1.31.2012

The Anatomy of a Rewrite

Tear that shit down!
Today, I am going to provide you the most unequivocal evidence to date of why you should let your stories rest, and why rewriting is so very important. I'm not talking about editing, like I did back when I wrote a similar blog about my story "Vermin" awhile back. I'm talking about going back to the beginning of a story and completely redrafting it, maintaining only the kernel of the idea but scrapping nearly everything else, prose-wise.

I did this most recently with my story "George's Tonic," which you can now find on Amazon. Previous to that, the story was known as "Sweet Revenge," and it made its rounds on the literary mag circuit back in early 2009 or so, around the time I was still celebrating my first publication credit with "Aria" and thinking by that point that I'd "made it" as a writer.

What a laugh. If you're starting out as a writer, don't delude yourself the way I did. A publication credit does not make one a good writer anymore than some douchebag taking a picture of his six pack in the bathroom mirror and posting it on Facebook makes said dude a Greek god. By the time you finish reading this blog, I won't need to tell you that "Sweet Revenge," my little story about a neighborly feud, was soundly rejected by at least two dozen literary magazines. You'll be able to read for yourself why. I know I did, three years later when I opened it up for the first time and felt an overwhelming urge to flagellate myself into oblivion.

Of COURSE it was rejected! ZOMG woman! What were you thinking?! Bleed, damn you! 

And so began of the process of taking what I thought was still a good idea and re-writing it using everything I had learned over the years about the craft. Flat cardboard cutout characters became more fleshy. The strange head-hopping-but-not-quite-omniscient "voice" became solidly George's, and the word count doubled in size as I fully explored the story's space. By the end of it, I felt like I knew every character intimately, and I cared for George as I would my own father.

You may not need to do this with every piece of work you have. In fact, I have material I wrote back around the same time period that, save for a few mechanical corrections, I'm still quite happy with. But sometimes you will hit a dud, and if you happen to be riding an ego trip like I was at the time I penned the first draft of "Sweet Revenge," then you will be even more convinced that your shit doesn't stink, and you will be inadvertently making a fool out of yourself by trying to publish complete excrement. Again, don't do that.

But enough of my blather. I'm here to make a complete fool out of myself again for your benefit. I'm going to show you, in the flesh, why some work can benefit from a long rest. Maybe not exactly a three-year rest, but at least long enough that when you open it again, it feels like a story someone else wrote. And that is when the real revisions can begin.

