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Navigating rewrite limbo by Robin Gaines


In the last few months, working on my second novel, I’ve done nothing but ask myself why: Why doesn't this scene work? Why does this character feel like type? Why did I become a fiction writer? What pivot in life led me to examine the fictional world of characters conjured from imagination and what ifs? Characters I probably would hesitate to befriend if they lived in my neighborhood. And what massive amounts of self-delusion does it take to pull this off convincingly?

I’ve been in REWRITE hell that only writers familiar with the hollowed out terrain can appreciate. The dry creek beds. The poisoned trees.

It wasn’t always this bleak. In September, I spent two glorious weeks at Ragdale immersed in finishing up REWRITE #2 of my second novel. (Already on its third title, I’m afraid to write it or say it out loud for fear all 350 pages will combust. Maybe the core of my rewrite angst is that the baby has no name that fits?)

At Ragdale, I fleshed out anemic characters and wrote stronger middle chapters and left feeling elated that I had a book. By January, I finished REWRITE #3, showed it to a couple of editor friends, agents, and my critique group and waited. Of the two editors, two agents, two critique partners, and my mom, all had different opinions on what worked, what didn’t, and how to go about “improving” the manuscript. When I sat down this spring for REWRITE #4, it felt like the train of creativity had left the station without me. So long it waved. Good luck figuring it out. I closed the laptop and cried for weeks.

Oh, there were other things—life—to occupy my time, but the characters and the story never strayed too far from my thoughts. Then, one night last month, in a fitful sleep, I had a literary epiphany and figured out the why to a part of the story that kept asking why. I got out of bed and wrote six pages of notes on how to answer my own question. Baptized once again in the waters of imagination and self-delusion, I’d do what all writers do: invent what they can control.

I’m driving the train again on a slow and methodical course. If I can pull it off, the manuscript will be better for it. And if not, I’ll have to ask how long to let the story ferment before tackling the next REWRITE. Because sometimes with time words and ideas mushroom in dark drawers or boxes on closet shelves. When pulled out into the daylight, it’s not unusual to find one character has grown a beard, another has learned to play the piano, and sometimes sweet Aunt Barb has murdered someone. The inmates of imagination have taken over, and REWRITE #5 has begun.

One writer describes rewriting akin to “scrubbing the basement floor with a toothbrush.” To that, I beg: Please, oh please, dear imagination, dear self-delusion, give me the stamina to scrub this mother*&%$#@ clean.

Robin Gaines is an award-winning fiction writer & journalist. Her work has appeared in literary journals, newspapers, magazines & anthologies. She lives in Michigan. Her first novel,   Invincible Summers  , was released to widespread acclaim. She is hard at work on her second novel. Learn more about her on   her website  .

Robin Gaines is an award-winning fiction writer & journalist. Her work has appeared in literary journals, newspapers, magazines & anthologies. She lives in Michigan. Her first novel, Invincible Summers, was released to widespread acclaim. She is hard at work on her second novel. Learn more about her on her website.

Redefining “Writing,” and doing it every day/ by Nate Chang

I’ve heard a lot of writers over the years thumping the “write every day” bible. While I applaud their dedication and zeal in the service of our craft, I have a few issues with the daily writing philosophy. I tried writing every day last year. I got about six months in before I simply couldn’t do it anymore. I’d cranked out two rather expansive novels and got halfway through a third before the muse in my head started throwing empty vodka bottles at me and shouting at me to knock it off and let her rest for a little while. While your muse may be a bit more taciturn than mine, I have met few other writers who were willing or able to write 180,000 words in six months. Why? Because we burn out. Because the human brain can only sustain a good creative bender for so long before we either start cranking out garbage, give up, or something much worse happens.

Does this mean you can’t or shouldn’t write every day? Of course not. I only suggest that we reconsider what “writing” means to us.

