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Free Rewrites

free rewritesI spent last weekend rewriting the first Champions novella for 1942, Snapdragon. As I’ve mentioned before, doing rewrites can be frustrating, especially when you went into a first draft with a reasonably clear idea of what you wanted, and then the story either didn’t work out as planned, or you failed to stay on beat. The latter was my problem in this case; the basic story for the novella was spot on, but I kept joining the action in the wrong moments.

Perhaps I’ll write a note about pacing another time, but suffice to say that the original draft was sagging in places where it really shouldn’t have been. That wasn’t because Alex, Stephanie or Strong weren’t rearing to go… it was because I wasn’t framing up the right scenes. So back to the keyboard I went, and within hours the problem was fixing itself. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a do-over.

In itself, a rewrite on a novella isn’t noteworthy. I do them all the time. As I think I’ve said before, entire novels have gone this way –– from my surprise at the ending of Frontier to the revisions it took for Whitecoat to properly gel, you get used to writing lots of words, and then leaving them behind. What struck me about my weekend of work, though, was how fortunate I am that the process is free.

A calamitous (not really) story broke yesterday, about the latest X-Men movie: the director and some of the actors are being tapped for two weeks of re-shoots. Speculation was already being expressed about how much these additional shooting days would add to the movie’s budget, which was already $250 million. As far as I can tell, the answer is probably not that much, but it’s an old question in the movie industry –– and a relevant one.

Since Richard Burton and Liz Taylor forced massive cost overruns that turned Cleopatra into a near-studio-killing film, people have paid some attention to movie budgets. There have been countless stories on this front over the years, but to keep things current, we can just refer to recent ones: World War Z famously went back into production for an extra seven weeks, so that a whole new ending could be filmed. Getting Brad Pitt and a whole new final-act cast together after shooting had ended was no small cost (I think the bill was ultimately $40 million), but they believed the story required it, so they did it anyway. Since we’ll never see the original ending, we can’t really judge whether the effort was necessary, but I did quite enjoy the film.

In television, total rewrites have famously altered the course of beloved franchises. Everyone knows that Star Trek had two totally different pilots, and I believe Doctor Who did as well. More recently, the genius series Sherlock shot a very good first episode (available as part of the first series DVD/blu-ray), but then proceeded to re-shoot the same as a longer story, with much sharper characters, design and writing. Whenever I need to explain what I mean when I say my first editing pass is a ‘resurfacing’, I cite this Sherlock re-shoot –– it aptly demonstrates how a few subtle changes, and a few larger ones, can make a huge difference to the end product:

Not to pulverize this deceased horse, but all of these re-shoots cost money. This is not a criticism –– I like these shows and films, and am quite glad that someone with the bankroll was both willing and able to pay the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people involved so that they can be as finely-honed as possible when they reach screens.

I just feel lucky that I’m writing books.

A total rewrite of a novella costs me an extra week of being unsociable with friends (though to be fair, my friends don’t think I’m very sociable to begin with). Our chosen format lets us work with great fictional people, but since we don’t have to pay them anything, and we don’t need to hire filmmakers to cover them, we can spend all the time we need honing their story. Indeed, sometimes the challenge is not to spend too much time in the edit, which is why deadlines are important.

So if you’re not enjoying the need to do hefty rewrites on your manuscript, know that you’re not alone; we’re all going to be frustrated at one point or another during the editing process. Just remember again how privileged we all are –– how blessed by this format –– and get back to your keyboard.

Give your characters your best effort, and believe me, they’ll give you their best in return.