The Creative Process: When Rewriting Means Erasing
“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.”
My friend Will Chancellor had a reading of his first novel A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall at Skylight Books in Los Feliz two evenings ago. I haven’t read it yet, it only came out a couple of weeks ago, so I’m a good six months away from reading with the backlog I have, but Will is as smart and talented as he is handsome, which means the book is probably excellent.
The excerpts he read bore out this assumption. They also indicated this book is nothing like what he told me it was when we first became friends one alcohol-soaked night at the Norwood arts club in New York five years ago. The only similarity between the two versions is they’re both in novel format, the hero has the same name, Owen, and he thinks he’s Poseidon. I’m not sure; Norwood is based on a British drinking club, and we more than honor that tradition every time we meet. And if I can barely remember the details of my own projects from back then…
What happened to the book he told me about? It turns out it wasn’t just rewritten, it was completely erased.
Will’s was the first time when the Q&A part rivaled the actual reading of the book, in terms of interest for me. I came away with a decent sense of the book and the characters, but it was Will’s process, his journey while writing a book about a journey patterned on classical heroic journeys, specifically Odysseus’, that ignited thoughts about rewriting, which as we know is the essence of writing.
I’m talking about true rewriting, not passes or edits. The distinction: one of my articles for this site gets three passes, the third mainly to check for typos, to tighten the prose. If the piece is doing particularly well after it has been posted, it might get a fourth tweak; I’d like to look my best in a crowd, especially in front of those who haven’t read me before. My core readers don’t mind seeing me in spotty clothes now and then, bless them.
As he puts it, when he was rewriting A Brave Man…, Will “pressed control A, delete.” Erasure was the only option. The first draft was one thousand two hundred pages long. That is epic erasing, a level of bravery and either self-hatred or self-awareness, or more likely a combination of the two, of which I’m not sure I’m capable. He did the same with the second draft, which was presumably more along the lines of what he originally told me the book was about: the fictionalized account of his trek on foot across Iceland, alone, a literal journey that nearly killed him on a couple of occasions, like when he found himself dangling from some precipice in an area nobody had visited in months.
Odysseus, indeed. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to reading that version of the book. I dreaded that my affection for Will, a star among my elite harem of straight boyfriends*, would force me to slog through it.
Will sent me a couple of segments to look over last year, before the final draft was submitted to Harper for publication. This was not longer about Owen trekking across the lunar surface of Iceland. It was the story of a professor searching for his tall Olympian son, a journey that takes them from Greece through Germany and ends in Iceland. One of the segments I read took place in Venice, if I recollect. The prose was jaunty, lyrically masculine, the characters empathetic, the story gripping. I wanted to read more.
During the Q&A at the reading, we discussed the Icelandic trek version of the book. Will said that version was now a mere three paragraphs in the final chapter. A saga became an afterthought in another journey.
It would sound like Will actually wrote three books but canned the first two. It could be seen that way: don’t most stories have a journey and a hero? I have written many things that I’ve simply shelved rather than rewrite again. True, my projects are mainly scripts for feature films or TV series, and the production requirements are vastly different. The risks with a film are much greater; you can maybe make a decent short film for the amount it costs to print a book. (Distribution and marketing costs would be the same because they are the same.)
However, Will chooses to see the three books he wrote as one. A man, now two men, has a journey. A man pursues a goal. It is the quest story that he has told three different ways, but to him it is still the same.
Will said in his Q&A, “I went back to page one and rewrote.” I’m not sure if they use the same term in publishing, but in screenwriting we have a name for this: a page-one rewrite. If you’re coming in to rewrite someone else’s mess endeavor, you always try to angle for this, or I do; it’s very hard to match my style to another writer’s. One of the most torturous experiences I have ever subjected myself to was trying to write spec scripts at the turn of the century for existing shows in a misguided attempt to become a staff writer. It was as if I was trying to force myself into someone else’s skin. Apparently I have a distinctive voice as a screenwriter, as well, although I have a harder time seeing the distinction between me and other screenwriters than my producers do. Given that I’ve never really taken a course and have taught myself the craft and format, it would make sense that I have a very different voice.
To wit, over the past couple of months I have bid on two rewrites of scripts, both of which objectively speaking needed page-one rewrites; this wasn’t just me feeling uncomfortable wearing someone else’s style, they were untenable as feature films. I exercised as much diplomacy as possible with both, as one should, but the prescription didn’t go down well with the first: the writer, who is also the producer, spent six years bringing the script to the point where someone was telling him it needed to be completely rewritten. When he replied to my notes, “I’ve always said that, ‘The problem with professionals is that they’re too professional,’” I knew I’d lost the job; he is, of course, a veteran producer and therefore a professional himself. The writer-producer on the second rewriting gig is a complete novice with a puppy’s enthusiasm about learning the craft properly.
The latter project is more likely the one I’ll work on at some point. I won’t bother to select all and delete; I won’t even look at what she’s written again. We’re simply taking the heroine on her journey via a completely different route, with brand-new scenes, secondary characters, arcs, dialogue. Given that it’s a story based on true events, it will have it’s own necessary limitations, namely on the outcome, but that doesn’t mean the ways of getting to that outcome aren’t limitless, especially when the heroine is now fictionalized.
