WRITING TIPS: Don’t Be Afraid to Smash the Glass

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It always happens. As I transition into the rewriting that will not-so-magically transform a first draft of a novel into a second draft (or a second into a third; or a fifth into a sixth), I get timid. I get contemplative. I get, well… I get scared. It’s like I’m tiptoeing around a museum of precious artefacts, examining everything, but touching nothing.

I have a long history of wanting my work to spin out of me fully-formed, but I like to think I’ve evolved in my battles with perfectionism as far as the first draft is concerned. I’ve come to understand what many writers do, that while first-drafting, you need to let it all hang out, to allow yourself to write horrible, messy, nonsensical things. Because, really, you’re not making the final product, just creating the raw materials. The first draft is the clay, and the drafts that follow are the sculpting and moulding of that clay into something meaningful, where most of the artfulness happens.

Knowing that takes a lot of the pressure off.

So, okay, great. I’m able to (mostly) repress my inner perfectionist and get some words on the page. But something I’ve been less successful at is quieting that perfectionist when I begin to rewrite. It’s much harder for me to give myself permission to let loose in the same way, maybe because I’m all-too-aware that the artfulness is supposed to happen now, so DON’T EFF THIS UP. I can’t help feeling like my time for messy writing is over, that I need to focus on cleaning it up and playing it safe.

This is how I end up in the museum, staring at all those glass cases filled with words I’ve written.

For the past two months, it’s where I’ve been with my work-in-progress third YA novel. I had written 150 pages of a first draft when I began to realise I’d have a much better sense of how to move forward if I could reassess and reorganise what I already had. I’d never stopped mid-first-draft with my other books, but this felt right; if nothing else, I knew I was needlessly juggling too many storylines.

Yet, even though I was aware changes and cuts needed to be made, I didn’t know how exactly to make them. I became petrified that if I was too reckless in my alterations, I might inadvertently tamper with some of the things that were working well. So, for the first few weeks, I did very little. On a good day, I’d approach one of the museum’s glass cases with a cloth in my hand, notice a smidge of dust, and wipe it away (and then immediately wonder if I’d made a mistake: maybe the dust was part of what gave this exhibit its integrity!)

This tiptoeing might just be part of my process, and I’m all for spending some time in the museum of your work before you begin renovations, but there’s a fine line between “re-familiarising yourself with the material” and “allowing yourself to sink into a horrible, unproductive creative stasis.” After at least a month of limited progress (the kind I would lie to myself and my wife about: “It’s going slowly, but it’s very necessary work”), I forced myself to take some real action, any action. I identified two storylines that, if I was going to be honest with myself, had to go. Yes, they both featured cool stuff that I loved, but they didn’t cohere with the rest of the book.

I raised a hammer, my hand shaking, and smashed their glass cases.

It felt good. I swept up the glass and ditched the words. With the pages from those storylines gone, I could see my draft a bit more clearly. But cutting things is easy, I thought. Now’s the hard part. Again, I was staring out at the museum, a big expansive room, with no idea where to begin. I felt like I needed some kind of master plan.

It took more days of staring and thinking and agonising to realise the idea of “the master plan” is bullshit. The place to begin was wherever the hell I felt inspired to begin. I took out my hammer and shattered an early scene that needed work. I used my cloth to tidy up another scene later on. I straight-up shifted one scene from one side of the room to the other. One change led to another led to another led to another, and even when I didn’t feel like the changes were exactly right, they gave me momentum.

Look, I don’t know how much this museum metaphor actually holds up, but I do know that when you start rewriting, you can’t be afraid to smash the glass. Be brave. Trust your instincts. The more you can free yourself up to make bold choices in your rewrites, the more discoveries you’re going to make and the better your writing is going to be (though do obviously keep the original draft saved in case you later discover you’ve been a little too bold). As I continue working through this third-novel rewrite, some days are more successful than others. But when I feel myself slipping back into fear and inertia, I grip that hammer a little tighter and try to find something to smash.