Writing is Rewriting

Any editor, good friend, beta reader, or killjoy will tell you that while the first job of every writer is to write, the second job of said writer is to rewrite. Unless you just plan on letting your stories collect dust – a terrible waste – you’ll need to do some rewriting/editing/revising/whatever you want to call it. As I tell my students, “nobody just shits literary gold.” Not you, not me, not J.K. Rowling, nobody. Nobody gets it right the first time, and so it falls to us to go back through our work and make it better. Utilizing the axiom that writing is rewriting, our new definition of writing must include rewriting.

Writing is Brainstorming


Sometimes we need to stop and consider what it is we’re doing. It’s all too easy to get lost in a moment that we love, blinded to the fact that we may be writing something that nobody but us will ever want to read. Maybe our writing has gotten stale, we’ve hit a wall, or one of a million other things has come up and rendered us creatively inert. In such times, it’s helpful to stop working on the main project and do a bit of brainstorming. Use a new document, that leather journal you bought but haven’t written anything in yet, or that scrap paper you’ve got here and there. Take a step back and let your mind work out the kinks in the big project, then go back to it when you’re ready. Fair warning: this may take a while.

Writing is Self-care

As writers, we often let our creative minds get the better of us, and we forget to take care of ourselves. We neglect going to the gym so we can get that extra 500 words in, or we “forget” to eat right because we can keep writing a little longer if we order a pizza so we don’t have to stop to cook or clean. We bail on family and friends because we procrastinated all day, and it’s only at 11pm that we start the day’s writing. It’s tantalizingly easy to shirk our needs and responsibilities for the high that fulfilling your creative needs brings. What’s worse, we may be working long and/or arduous hours in a soul-sucking job we hate that has left us naught but husks of human beings. Trying to write in such a husk-like state is, in my experience, ill-advised, as what comes out of my brain is embittered and anything but useful. Of course, all things in moderation. If “self-care” involves a pint of ice cream and binge watching Stranger Things again, it might be time to dial it back.

Writing is Publishing

I remember a scene in the film Amadeus where Mozart’s father Leopold asks him if he’s taken on any pupils.

MOZART: I don’t want pupils. I have to have time for composition.

LEOPOLD: Composition doesn’t pay.

While we’re not all teachers, the idea remains the same: if all we do is crank out story after story, how is anyone going to read them? Eventually, we’ll have to dedicate some time to writing query letters, working with agents and publishers, and the rest of what’s involved in sending our stories out into the world. Working toward getting your work to our readers is absolutely worthy of being called “writing.”

“Write” every day

Armed with our new definition of writing, we’ve got a much more manageable life ahead of us. While compositional “writing” is the cornerstone of what we do, living as a writer and “writing” must include something more. While I cannot advise writing every day, I heartily endorse writing every day.


Nate Chang is a genderqueer author and professor of English, currently living south of Seattle, Washington. Their work has appeared in The Pitkin Review Literary Magazine, Paper Tape, and Soul’s Road: a Fiction Collection (although you might not know it was them.) They enjoy musty old books, weird comics nobody has ever heard of, and model tanks.

Turning Angst into Art: The Story Behind the Writing of Clear Out the Static In Your Attic/ by Isla McKetta

When I’m not writing I’m angsty. When I’m angsty I’m not writing. It’s not a good circle and it can be a hard one to escape. But sometimes, just sometimes, I’m able to harness all that angst and turn it into a full manuscript. I’ve actually done this three times now, this is the story of the book that’s been published, Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art.

Working in marketing can be an interesting way of getting inside the mind of an audience and honing your writing to make the most of all the triggers available to you as a writer—from the heightened sensitivity of stretching time during a momentous scene to knowing which words you can ____ out without affecting a reader’s understanding of your text. Writing for marketing can also be a soul-deadening experience of feeling like you’re pulling puppet strings rather than connecting with human beings. It gets worse when your department of four is suddenly shrunk to two but the workload is not.

When this happened to me, I had the good fortune to be working with a fellow writer. Rebecca Bridge went to Iowa for poetry which means not only did she have the writing chops, but I was also deeply intimidated by her.

So when Rebecca saw the Write Bloody book contest was looking for how-to books on writing and that she thought we could write one together, I flattered, inspired, and scared.

