Friday, June 28, 2013

Houston, we have a problem.... When a rewrite seems inevitable

Photo credit: pale on Stock.Xchng

One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13, because something great happened out of something going very wrong. Faced with the possibility of human tragedy, NASA drew on all of its resources to solve the situation: no panic or histrionics, just a bunch of experts who analyzed what went wrong, calculated what it meant to the mission and strategized how to rejig some pretty complicated equipment in order to turn failure into success.

See the guys on this sailboat? The craft broke its moorings in a storm and they're quietly going about the task of getting it afloat again (although how they can be so calm with the sea at that angle I DON'T KNOW.) They're analyzing the situation, assessing the damage and coming up with a strategy to achieve 100% flotation in the near future.

Is a theme emerging yet?

See, I've been working on the sequel to The House of Closed Doors for a while, and something's not right. It's like that little rattle in your car's engine that you're trying to ignore because you KNOW, you just KNOW, that at some point that little rattle is going to morph into one of those visits to the garage where the service guy beckons you out of the waiting room to talk to you privately (around here that means a bill in excess of $1,000). This is known as Jane Goes to the Shop or They See Me Coming And Rub Their Hands.

After a couple of revisions (I love the way I say that, so airily as if it didn't mean hundreds of hours of staring at a screen) I finally sent the draft to my beta readers* in the hope that they'd tell me that everything's all right. But deep down inside I just knew they were going to (metaphorically) beckon me over to a quiet spot and say "Jane, your story needs fixing. And it's gonna be expensive."

With only two drafts on their way back to me, I already know I'm in trouble. It's a horrible sinking feeling to know that the book that has taken me two years to get even close to ready ISN'T READY.  I want it to be ready. I want to be able to write Book 3 in peace. I've already, in a sense, let go of Book 2 and I'm in another zone, researching for Book 3 and all excited about it.

And yet, of course, I don't want to give my readers a story I'm not happy with. So the question is becoming not whether I rewrite, but how much. And I've never done this before. So as I wait for the rest of my betas to send the manuscript back, I am girding my loins.

Where do I start? Well, look at the people in my two examples above. The first thing you do when a situation goes pear-shaped is to analyze it. Being geeky me, I have sweetened this particular sour apple with some new software, to wit Scapple, a brainstorming app that synchronizes with Scrivener, my beloved novel-creating tool. I'm not quite sure how I'll proceed, but I think I'll start by throwing down all the NICE things my betas say, to see what's working. Then I'll make a note of all the places where my readers are having trouble with the story. This should give me an indication, at least, of how bad the situation is.

The next step, I presume, will be to calculate the extent of the disaster. What can I save? How long will the rewrite take? Do I have to do any new research first?

Once I know the basics, it'll be time to get creative. There's a scene in Apollo 13 where someone empties onto a table (or floor? I haven't watched the movie in a while) a whole load of assorted stuff that replicates what the Apollo 13 crew have at their disposal, and the engineers have to come up with a doohickey that'll solve a particular problem using only that stuff. Outlining a rewritten draft will require similar skills, but I'm really hoping the end result will be a gleaming machine rather than the duct-taped-together doohickey of Apollo 13.

And then, finally, I'll write. And then go through the entire editing process AGAIN. If I can't get a whole lot closer to that satisfied feeling that goes with having written a decent novel, I may seek professional help at this editing stage.

While I'm waiting for all the beta copies to come back, I'm going to do a little preparation in the form of reading a craft book or two. I have one on hand that I haven't read, and a whole list on Goodreads. With any luck I'll pick up a new idea or two about plot or characterization that will point to a missing link somewhere in the draft.

Betcha thought self-publishing wasn't hard work, huh? Think again.

The one step I don't want to take is to despair, although naturally I have my moments when I just want to give up (three o'clock in the morning, anyone?) I know that all this hard work will result in a better book, and that my readers (and my characters, of whom I've grown rather fond) deserve the best I can do for them.

For the writers among you: have you ever faced a substantial rewrite? For the readers: which book do you wish the author had been forced to rewrite?

*Long-suffering readers willing to plow through an earlier draft of a novel and tell us how bad it is. Manna in the desert that is self-publishing. Many so-called bestsellers are as bad as they are because publishers tend to skip this vital step.