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rewrite hell

Navigating rewrite limbo by Robin Gaines

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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.