I was feeling down and pretty certain I had neither the luck to get accepted nor the energy to see another book through to publication.

But things at work were going from bad to worse and I needed an outlet or I was going to spend every night for the rest of my life weeping. I took Rebecca’s lifeline and we started conceptualizing the book. Most writing prompt books are simply ways to get writers’ brains started, and the format is relatively straightforward. We wanted to do something more to make the book more memorable/marketable, to give beginning writers something to hold on to, and to make the book fun for us to write. I never could get the line “static in my attic” from “Channel Z” by the B-52’s out of my head and we worked around that, thinking about all the things that might be in an attic and how those could translate to interesting exercises for writers.

We were lucky that the publisher was looking for a proposal to start because we had one month to get that in. We wrote an introduction for the book and six exercises. We also took a clue from Write Bloody’s personality and created a list of selling points in the quirkiest but savviest ways we could, from “We use our MFAs from Iowa and Goddard to write really good words that people like reading“ and “There are two of us which means we can cover more speaking engagements“ to “We stole the title of this book from the B-52s.“

It worked! The contest ended on March 31. By April 9, we had an email saying that we were among 20 finalists and they wanted the final manuscript (including at least 50 prompts) by May 15. Fifty prompts is a lot of prompts to write, especially on such a short timeline, and I’ll admit that Rebecca and I stole more than a few minutes of work time for brainstorming and writing. Rebecca is more creative than I am and I’m better at deadlines so we played off our strengths throughout this process.

We still struggled to come up with the full list and sometimes wrote things that were terribly duplicative. But we kept working on the book and found a form that worked. The prompts started to separate out into three categories that mirror the writing process: Inspiration, Carpentry, and Finishing Touches. Each prompt included a little essay about where it came from or how it related to our work, the prompt itself, an example using our own work, and a list of books that exemplify the technique at hand. The reading list was my idea. Not only did I find the annotation process extremely helpful in grad school but recommending books to people is my favorite thing.

We finished! On May 15 we looked a little like this:


And on June 12 we watched this video anxiously to see if we’d been accepted:

Round about 2:25 there was a big exhale! We’d done it!

There was a lot of back and forth with the publisher and polishing the book over the next year, but by April 2014 Rebecca and I had our book in our hands. That’s not to say it’s been a great commercial success, most books aren’t. But when I open the pages of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art, I still get the “I can’t believe I made this” thrill.

And success attracts success. Somewhere during the year we were editing Clear Out the Static, my thesis was accepted for publication by Éditions Checkpointed in Paris as Polska, 1994.

Lessons I’ve Learned

  • When you’re feeling awful, grab at the things that feel like opportunities, even if you don’t think you’re completely up to them.
  • Break your project into manageable chunks so you can see the next endpoint clearly. That gives you roadmap and a chance to reward yourself along the way.
  • Put yourself on a tight, but achievable, schedule. A little pressure can help you work through the hard parts.
  • Help others when you can. Whether you choose to collaborate on a project or just use each other as touchpoints on a lonely journey, a buddy is invaluable. Some of my best writing buds are the ones who manage this retreat and this blog. Although I usually do my best writing on my own, we all help each other out when we can and I’d be lost without them.
  • Project the best of yourself into the world, even when you’re feeling badly. You want a publisher or agent who wants the you you want to be, not the one who thrives on nursing you through misery.


If you’ve turned your angst into art and that art looks like performance poetry (no writing prompt books this go-round), try submitting to this year's Write Bloody submission contest. The deadline is July 21. You can do it!

No matter what form your writing takes, write. And when life is too hard to write, do it anyway.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of   Polska, 1994   and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at  A Geography of Reading . Isla makes her home in Seattle.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at A Geography of Reading. Isla makes her home in Seattle.

Writing for Writers

It feels like I’ve got a megaphone up to my mouth when really, all I want to do is whisper in your ear.  I want to tell this story in a way that makes sense, in a way you might relate to, even if you’ve never lived it.  I want to be next to you, ever so close on a crowded train, within inches of your face. I want you to hear me with your heart.  

