Rewrite #6: Getting It Wrong

In this edition, I get it more ways than one. Blürg.

Rewrite #6: Getting It Wrong
Photo by Randy Laybourne / Unsplash

In the previous edition of (Re:)write, I wrote about how I had brought in my favorite reader, Natalie, to help me think through the opening of this novel. Natalie is my ideal reader, and my greatest goal is to write something she enjoys. If she enjoys it, well, then other people might too.

Strangely enough, I found a sort of kinship with none other than Josh Wardle, the developer behind Wordle, the massively popular (and ingeniously simple) daily word puzzle which he just sold to the New York Times for over $1 million.

Wardle developed Wordle for his partner, Palak Shah. "I wanted to come up with a game that she would enjoy," he said.

This fact got me thinking about the nature of writing, a solitary activity, but something that you ultimately hope to share. It's not unlike many creative projects. Whether you're writing fiction or writing code, your goal is to share what you've made with the world. In some ways, this is the paradox of the writing life: you are laboring away in silence and obscurity, but you hope to connect with others across the world.

Writing, then, is an act of generosity. If you're willing to share it...

And this is where so many writers are stymied. Sharing your art can be a scary thing. We fear judgment, and this fear can keep us from doing the most important part of the writing process: publishing. We hide our work away in Word files, Scrivener projects, notebooks, legal pads, and crumpled-up pages in the proverbial (and literal) wastepaper basket.

I suppose, on some level, that's why I'm doing this project.

  1. Why not just publish every week?
  2. Why not share my experience with others? Perhaps they'll be encouraged by it.

To be honest, #2 is my greatest hope: I hope you read these missives from the front lines of novel writing and find some inspiration, some hope, maybe even some courage to put your stuff out there.

I'm Stephen Hebert. I only have one real fiction publication credit to my name, but I'm here on the daily, trying to make it work. :)

Also, if the New York Times would like to pay me a cool $1 million, I'll be happy to write about whatever they want...

It would be pretty funny if I managed to get the Wordle in one, I'm not that good.

Success = Getting It Wrong (and Recognizing It)

In her comments, Natalie gave me a lot to think about. I spent much of the past couple of weeks working through those changes and bringing the George Saunders energy meter to bear on my rewrite.

Writing Like Jazz: Revising with the Energy Meter
Like a good jazz player, we allow the writing to move us in the direction it needs to go. We focus only on this sentence, this clause, this phrase.

I reached a point where I was really happy with the first two scenes in the novel. They moved, they were funny, they had some great things going on. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that something was missing. Actually, two things were missing:

  1. Two of the main characters — Adam and Lily — are dating. However, the more I looked at them, the more I thought, "Why in the name of everything holy would this young woman have any interest in this narcissist?" I just couldn't come up with a good reason. Even though Lily comes into the novel a bit lost, her family life in shambles, that doesn't excuse her for dating such a self-absorbed asshole.
  2. I realized that a few of the characters lacked objectives. What is that they wanted?  Why are they in this scene?

In this edition of the newsletter, I want to think about these two issues. Before I do, though, I want to consider the positives in this.

First, we need to make sure we understand success.

Success in any art is about showing up. If your goal is to produce a bestseller, you probably won't. Not because you have a bad goal, but because you're basing your satisfaction on the result. It can take years to write a great book. During the writing process, you do not have a bestseller. What's going to keep you going from day to day?

If your goal, however, is to show up and do the work, to express yourself honestly, to work through the failures and the challenges, then you'll probably end up making things work in the end because you're committed to your writing practice.

(At least, I hope that's true. It's the entire premise behind it's not working yet.)

While I could look at these setbacks and feel like a failure, I don't. The problems mentioned above will require me to rethink some foundations of this story, but I continue to show up and do the work. That's a success!

Second, we have to understand that failure is always part of the process. The difference between someone who is mediocre and someone who is really good is often the number of times they have failed. Successful artists fail; they fail often; they keep trying. Every time we fail, every time we identify something in the work that isn't working yet, we become a little bit better at our art.

Redefine success. It's not meeting outcomes; it's meeting failure, learning from it, and continuing to show up.

Success = Getting It Wrong + Recognizing It + Continuing to Work on It

Now, with this positive turn, let's take a look at the two issues I identified in the text.

Jerkwads Aren't Dateable

When I was a teenager, a young woman told me that I wasn't the sort of guy that she would date. "Stephen," she said, "You're the kind of guy that a woman marries, but not the kind of guy a woman dates."

What the hell did that mean?

