiction, I find author interaction and story deconstruction fascinating but it does take a little of the magic away.

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  2. If your scene is polished methinks that it makes it harder to change. Makes it harder kill your darlings, innit? Because a polished scene is as damn near perfect it’s gonna get before your editor takes a crack at it.

    What is with my vocab today?

    Hello Argh people, Cherries, Betties and Refabbers.

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  3. I’m always re-learning this lesson.
    Just last week, I spent a whole afternoon revising and polishing a scene in a draft that’s sort of cobbled together from scenes written for a variety of iterations of this story — I am determined to finish it this time, and I think I finally have it right, at least in the big picture — only to realize when I moved on to the next scene that I’d changed the plot, so that the focus of the polished scene no longer mattered and didn’t lead in to the next scene or even in the same direction that the story is going now. Pretty much the whole polished scene had to be jettisoned, and written from scratch, so the characters are dealing with the revised plot point, not the original plot point.
    Argh!

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  4. Thank you for reminding me of this. It’s a lesson I repeatedly forget and it’s a drain on both my creativity and my word count!!! I tend to re-write the first chapters repeatedly before moving forward and I waste a lot of time polishing stuff that never makes it to the final book. Thank you, oh wise one!!! 😀

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  5. I think the other lure to polishing a scene too soon is that it’s a fabulous way to procrastinate when something else around it isn’t working, or we don’t know exactly what comes next. It’s too easy to focus on the one scene and make it all sparkly and pretty and feel like we’ve accomplished something for the day. Whenever I find myself tempted to keep re-doing one scene, I almost always know I’m treading water, and I force myself to sit down and look at the next five scenes and figure out what happens next. Just five, or three, or even the next one. I try not to go back to the shiny one until I’m completely done, for the same reasons Jenny says above.

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  6. This was very helpful! I have scenes I polished and kept returning to, to reread, because in comparison to the rest of the rough draft, they were so much better that it just made me happy!!! But I neglected the other scenes, and it slowed me down! Now I know better.
    BTW, do you have any kind of checklist you go through for a scene when polishing it, or do you use a more intuitive approach?

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    1. Depends on how screwed up it is. I’ve had some first drafts where I started with “Who’s the protagonist? What’s her goal?” kind of stuff. Other times, if a scene has problems but the pieces are all there, I just break it down into beats to see where I ran off the rails.

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  7. This is my Achilles heel. I know I need to change this. I know that it’s sucking me dry, but I don’t know how to do it. When I try to move ahead without any polishing, and get to the end of the book, I’m panicked by the crap I’ve left behind. My first scene drafts are so weak, so thinly layered, so Dick Met Jane. They make me cringe.

    But the flow.
    There’s no flow if you don’t let go.
    How do you learn to not panic when you get to the end of a weak draft? Because that’s what happens. I literally go blank with panic because I’ve written 100K of crap.

    Is there Perfection-Drafters-Anonymous? What would be the first two steps? Write through, then take valium?

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    1. The chant from the McDaniel class is “It’s a process.” You write to get the emotion down on the page and then you rewrite–lather, rinse, repeat–as you shape the book.

      BUT for some people that doesn’t work. If polishing one scene at a time works for you, do it that way. There are many roads to Oz.

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      1. You have no idea how much I wished I could have taken that McDaniel’s class. I think learning to accept your writing flaws is a process too:-)

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        1. An author I like used to write in notebooks and type up after for her first draft. When she became a full time writer, she typing it all directly and thought it was much more productive right up till she had to bin the entire first draft. She realised that she read and amended her stuff in notebooks and also while she transcribed it, so it was more coherent when it finally came together that was just her process.

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          1. Any time you put the manuscript in a different form, it’s easier to see the weak spots. Moving from the computer screen to print-out is always a BIG wake-up call for me.

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  8. I’m like Leigh, except I have never written a first draft all the way through without revising along the way (especially the first act, which is usually the one with the most cuts in the end). Leigh, at least you’ve tried. That’s a start. I know it’s fear holding me back. Would that I could run and jump off the cliff! I’m going to make that my challenge for the rest of 2014.

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    1. It’s not so much the revising along the way that’s the problem as much as it is the polishing. When you lock down part of your story before the rest is written, that part becomes an anchor that drags the rest down. Unless that works for you. If it works for you, keep doing it.

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  9. (-: So in other words, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” “Then don’t do this!”

    Makes a lot of sense when I see it in words like what you’ve written. I’m not fully committed to this “polished” scene, but I do feel like I’ve got a firm foundation to launch my rocket off of. And, after reading this, I do feel the second scene I wrote is probably enough to write the third scene, and so on and so on.

    OK, then let me rephrase: how important do you (personally) think it is to semi-polish certain key scenes before going on to re-polish other scenes? I’m talking about the first scene, the last scene, and maybe the scenes that pin down the major turning points.

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my first one, too! Very sensible approach.

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    1. Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself again. I should ask this question in a couple of months. And by that time, I may have an intuitive feel for what needs to be done first. At least for this book.

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    2. Not important at all.
      I think it’s important to write those scenes, but I don’t think you can polish them until the book is done.
      We did a first draft and then a rewrite in class, but that wasn’t polishing. Chances are great that your first scene is going to change, so rewriting it over and over is useless. Writing your climax is a good thing to do because that’s where everything in your book is headed. But I wouldn’t polish any of it until you get the whole thing written just because that keeps it fluid.

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      1. By polishing, do you mean refining grammar and word flow on a sentence by sentence basis? Or does polishing mean changing dialogue/scene pivot points over and over until you get the plot logic and motivations feeling like the ‘truth’? That’s what I keep looking for–the truth, but damn it. There has to be a better way of finding it.

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        1. No, I mean the pass where you start debating if that adjective belongs there, taking out perfectly good phrases that just clog up the narrative, the pass where you say, “That scene is done” and mean it.

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      2. Thanks. This all makes a lot of sense.

        It feels really good to have a very readable first chapter — I’ve worked hard on it, and started it in different places (story places, not just setting). Finally, I’ve come back to where I started in the first place, but the way I tell the story is so different every single time. I mean, I rarely used the same words to describe what went on — the basic setting and the actions are pretty much there now.

        I feel like a baby — building my story up with Tinkertoys, then bashing it down and trying the same shape again with Lincoln Logs, then bashing it all down again and starting new with building blocks. Baby writer.

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  10. I’ve never had this problem — everything has always stayed at the same level of quality. Until this book, which has this one paragraph that is intimidatingly good, and which almost stopped me being able to write the rest of the chapter it’s in and all the subsequent chapters, because I’d look at that paragraph and freak out. I actually thought about deleting it, but then I’d have had no way of starting that chapter. Eventually I just gritted my teeth and got past it.

    The funny thing is that my editor and my first readers haven’t especially noticed that paragraph — it’s just me that’s intimidated by it.

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  11. Lawrence Block’s book “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” talks about this in a slightly different way. His idea is that too much rewriting/polishing before you get to the end just makes your story “wider”, and stops you from getting to the end. It’s sort of like Toni said above – it’s a great way to prove to yourself you’re working, but it’s like a treadmill – you keep walking but don’t get anywhere!

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