Mostly, I’d like to think that I am not worried about what you’ll think of me.  But the truth is, the narrator in me is a tiny bit terrified from time to time.  I am afraid that you will think I am a bad person, that everyone will think I am a bad person, that it’s going to be me baring myself to a whole lot of people who get to keep their secrets secret.  But really, I’ve never been interested in keeping secrets.  Not my own and not anyone else’s.  I think it’s far too fun to say our secrets to each other.  Not to say I’m a gossip or I go around telling other people’s secrets.  I only tell my own because those are the only ones that are mine to tell.  Your secrets are yours.  And if you’ve held onto them tightly, for fear of what people might believe about you, well then good.  That makes us even.  The same, even.  And it means that my secrets have something to say to yours that might open something inside your chest that has felt too constricting for too long.  

Am I afraid?  Yes I am afraid.  I am afraid that what I’m writing is shit.  I am afraid that how I’m telling this story isn’t enough.  I am afraid that the future I want so dearly will be unavailable to me because of this story, because of the secrets I will tell.  Here’s a secret: I’m afraid that I left my life to go off and write whatever I wanted and live however I saw fit and then I wrote about it and now that I’m writing about it, I’m afraid who might read it and think lowly of me.  Kind of.  And kind of not.  I’ma little concerned, yes, but also I know that there is nothing more liberating than telling one’s truth.  It puts you in a place of power because no one can really have power over you after that.  Not when you have nothing to hide.  

But having nothing to hide is a scary place to be in.  

I have been misunderstood sometimes.  For telling people the lesser things I’ve done.  They’ve taken my confession as a strange form of braggery.  But that’s not at all what it is.  To declare, claim and own “I did this,” is not to be confused with boasting.  To be able to say ‘this was the choice I made’ doesn’t mean I’m proud.  It just means I’m willing to be honest about it.    

Mary Karr says, “Love the reader, love the reader, love the reader.”  Here I am writing for you but I haven’t actually written to you and addressed you like the real person you are in a long time.  I do better when I think of you, when I place you in my mind’s eye and think about what you are made of or how your heart is shaped.  I feel more connected when I think about the color of your eyes or the lumps on your beautiful body.  Where are you right now?  Why, we haven’t even met!  Probably never will.  And isn’t that beautiful?  That we can be together like this without being together at all.  That I can show you my scars and secrets and you can be there — maybe in a cabin in Oregon, maybe in a hammock at your mother-in-law’s, maybe tucked in bed after a bad break up.  And here I am in London, at this apartment I’ll soon be moving out of — the one where I do everything right here at my desk which is pushed up next to my bed.  This has been this way for as long as I can remember.  My desk next to my bed.  Not much psychic space.  No wonder I can’t sleep.  After last night’s bout of sleeplessness I vowed to start making use of my time.  If I wake up, from now on I’ll get up and write.  I’ll do my work.  I’ll tend to your heart while tending to mine, however wee the hour.   

The other day I walking down near the National Theatre along Southbank and it was seventy degrees outside.  That’s hotter than many a summer day here in London, so the atmosphere was festival-like.  Everyone was out in hordes, drinking, talking, laughing.  I was not doing any of that and sometimes (you might already know this) that’s how it feels when you’re writing a book.  Like everyone’s on an eternal vacation just going about their daily life while you’re sludging through words.  I was overcome with a that dreaded mix of hopelessness and frustration that every writer I know tends to have from time to time.  I decided right then I should give up writing for once and for all, before the world knows my every last secret.  Then I remembered I was very hungry and very tired.  And that’s no place to make decisions from.  Then, this morning, I remembered you.  You’ve unstuck me, dear reader whoever you are.  Maybe you’re nothing more than this very white, very blank page.  And if that is all you are, that is quite something.  Because the page has saved me, over and over and over again.  Is it not true that that which we fear might destroy us has the power to deliver us?  If it is, what else is there to be, besides afraid? 

Grateful, I’d say.  

And thank you, I'd say.