Yesterday I finished doing something I’d never done before: Scrapping 95% of a book and rewriting it from scratch.
Initially I was committed to not doing so at all. I wanted to tell myself that it was about principle – dammit, it was the story I told and it was the story it was going to be – but I now recognize that stance as being augmented with a healthy amount of terror, as well as a lot of ego. Because it is terrifying, looking back on something you’ve spent weeks and even months on, recognizing that it needs a major overhaul, and diving in. In some ways I think it’s much less terrifying – or at least it was and still is for me – to start something entirely new. Extensive rewriting feels almost like a sadistic game of Jenga, wherein you’re shifting pieces around, stacking and restacking, and one wrong move will bring the whole thing down. Which isn’t true, of course – nothing you can do can collapse a story beyond repair, unless the foundations of the thing itself are just no good – but it still felt like that when I started out, and I wasn’t sure I could really pull it off.
But I was determined to try.
I finished the first version of Fall and Rising (Line and Orbit 2: Electric Boogaloo) last year, and it was a very different book from its predecessor. It was focused on different characters, and it was nastier, more emotionally brutal, and possessed of some potentially uncomfortable politics. When it was done, I was very adamant that it wasn’t going to get toned down or lightened up – but then I had trouble selling it. And after a couple of rounds of that, I realized that I had to admit to myself that the problem was not necessarily the publisher – as in finding the right one – but instead the book. It was a good story – I still believe that – but it wasn’t the right story. It wasn’t the right successor. It needed to be something different.
It was really, really hard to admit that to myself. But it was liberating when I did, and that feeling of liberation did a lot to blunt the fear when I went back and hacked it to pieces. It remained as I started rebuilding, and it carried me through until I truly began to feel like I was working well inside the world of the book. It was like giving myself permission to take all the work I did and all the time I put into it and declare to myself that none of that mattered.
What mattered was writing the right story.
I didn’t have to hold onto the book just because I worked hard. I didn’t have to hold onto it because of all the time I spent. I sure as hell didn’t have to hold onto it because of some stubborn, misguided idea of what my art should look like. I didn’t have to hold onto it at all. I could let it go and just start (mostly) fresh. It was okay. I was okay.
So yesterday I finished it. For those who care about length at all, it’s about 115k words long, close to the length of Line and Orbit and in fact a good bit longer than Fall and Rising’s initial version. But way more important: I think it’s a better book, and it’s one that wouldn’t have been written if I hadn’t sucked it up and murdered my darlings.
I’d been thinking that the whole murder your darlings thing applied to small sentences and passages and turns of phrase. It does, and I suspect a lot of why I thought that has to do with the fact that I’m still more experienced with short stories than I am with novels. But it also applies on a macro scale. It applies to books, and to massive chunks of books. It would be difficult to overstate how major that was to realize.
What else has this process taught me? Marketability is not a dirty word. Changing something up in order to be able to sell it more easily is not (necessarily) a dirty thing. I didn’t initially start thinking seriously about a rewrite for artistic reasons, I did it because I wanted to sell the damn book and get paid. That line of thinking led me to the realization that I could make the book better, but I might not have gotten there if money weren’t also a concern. I’m in this game because I love it, but also because I want to someday be able to make (at least most of) a living off of it. That’s not something I need to be ashamed of. I’m embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to internalize that, and I’m still working on it.
So mostly what I’ve learned so far in 2014 is that I don’t need to be afraid of those things. I shouldn’t let them stop me from getting shit done. I shouldn’t let my own ego get in the way of producing good work that people want to pay for. I need to continue to work on getting out of my own way.
None of that is exactly new. But I think it’s all good stuff to start the year on.