The Rewind Button

I am certain the greatest frustration for everyone is the inability to revise certain happenings in their lives. And while our greatest lessons arise from our failures, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to apply those lessons immediately and revise what just occurred? While we can’t recreate our lives, we can recreate our writing.

In her March 19 post, Reinventing the Wheel, fellow blogger Lisa DiDio did just that as she wrestled with manuscript revision in the extreme—not just polishing sentences and refining the prose, but “completely divorc[ing herself] from the original version,” trashing it and beginning anew. I wanted to return to her theme because this is a blog about writing and I think she hit on what I believe is both the most important lesson and the most difficult task for any writer.

One of writing’s most important lessons, this task requires mental gymnastics even tougher than those required for killing one’s darlings, at least at the outset. After months of labor creating a work you cherish, how difficult must it be to turn around and blow it up in an instant? This is far more difficult than what I proposed in my June 15, 2011 post, Gemology, or the power of negative numbers—that of merely cutting down an unwieldy manuscript—and I suspect, far more rewarding. It marks a major milestone in a writer’s career and is not one to be taken lightly. Emerging authors would be well-served to consider what she is doing when they have a core concept they know to be valid and wish to preserve, but find their manuscript is being repeatedly rejected because, as many rejection slips say, “it just doesn’t work for us.” Perhaps, it just doesn’t work.

When I first joined the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, their website had a members forum—now discarded—where writers could discuss all aspects of their process. One member wrote of her outrage at being asked by an agent to change elements of her story. Supporting her, another member wrote, “after all, it is your story.” That caused me to wonder how valid this concept is. Is it so important to keep it just your story, or is it more important to turn it into something that becomes everyone’s story like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games? Further, if you are really the writer you think you are, can you only find one way to tell your story? Can’t you find another, even better way?

As Lisa closed her post, it sounded as if she had and I am now looking at some of my earlier work from a new perspective.



14 responses to “The Rewind Button

  1. Definitely a hard thing to do. I’ve held on to many pieces of writing from the past thinking it will eventually be good for another story — you know what? Sometimes it is, and sometimes not.
    Being unattached to one’s creation is essential, otherwise I believe mental gymnastics could result in a mental breakdown.

  2. Oddly enough the greatest frustration for me isn’t an inability to change aspects of my past and even if presented with the opportunity I don’t think I’d jump to change things. Everything that has happened to me has made me the person I am today – change that and I risk changing everything I love about my life. 😛

    As writing goes though, yes – kill your darlings, always kill your darlings. It is the best way to find the gemstone within.


    • raymondbolton

      Reading your reply, Katy, I am reminded of one of the great sci/fi themes: travel far enough back into the past, kill even one butterfly and life as we know it will change. 🙂

  3. Glad I inspired you, Raymond. But I didn’t blow up a first draft. I blew up a third draft and it’s sequel. So we’re talking years of work. My advice? Make sure you love the story enough to be willing to do whatever it takes to make it work – and be darned sure that the central concept holds up before you take the leap.


  4. As a young reporter for a bay area weekly newspaper I had to accept changes in my writing constantly but I was young and figured that the boss knew better. Of course, he did – he changed the story to make it work for him. Those were good lessons for me! Each time my editor changed a piece I learned something! Today I embrace all critiques both negative and positive and find I end up with better writing because of it!

    • Good for you, Tom. Growth is a painful process at times, whether it be life in general or mastering a process like writing. Your own blog reflects that.

  5. Mulligans only work in friendly games of golf. Mistakes are how we learn, those experiences are part of what shapes us and makes us what we are, providing they don’t kill us. As a writer, the teller of the story, we (writers) are God. We can make changes, in fact, we are supposed to make changes. Our job is to craft a story that works for us, the editor, and the reader. Yes it’s hard, yes it takes time, yes it hurts to kill our darlings, but oh how good it feels when we get it right! My only thought is if it makes a better story, go for it — actually, you have to go for it or you aren’t doing your job ;).


  6. I often tell people I’m not a writer, I’m a “re-writer” because of the amount of revision I do on every manuscript. It’s like being a sculptor, you have to scrape away a lot of mud to find the lovely, clear image.
    Great post!

  7. One of the very first stories I started writing was one that I absolutely adored, but it was beyond wretched in terms of craft and execution. It was full of the most bloated purple prose you ever did see and the main character was the Maryest of Mary Sues. There also was no real plot, it was just a wandering, rambling mess.

    When I finally realized how bad it was (after several dear writer friends very politely pointed out the flaws) I tossed the entire thing and started over. It’s still in the works, mostly because I don’t yet have the skill to do it the justice it deserves.

    • raymondbolton

      There is so much to the craft, Ana. Every time I think I have arrived, a few months (or years) later I look at what I’d written and can immediately see how much better I could make it. I suppose that’s why it’s best to leave older work alone. Otherwise, you won’t have time to write anything new. Of course, there’s always that one—your old favorite. 😉

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