Panic & Whiskey: The Agony of the Rewrite

A curious thing happened on the way to the final draft of Oath of Blood. Back at the start of May, when I got the most recent set of markups back from my editor, she and I had a long conversation in which we identified a handful of problematic elements that, love them or hate them, were causing some difficulty with the plot. That’s not altogether unheard of—pretty common, actually, as I understand it—so I took the news in stride and set out looking for solutions.

Some things were easy fixes: something wasn’t clear, or my wording could be leaned up, or an extra bit of exposition was needed. Others took a little more surgery to clean up. And then there were the problem children: darlings that I needed to consider killing, scenes that turned out not to hold up under closer editorial scrutiny. They would require a good bit more work and time. But I had expected as much, so I accepted this, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.

But as I said—a curious thing happened.

Just a little past halfway through May, I found that I was getting nowhere when wrestling with these bigger issues. I tore them down to the frame, re-sequenced them, even wholly rewrote some of them from the ground up, but nothing worked. I was still left with a sense that something waswrong with the narrative, though I couldn’t put a finger on what. It didn’t click in certain spots. The building tension jerked, shuddered, and stumbled in places. It was like an engine that rattles just enough to tell you something’s not right.

Sometime during the third week of May, instinct kicked in. My gut told me there were darlings hiding out in the narrative, sabotaging the plot. Pretty, pretty darlings. Darlings that had to die. So I went on a hunt, and I came out of my little safari with an incredible assortment of scenes, minor characters, and even two major linchpin events that defined the second half of the book. And every last one of them didn’t need to be there. Every last one of them, without exception, was dead weight.

So those pretty darlings died.

And at first I thought to myself, Hey, I’m in the clear now. The darlings have been addressed. The narrative should bob back to the surface all clean and clear. But—it didn’t. Something was still wrong. I prodded and poked and nudged the story line to see if I could discern the nature of the problem, but all I got was that vague sense of wrongness. And instead of being diminished in the absence of the darlings, it was stronger, louder, more demanding of my attention. It was as though the darlings had only been masking the problem’s true intensity.

Panic set in as a terrible truth hit me like a ton of bricks: there was something critically, fundamentally flawed in my narrative. Oath of Blood was broken—and I had no idea how to fix it. I didn’t even know what was wrong with it to begin with. My first instinct was to repair the problem by cutting. I had excised the darlings this way—so why not the larger problems? But as I considered the scope of what might have to go, I began to doubt my instincts. In that moment of book-saving doubt, I emailed my editor: Help me!

Which she did—and with considerable grace and aplomb, I might add. We got on the phone, and, after assessing the nature of the problem, she told me two things:

  1. You can fix this.
  2. You can’t fix it in the midst of a booze-and-cigarettes fueled panic. Take the weekend off.

Of course, she was right, so in spite of my twitching, half-mad desire to defeat the problem through sheer force of will, I did as I was told, and I spent the next two days on my sofa watching Netflix and playing video games.

Some fixes came to me after that, like bubbles slowly rising to the surface of still water, but the overall problem remained unsolved. So I sat and thought for most of a week, did some pay work, read some books I’d been putting off. And it chanced to occur to me that what might be wrong with Oath wasn’t so much content as it was structure. A light bulb came on then. If it was structural, I realized, it was something I could hack—provided I knew what the structure was supposed to be—which I thought I knew.

But it seemed I didn’t. Yes, I’d taken some very expensive classes at college and grad school, and I knew Freytag’s Pyramid and all of that, and I’d studied Lester Dent’s formula and pretty much thought I had my brain around that. I had read plenty in the genre, too, and I knew a good story when I read one. And I thought I had applied all that knowledge to Oath. But—clearly not. The problem, as it turned out, was me. My knowledge—or, better put, my lack of it—was preventing me from seeing the flaws in the narrative.

It was about this time that I recalled a conversation with Jeff Doten, my cover artist, in which he had mentioned the story structure advice on Storyfix.com. At the time, I’d not paid too much attention to the links and to Jeff’s glowing praise for the techniques the site advocates. I was smart, see, and that meant I could figure this out myself without help from anyone else, so help me Crom.

But that, of course, defies the cardinal rule of indie: You can’t do it all yourself.

