Tortoise and the Hare: A Tale of Rewriting

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Last night, in three hours I worked through three pages of my manuscript. No, you did not read that wrong. Yes, that is one page an hour. While I’m tempted to be annoyed at my pace, the contrary is actually true. I’m really pleased because it proves how much I’ve learned about writing fiction.

Like the fabled tortoise and hare, it’s not always the quickest who wins the race. The parallels are not difficult to see. A hare-like author hammers out a spell-checked manuscript and sloppy query in short order, whizzing past fellow authors toward agents and publishers waiting at the finish line. 

The tortoise-like author, hairs ruffled from the hare’s swift passing, meanders along the well-worn path shaking hands with seasoned, experienced authors standing behind the course ropes. She slows to tie up a loose plot line, notice the most effective way to describe the scenery, finds a shortcut by cutting useless paragraphs. She bands together with other runners in a critique group, catching a tail-wind of sorts. Her progress looks slow to the untrained eye, but she’s reserving energy for a strong finish.

In the end the determined, intentional tortoise inches out in front of the tired, weary, confused hare and is rewarded with offers from those at the finish line for representation and publication. It’s not a sprint, dear hare, it’s a marathon. At least this is the happy ending we’re hoping for.

What I’ve Learned So Far on the Course

On my own meandering walk along the path of becoming a published author, I’ve gained a lot from experienced authors who’ve paved the way. My craft is being honed with every strike of the keys. My manuscript was written during a 30-day sprint and has blisters to show for it. So, training and conditioning are now the name of the game. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

  1. Say it with less. I heard this mantra while earning both of my English degrees, but I am naturally long-winded. Both in my speaking and in my writing I tend to use long sentences and overdone descriptions. While rewriting my manuscript, I am constantly cutting words. Rachelle Gardner is a literary agent, editor, and publishing coach with Books and Such Literary Management. In “How to Cut Thousands of Words Without Shedding a Tear,” Rachelle offers this list of words to consider cutting if they’re not absolutely necessary and effective: about, actually, almost, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, just then, kind of, nearly, practically, really, seems, simply, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, truly, utterly, were. Why say it with 15 words when you can say it with 9? A good writer can. We’re good writers. Say it with less.
  2. Kill the adverbs (especially those ending in -ly). This one is hard for me, too. It feels unnatural. Then I read this from Chuck Sambuchino and it clicked: “If your manuscript has too many adverbs and clichés, it most likely means that the emotion you felt while writing it is not going to translate to the reader in the same way. Never underestimate the weakness of adverbs and clichés. You’d be surprised how vivid your writing will become once they are subverted.” Stop being a lazy writer and care enough to find a way to help your reader feel, see, and experience the story. Kill off your adverbs and replace them with more attractive verbs and adjectives.
  3. Show, don’t tell. An extension of killing adverbs (yes, it’s that important) because it encourages you to do better. In “The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell” Joe Bunting, author of Let’s Write a Short Story! and co-founder of Story Cartel, says, “The simplest rule to remember if you’re trying to show is just to be specific. Specificity will fill in the gaps from your telling and bring life to your scenes.” He continues with the advice to “interrogate your story” further. For example, if I show you the emerald grass blowing around our leading lady as she lays on a blanket starring at the billowy clouds in the sapphire blue sky, you might ask Is it hot? What is she thinking about? How long has she been there? Should she be somewhere else? This has helped me immensely – both with showing and expanding my word count.

I’m still running the course. Some days my pace is slow, others pass me by. I might manage to rewrite only one page in an hour. But at the end of the hour, it’s more concise, vivid, and specific. And, hopefully, more enjoyable to read.

What have you learned along your journey of writing? If you don’t write but enjoy reading, what elements of a novel or article trip you up and make it difficult to smoothly read long? Us writers should be working slow so our readers can read effortlessly.

Thus ends the tale of rewriting…
(until the second draft).

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