The Mark Blog

When Does It End?

“Writing is Rewriting” – Ernest Hemingway

Second Hemingway reference in a week, and I’m not even a huge fan. Actually, a lot of writers have revealed this secret, if it ever needed revealing.

I’ll add my own: A writer who’s satisfied after a first draft probably isn’t a writer.

Hemingway also said he once rewrote an ending 39 times. The fact that he actually counted, well, either that was just an outright lie, or, back in the age of typewriters (see last blog), one actually did keep track. Nowadays, who can? It’s too damn easy to write, delete, repeat. Seems like every time I go back to a story, I end up rewriting the first paragraph. In some ways it’s the most important paragraph, the one that will keep a reader reading. Yet it seems like an endless task toward a perfection that never arrives, to say nothing of all the paragraphs that follow.

I always think of a story like a sculpture. You start with the stone, a sense of what the story might be, and then chip away until you find out what it actually is. This frequently ends up being nothing like you had imagined.

Lately, my revision process is a lot of fine-toothing. I can literally spend hours on a page, wrenching the words until they sound right. Of course, what’s “right” is a purely subjective idea, a decision made by me and only me, in a room alone (or sometimes in public, but still, alone). This is both a freedom and a burden. On the one hand, no one else can tell me what to write. On the other hand, no one else can tell me what to write.

In my theatrical past, writing was collaboration. Firstly, many pieces were co-written, discussed, and rewritten before we even cast the play. Then if lines weren’t working in rehearsal, we could rewrite them on the spot.

Story writing is a different beast altogether. All the elements must already be in place on the page: the characters, the setting, the plot, the rising action that drives the characters to a point of crisis, at least if I’m following traditional narrative structure. And then there’s the theme, what the story is saying, why it matters, the axis upon which every other element must in some way revolve.

While we’re at it, why not add that I’d also like my work to be hilarious, heartbreaking, and, oh yes, original!

It’s tough to judge this on my own, but I know I’m getting close when I read something over and don’t wince. The rewrites gradually lessen, and I feel I could be closing in on the finish line. Until someone gives me notes about how it’s not working. Then it’s back to the rewrite again.

I’m still growing. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon, so the way I write will evolve as well. When I come back to a story, I’m going to see it differently every time. The hope is that after years of revision, I will feel confident enough to send it out, and someone will like it enough to print it into book form. And then, even though I’m sure I’ll never feel finished, I will finally be able to move on. To the next rewrite. Of the next book. And on and on, and so forth, etc., etc. Ad infinitum. Hallelujah. Amen.