So I spooned myself up a big plate of crow and finally hit the website Jeff had so assiduously recommended. Perhaps not surprisingly, my world was immediately turned on its head. In just a few short blog posts, the author over at Storyfix, Larry Brooks, pegged my problem, and it was a whopper: improper story structure, most likely caused by the way in which Oath of Blood was originally drafted.

Which is to say I wrote it by the seat of my pants with only a vague sense of where I started and where I wanted the story to end, and that the story had suffered for it ever since.

I didn’t want to believe that what I was seeing in Oath was the product of my own bad planning (non-planning, really), but there it was, plain as day, and once I’d seen it, I couldn’t un-see it. And most pointedly, my eyes lit on this one particular line:

If you use your drafts as exploratory vehicles for that purpose—a process some organic writers claim is the only way they can discover their stories—then you condemn them to a major rewrite.

I about fell out of my chair. This was me—for the third time now. Rewriting, replanning, reimagining the story in a blind attempt to make the pieces fit the way they’re supposed to. And after I’d read a little more, I began to see why this sort of thing condemns a story to the agony of the rewrite.

In short, there’s about only one effective base structure for all commercial fiction. One right answer to how the pieces fit together, how the action builds, what it builds toward, and where those things turn and shift. Trying to randomly hit that target without knowing where it is and what it looks like is a mathematical improbability of significant magnitude. In short, you’d have to be damned lucky.

And since clearly I hadn’t been lucky drafting Oath, I made up my mind to learn what I could about the structure Brooks advocates and see why my stuff wasn’t clicking. If I had a plan, I figured, I could work toward a solution.

It turns out to have been the smartest four days I have spent in the revisions process yet.

From the very start I began to see the problems. I understood why a good chunk of the mid-story fell flat, why the pacing toward the conclusion was jerky, why the ending didn’t satisfy. The knots and tangles presented themselves to be unsnarled. They stood out in astounding clarity where they had been hazy and numinous only days before.

Of course, this didn’t fix the problem. It only identified it. But as I began to carefully apply Brooks’ principles to what I currently had on paper, I began to understand specific needs. This part needs to establish deeper stakes for the reader. That section needs to show retreat rather than advance relative to the goal. This part should demonstrate the growing power of the antagonistic force.

And so on.

Viewed in that light, I saw why the current draft plagued me, and as I considered the gap between where scenes were and where they needed to be, solutions began to arise. A good many I sifted, bounced off of friends, and eventually threw out, but others stuck. They stuck gloriously, and this afternoon, just ahead of lunchtime, I slid the last of the major fixes into my outline.

All in all, I’ve got small tweaks to make in almost every chapter and somewhere around 5000 new words to write, scattered throughout the manuscript. It sounds like a lot—and it is, in its way—but it’s far less than I expected to have to do in terms of total volume.

Best and most phenomenally of all, though, the solutions really did arise that quickly. I started working with the Storyfix model on Monday. I’m sitting here at dinnertime on Thursday knowing that I have a sure deal to address the trouble that’s been afflicting Oath since its first draft.

And while I don’t expect that the actual process of the revision will be all gumdrops and roses—or that it will come as quickly as the outline level issues did—it’s much more approachable than it was back in May when I didn’t even know what kinds of answers I was looking for. That’s huge.

I’m not telling you to go out there, don your acolyte robes, and join the cult of Storyfix. Just—no. I don’t play that game. But I will say that the guy makes some very valid points, and I have no reason to doubt him. At least not after four days with his material fixed a problem that’s been dogging me since the start of spring (and maybe longer, considering how all my previous projects in bygone years stalled out about halfway in).

Rather, I’d say that whatever your source for it, you should learn story structure. Know it and understand it so that, whatever you write and however you write it (outline or organic), you know what your pacing and direction should look like from the start.

If I take no other lessons from my revisions to Oath than that, I firmly believe I will be a far better writer going into future projects. After all, when I consider now how different and simpler drafting Oath would have been if I’d known the structure model I’m now familiar with, I go half-mad. Months of aimless wandering could have been saved, never mind the sanity and the tab at the liquor store.

When I hit the next project, be it the ground-up rewrite of Bannerman of Mercury or the first draft of Oath of Blood’s sequel, this structure model is the first thing that will happen. Until all the pieces fit tightly, not a keystroke will be laid out on draft one, and there will be no rushing and blundering to plow through the words for the sake of “progress.”

I’m already imagining the panic and whiskey that will save me.