Twenty years ago I had a book deal with Viking Penguin that I welched on by not finishing the book. I hated it; it was a falsehood. I had secured the deal merely to show a former colleague who was behaving like a diva and stabbing me in the back that I could get a publishing contract and he couldn’t. I won. But no book should be written as an act of revenge; it makes a terrible cold dish. Every atom of my intuition told me to abandon it, so I did. This was an act of complete erasure; I will never return to that project.
Recently, I have written two as-yet-unpublished books that I actually wanted to write, one novel for adults and one middle-grade kids’ book, which is about half the length of an adult’s novel. Both need rewriting, the adult more than the kids’. I know what they need, but that need must be fermented a little while longer for various reasons, most of them practical rather than creative.
I’ve been toying with the idea of a page-one rewrite on the novel; I am shifting style gears completely, from modern hyper-realist to North American magical realist — the gringo brand of magical realism has less spiritual-based voodoo-juju than the Latino variety made popular by Garcia Marquez and Allende. Is a page-one rewrite necessary for all first novels? I wonder if Will will go through the same process on his second book.
The kids’ book already has magic in it, from the title to the last page. I just need to make sense of contradictory notes from major publishers. The lack of a consensus about anything by industry professionals means that what is wrong is hard to identify. Perhaps it just the singularity of my style and storytelling technique in terms of what is the norm for kids’ books. It has frightened the Powers that Green-light before.
Write what you know. We should give up the struggle with this cliché because it is often false; therefore, struggle is futile. The most successful writers in history, which doesn’t mean they are the best, from Homer to Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling to George RR Martin, haven’t written about what they know. The only thing they know is how to write well and tell an engaging story. They inject elements of what they know, of their experience as humans, but the stories they tell they cannot have actually experienced.
Will didn’t write what he knew. He wrote it, then went out and experienced it. Then rewrote. I’ve done something similar with my novel, which coincidentally is set outside Will’s hometown, San Antonio, TX. I’ve never been to Texas. Somewhat inspired by director Lars von Trier, who thumbs his nose at narrative convention just as he thumbs it at almost everything, humanity especially, and doesn’t believe in writing what he knows and sets most of his films in the U.S. without ever actually having been here, I thought I would write about an imagined, Google-Imaged West Texas. Then, like Will, I would go down there, rent a place similar to the heroine’s home, and rewrite. That is one of the foremost practical considerations for why this particular project is still fermenting.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been so enamored with what I’ve written that I’ve been reluctant to rewrite it; that is the mark of a novice who isn’t secure enough to venture anywhere with a story if need be. Infrequently, there will be some element of a screenplay, never the entire thing, that is intractable in its very nature: it should be no other way. It can be another way, it’s just that way is not as right as the one that exists. The Forest of Story is infinite, or it feels infinite, more so the more open you are to change and possibility. Let me mix a metaphor cocktail: the plot paths through the Forest of Story are the heads of a Hydra: cut one off, two more grow back. But you need to train your eyes to see them. If you’re blinkered by stubbornness and just see one, the magic simply won’t happen for you. And that’s a crime of deprivation: once you feel the magic of rewriting, it is what you look forward to most about the process.
Will is his own brave man seven storeys tall, or two page-one rewrites tall. Imagine writing twelve hundred pages just to delete them, and then another entire book, just to delete that, too. Will spent over ten years ambling through the most circuitous Hydra-routes in the Forest of Story, no doubt sometimes overly erudite routes because his mind is encyclopedic; he is one of the few true polymaths I have ever met. The more intellectual you are, the fewer readers you have access to. Will came out on the other side of the forest, twice, said, “Nah,” but rather than retrace his route, rather than cut new sub-arterial paths to that route, he took a completely different one, albeit with the same hero as his guide and companion.
That is Will’s particular character, his modus operandi. He will do something like risk his life trekking alone across Iceland for the sake of his book, just to decide that what was the basis for a Norse-style epic journey should now be shrunk to three paragraphs at the end. That trek is a level of immersion I’m not sure I could do, although I’m not convinced I couldn’t. It doesn’t mean I am not as dedicated to the craft as he is, as uncompromising, just in different ways.
Erasure is the boldest form of rewriting. I need to ponder whether that is what I should do with my novel. In general with creative endeavors, the answer lies in the question itself. My mantra has long been, “When in doubt, throw it out.” There should be no doubt; you should be utterly convinced you have chosen the best route, and that conviction can only come from rewriting and experience. But I usually use that mantra with a particular element, a character, a plot point, a device, a block of writing, not the entire oeuvre. I am more inclined to shelve it and forget about it than scrap the entire thing and start from zero.
It’s been so long since I tackled the novel that I’ve almost forgotten everything in it, much as I forget almost all books I’ve read more than a few months ago. I think it’s clear from writing this article and from pondering Will’s experience that I should that I should at least attempt erasure.
Rather than scrapping the first version, what if I wrote a new one and then compared the two? There might be salvageable passages from the original. Or am I deluding myself that I will ever compare the two drafts when I know full well the second will utterly eclipse the first?
Probably. I won’t know for sure until I’ve made the new journey. Finally knowing what I am writing about will certainly help. Anyone know of the ideal writer’s cottage outside San Antonio?
* Many gay men have quasi-romantic relationships with straight men that aren’t consummated sexually. Some have more than others. I have more than others.