My reflection, at the time, was that it was a variation on the nice-guys-finish-last cliché. This might be true, I guess. It just might be the case that if I'd been a little meaner, a little edgier, I would've been more dateable.

Never mind that my pear-shaped body did not meet the ideal young women pined for in the late 1990s. Never mind that I'd spent the bulk of that winter and early spring attempting to woo this girl: I wrote her songs, I wrote her poems, I told her exactly why we would make the perfect couple.

Upon reflection, I realized a couple of things about myself:

  1. I was absolutely overbearing. Yikes.
  2. I was also incredibly self-absorbed.

I did so much of this because it was about me. I wanted her to recognize what I great guy I was. It was like I was saying, "Let me show you how smart, artistic, and heartfelt I am." In reality, however, I was saying, "Let me show you how strangely into myself I am."

In short, I was a jerkwad.

Here's a truth you can take to the bank:
people are not into jerkwads.

This truth holds in fiction, too. When I looked at Adam, I realized that he is kind of the personification of the worst aspects of me. It's like I had taken the darkest, saddest, nastiest pieces of myself and stuffed them into this overblown windbag. To be honest, he's super fun to write, and I think readers will find the humor in him. But they won't buy that this guy could have any kind of romantic relationship with another human being, even with someone who has been on an emotional rollercoaster the way poor Lily has at this stage in the story.

What does this all mean? Well, it means I have to rethink what's going on with these two characters. Their relationship is central to the plot, but if it's not believable then the plot will fall apart, right? Right! Therefore: rewrite. Yeah. I've got to rewrite this relationship.

I have some options.

I could change Adam. I could make Adam more likable, more dateable, but then I lose some of that fun jerkwaddiness (which is definitely a word) that makes him so enjoyable to write.

Alternatively, I could change their relationship. I could take these two and fundamentally change how they understood one another. Ultimately, this is what I'm doing. It's a time-consuming decision because it will change a great deal of how the story plays out.

Your Characters Need Objectives

I took initial notes for this story idea in June 2017. My notes, tapped into my phone while enjoying some tacos in San Antonio, talk about a young man who decides to shut himself off from the world and lose himself in meditation. His action — become a sort of hermit — is motivated by his disgust with the 2016 election.

That's an external motivation. Yes. Good. But what was his objective? What did he really want? My notes don't indicate anything there.

When you're taking notes for a story, this isn't such a big deal. You have plenty of time to provide your characters with objectives. But, as I looked back at the first few scenes of the manuscript, I realized that while the characters' actions were governed by reasonable (or at least semi-logical) external motivations, I hadn't really thought too much about what they wanted internally. What needs were they trying to meet? What did success look like for them?

This is a problem, to be perfectly honest, that I'm kind of embarrassed about. How had I written 300 pages of characters who, for the most part, are just kind of bouncing around the world, doing interesting things, but with very little reason for doing them?

To solve this problem, I turned to Lisa Cron and her book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. I'm going to be honest: I've read this book, and, in my view, the title is a little overblown. I'm not really sure how much legitimate brain science is involved here, BUT Cron's thoughts on finding a character's motivation are indeed very helpful.

Brain science? I suppose we should be skeptical when someone uses the phrase "brain science" instead of neuroscience. BUT, props to Cron, much of the material here can really help you think about what makes your characters tick.

After reading sections of Story Genius, here is what I wrote in my notes:

Cron makes the following suggestion: write a paragraph in which you explore what your character comes into the novel wanting. It needs to be specific. Concrete. As concrete as you can get it. You should be able to close your eyes and see it.

So, I tried it. Here's the paragraph I wrote for Adam:

Adam wants attention. But not just any attention. He wants Lily’s attention. As he heads into his seclusion, his dream is for Lily to come and rescue him. He wants her to take notice. He wants her to see that he’s a man of action (like Pastor Steve?). He wants her to come in and say, “Adam, I really don’t want you to remove yourself from this world. I love you too goddamn much.”

Okay. This seems like a decent start. So, I repeated the exercise for four different characters. I imagined exactly what they wanted, exactly what they imagined for themselves. This wasn't a hard exercise, but it immediately lit a fire in my prose. As I went back to these opening scenes, I found clever ways to hint at these objectives for each character.

Afterwards, I wrote in my notes: "DAMN. That felt really productive."

Cron has much more in Story Genius. I'm going to continue to use it and see what comes of it.

Well, that's it for this edition of (Re:)write. I'll be back in a couple of weeks with more updates and thoughts about the rewriting process.

Einstein Thinking
Photo by Andrew George / Unsplash

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