Here is the opening excerpt from the 2009 version, then titled "Sweet Revenge." This is not a rough draft. This is the "polished" copy that probably made at least two dozen managing editors even more jaded than they already were.
The fountain looked ridiculous. It was a towering edifice of three concrete pineapples, each set into the middle of a round concrete dish. The graduated tiers rose about seven feet over a blocky pedestal which also bore ghastly bas-relief likenesses of the fruit. If Medusa’s awful, stony gaze had worked upon pineapples, thought George, they would look like those on the fountain.
The Stoughtons had been George’s neighbors for five years. He had never exchanged more than casual pleasantries them, usually over the lids of their garbage cans. Only tourist traps like Las Vegas or Disney World hosted such bizarre pieces of sculpture like the fountain, but Kevin Stoughton sure was proud of it. He was proud of it like he was proud of the crude fire pit he had dug in his backyard which he often left smoldering through the night, which filled George’s bedroom with the smoke and the acrid aroma of whatever Kevin Stoughton had deemed flammable that day; like he was proud of the cheap baby-shit-colored vinyl siding he’d hung over the house’s original respectable cedar, which had already begun to pop its seams in spots; like he was proud of the pillars he had erected on his front porch which were both crooked and too big for the front of the tiny house. “They make it look architectural, don’t they?” he had asked. The word “architectural” sounded as foreign in Stoughton’s vocabulary as “caveat emptor.”
Kevin Stoughton was proud of all of his improvements, and called them his “equity builders.”George longed for a Homeowner’s Association to punish Stoughton, but no such entity existed on Maple Avenue. Two years ago, George had cashed out his 401K to build a 7-foot high privacy fence between his and Stoughton’s houses. The baby shit siding, the gaudy porch pillars, and even some of the fire pit smoke disappeared behind plank after beautiful plank of red-stained cedar. In spite of the exorbitant price of the fence, George felt he’d invested in his sanity.
Then the fountain came. 
And here is the opening excerpt from the 2012 version of "George's Tonic," which is now available for purchase:
It all started with the fountain. The goddamn fountain.  Well… that isn’t exactly true. It really started five years ago, when the Stoughtons moved into the little yellow house at 982 Maple and hung a confederate flag on the front door. George Abling and his wife Bonnie, who hadn’t yet been diagnosed with the brain tumor that killed her some three years later, had grimaced at one another in distaste the first time they noticed it, but they agreed to remain friendly. Union City was a quaint little town, but it had its “types,” as Bonnie had liked to call them.If it had only been the matter of the flag, they might have befriended the Stoughtons, but it wasn’t to be. There were little annoyances. The garbage cans that stayed on the curb seven days a week, the Christmas lights that went up in December and didn’t come down until April, and the jack-o-lanterns that went onto the stoop early October and were nothing more than piles of frozen orange sludge well into December.
Then the Stoughtons started amassing their hoard, little by little. But that was also around the time that the doctors found the spot on Bonnie’s parietal lobe, so George didn’t much pay attention to the Stoughtons or anything else for awhile. It wasn’t until after the funeral, when he started looking out his windows again, that he noticed just how bad things next door had gotten. A few fixer-upper lawn mowers had turned into a small mountain. Then there were the fiberglass bathtub inserts, toilets, and faucets. And the tires and the car parts and the concrete birdbaths filled with scummy rain water.
More junk was added by the week, it seemed. George learned from Andy Todd, the only neighbor he had maintained regular contact with during Bonnie’s ordeal, that Kevin Stoughton lost his job some months back, and had started buying up mowers and other things to fix up and sell as a source of income. Only none of the items seemed to be moving, and the piles just kept growing.
From time to time, George would ask Stoughton what he was working on, with the clenched jaw someone clinging to his last vestige of neighborly civility. “Oh, just building up a nice supply of moneymakers,” he’d said. But those moneymakers would just go into the backyard, and there they would rust or rot into uselessness. George imagined some intrepid archaeologist on a dig would uncover all of Kevin Stoughton’s treasures in a thousand years or so, and they would be considered priceless artifacts from a long lost civilization. Maybe that’s what Stoughton meant by “moneymakers,” but George doubted it.
No, the fountain wasn’t where it all started. But it’s where the end of it all started, and in the end, it’s only the end that matters.
I'm sure I don't need to point out the differences here. They're apparent all on their own, and they demonstrate how, at least in some instances, the element of time is necessary not only for a story to develop into something better, but also the writer. In 2009, I was just getting started doing this. I'd quite literally stumbled into a bit of luck having my first effort purchased by a publisher, and at that point I was feeling pretty bulletproof. I'd had all the validation I'd needed. Well, I got quite a wake up call after "Sweet Revenge." I didn't go on to have anything else published for at least another year, and I wrote several stories during that time period, none of which were any damn good.

So if you're just starting out, or if you're writing now and you keep striking out, I have two pieces of advice.

1. Don't throw anything away. Even if you go back to it some years later and find it stinks to high heaven with all of the things you didn't know back then, you may be pleased to find that you can take everything you've learned over the years and make it into something to be proud of now. Or you may just decide it isn't worth it at all. At any rate, it's a learning experience, and it can be a positive one if you want it to be.

2. Don't ever think you're as good as you're ever going to get. Even seasoned pros discover something new about themselves with everything they write. And if you don't think that's true, crack open something you wrote three years ago and compare that to something you wrote two years ago, and compare that to something you wrote a year ago, then compare that to something you wrote yesterday. Even if it's still essentially "you," and even if only you or your closest beta readers would really be able to tell the difference, you should still notice subtle changes. Something that shows your evolution as a writer. You can even try the same trick with your favorite authors. If you think the Stephen King who wrote wrote Carrie is the same Stephen King who wrote 11/22/63, you're on crack.

Anyway, I hope this little before and after can help some of you. I'm going to excuse myself now, though. I feel a little naked.