How I Write: Step 4.5 – The On-The-Fly Rewrite

I’d not anticipated doing another “How I Write” article until I was finished with the rough draft, but given the major shift this story just took in my head, it’s worth doing a little addendum to my Rough Draft Step concerning when a better idea asserts itself.

The Hardware

All the same hardware as before, except this time special emphasis on the “mobile” pad and pen. Since I don’t think I spoke about them yet, we might as well talk about the authorly elements of my Everyday Carry.

First up, the memo pad. All the same requirements here as in my “Bird’s Eye View” section, but scaled down for portability. I like those little 3×5 memo pads, because they fit nice into my back pocket. Since they tend to get pretty beat up over the course of a few months, I invested in a cheap leather cover for mine, which tends to extend their operational lifetime. Eventually they get ragged regardless, so be sure to go through and transcribe your ideas periodically.

Try to ignore the specific contours on the one on the right. That lives in my back pocket, so it’s sort of… conformed.

Another thing that works well is one of those little bitty moleskine notebooks. They’re sturdier, the pages tend not to rub against each other as much so the writing doesn’t get smudged, and the pages don’t tear out so it’s better for saving for posterity. But it’s not top bound, so I find I have trouble writing in it sometimes. Also, I do like being able to tear out pages if needed. The ubiquitous “Field Notes” books have the same pros and cons, though I’ve never owned one, so they may be moderately improved over the vanilla moleskines.

From left to right: Inka, Golf Pencil, Fisher Space Pen. I suspect you could have worked that out on your own.

You’ll also need something to write with. The standard is the marvelous Fisher Space Pen. While it doesn’t fit my usual “left-hand friendly” requirements, it’s convenient and high enough quality that I let it slide. Nice and small, writes on anything (within reason) starts easily even after not being used for a while. Another excellent option is the Inka pen. It fits on your key chain, basically writes the same as the fisher space pen (I think they take the same refills) but with a bit more time it can be converted into a full-size pen far more effectively than simply slapping the cap on the other end. I carry both at all times, and yes, I’ve had to use both of them on more than one occasion. You’d be surprised how often you find yourself in a situation where suddenly everyone has to write and there aren’t enough pens to go around. In a pinch, you can get a ton of golf pencils for super cheap, but then tend to rub off for me.

Special bonus to this section, since the rewrite usually comes to me while I’m taking a walk, something to play music/podcasts. Be it a cheap mp3 player or your phone, I can’t tell you how often I broke a stubborn bit of story while taking a long walk and letting my mind wander.

The Software

Again, all the same deal here, but you might want to pick an app on your phone for note taking. I’ve never had much luck doing decent writing on my phone while I’m on the go—hence all the pads—but google docs (or whatever they call it now) has ended up being the app of last resort for jotting down short stories more than once. I like that it backs up to the cloud automatically. You can either use for cloud services or alternately, you can just do voice recordings.

The Content

Maybe you’re better at outlining than I am, but I find no matter how much time I spend working out the beats and whatever other phrases author-type people use to dress up the process of make-believe, I always find once it starts forming on paper I’m about a thread and a half short of making the story flow correctly. Normally, this takes the form of my first act being a very step-by-step “getting the good guys to the place where the bad things happen” without much to break it up and keep it interesting. Also, while things frequently work in my head, once the characters start laying out what’s going to happen and why, I start to question their motivations. Remember, “because that’s what needs to happen to make the plot work” is never a good enough reason for someone to do something. They need to act in a way that is consistent with their character and in a way that makes logical sense in the world. You can get around this if the character is insane, but take it from me, having an insane person driving the plot can get old in a hurry and write you into some weird corners.

So, what do you do when you realize the book is missing something? Add it! Ideally this would have happened in the planning stage, but at this point we’re into the meat of the story, so you’ll have to “do it live” so to speak. It’s not really a big problem, and frankly I often find doing it this way helps catch far more issues than doing it beforehand. The process is simple. Utilizing the methods in the last section, drop down some ***NOTE TO SELF*** entries—either in the text itself or in a separate note document—and lay out the proposed additions/changes. In my case this is usually a whole new thread in a different location, or a minor side thread happening between two supporting characters. This will help you fill in those ***Another scene?*** placeholders that may or may not pop up when other scenes are taking too long, and will either give you a nice breather to space out action, or provide a pop of action to spice up character/drama scenes. Hooray for contrast!

A few things to watch out for. While this may technically be playing the role of “filler” (a very dirty word) in your story, don’t make it feel like filler. It’s easy to keep it from being filler, by the way. All you have to do is give it a reason for happening. Let’s say you want to have a side thread of a character investigating a robbery. If the people responsible are part of the main plot and this thread turns up some useful clues, congrats! Not filler! Or if the people responsible aren’t involved at all but the investigation reveals something useful for the main plot anyway, still not filler. Maybe the character, alone for once, has a few moments of introspection and decides to go help her friends after all, then shows up at a key moment, not filler. And perhaps most importantly, if the spare thread simply reveals aspects of the character we’ve never gotten to explore before because the plot didn’t allow it, that sure isn’t filler.

A mildly spoilery example from my own story, The Battle of Verril. People who have read my Book of Deacon trilogy (of which The Battle of Verril is the third part) know that books 2 and 3 are darn action-heavy. There’s a scene I lovingly refer to as “the farmhouse scene” in which some of our heroes take refuge at a farm and have a run-in with the woman in charge. It is a quiet moment, one that lets us see that even amid the global conflict they’ve been called upon to solve, our heroes care enough about each other and the people of the world to solve a small, personal problem. Buried in probably 100 pages of running and fighting, I think it’s possibly the most memorable part of the book besides the climax.

So, don’t be afraid to add an extra thread if the story needs it for contrast or pacing. Just make it count, and make sure to blend in the edges during the first revision to make sure it’s not glaringly obvious that was an afterthought.

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