The forge and the spiderweb

Rewriting is probably my least favorite part of writing. I miss the adrenaline thrill of the initial writing process, when you’re forced to think on your feet and, more often than not, spin whatever happens next out of whole cloth. For me, writing is about letting the subconscious take over, allowing subsumed ideas to come to the forefront and spill, raw, onto the page. The conscious mind—the one that worries that your ideas just aren’t good enough, or that things don’t quite make sense—is pushed to the rear, in favor of in-the-moment, tip-of-your-tongue inspiration.

It’s later, after that heat and excitement cools, that the rational brain has its day in the sun: Does this plot point make sense? Would this character really act in this way? Thus begins the lengthy process of rewriting, making sure your story fits together in a cohesive, reasonable way. You don’t want plot lines that go nowhere, or characters who seem wildly inconsistent from one moment to the next. Rewriting smooths the edges, puts all your ducks in a row, turns a series of random spewings into a single, cohesive whole.

Much as writers try to avoid being subject to the vagaries of mood, I’ve noticed two distinct mindsets when I sit down to rewrite a piece.

The forge

On my best days, rewriting means forging the story. As in metalworking, forging a story is about hammering away at it, slowly and methodically, to make it fit that overall idea of what the piece should be. When blacksmiths forge a piece, they force the grain of the raw material to follow the shape of the piece, usually making it even stronger than the original material. In the same way, forging your writing is about turning it into something that’s more than the sum of its original ideas.

Forging is slow, laborious work: You focus on the same pieces of the story, banging away at them over and over, molding them until they’re bent and shaped in such a way that they support the narrative as a whole. As taxing and gradual as that process might be, the result is a piece that is far stronger than the original, meaning that it’s less likely to crumble under a sharp reader’s eyes.

It’s not without its occasional flaws and missteps—you might forge the strongest scene in the world, but find that it’s not quite the right shape for what it needs to do. But even those mistakes are valuable; when a piece doesn’t fit, you end up with a better idea of the shape you are looking for.

More than confidence, forging requires a certain amount of faith that, as long and painful as the process may be, everything you’re doing is to the better—no matter how destructive it might seem at times. After all, destruction is a kind of creativity in and of itself. Don’t believe me? Select a big chunk of your story and hit Delete—see if you don’t feel a little thrill, experience the sharp gasp of diving into ice cold water.

In some moments, though, that confidence and faith can crack—especially after repeated hammering; in those darker moments, the process can seem less like a hearty, bellows-pumping forge and more like something that’s far more delicate.

The spiderweb

“Delicate” may not be the right word for a spiderweb; spider silk can have a tensile strength greater than that of steel. But most of the time we think of spiderwebs as fragile things that disintegrate at a touch—usually because we’re flailing around after walking face-first into one.

Stories can feel delicate too. Often, it can seem as though every change you make to a narrative, no matter how minor and inconsequential it might seem, ripples throughout the story as a whole, causing the entire idea to collapse.

I don’t think I’m alone among writers in worrying that my stories are held together with little more than spit and baling wire. There’s a kind of magic inherent in the writing process, but it can start to seem more like illusionism than sorcery when it comes to that rewriting process.

And it’s true that the whole of a story is connected. Change something in chapter 3, and you may very well have to change things in chapters 7, 15, and 22. Hell, if you don’t have to change things later on, then that’s potentially a sign that the detail in chapter 3 wasn’t that important in the first place.

The real problem with the spiderweb is that it can paralyze a writer, make them unwilling to delve in and change what needs changing. And it’s not unreasonable either—writing is a lot of work, and often time a narrative is balanced on a knife’s edge. Even well-intentioned meddling in a story can seem ham-fisted, a wrecking ball when you should be using a scalpel.

Forging the web

So how do you free yourself from the spiderweb and get back to the forge? Beats me! That’s probably not what you want to hear, but it’s different for everybody. In the end, though, I think there’s no substitute for sheer will, for reminding yourself why you’re doing this in the first place—to tell the best story that you know how.

If you’re worried you might break something or screw something up, well, that’s normal—but if you let it stop you, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate your goal. You’re going to make mistakes in the telling of a story—just don’t make one of them “not telling it.”

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