How newspaper writing helps (and hurts) my fiction

My wife is smarter than me. It’s galling at times, but it’s really a good thing in the end.

We were talking the other day about the rewrite of Twisted, and how it’s taken me so long to even come around and look at it critically. And in the end, I don’t like what I see.

Her point is that no one is THAT good on the first draft–although my stuff isn’t bad. But you have to get that draft out of your system in order to go back and do it right. I struggle with that process. I love the art of creation, and yet it is nearly physically painful for me to go back to a draft and begin the art of rewriting.

I’ve never had to rewrite. And that, she correctly points out, is where my fiction-writing career goes off the rails.

In my former newspaper career, I didn’t rewrite at all. Didn’t have the luxury. Time was always against me. The way the story came out was the way the story came out. I did my best to be objective, use correct grammar, and be entertaining. Sometimes two out of three was all I could do. (OK, so maybe sometimes I might have been 0-for-3, but even Babe Ruth struck out occasionally.)

Rewrite? Pah. That’s what editors are for. When I became an editor, I could rewrite other people’s work easily. My own? Not so much.

In high school and college, I never drafted more than once. My talent got me through. Hard work did not.

Hemingway once said that “Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”

That’s so true. I learned the value of writing plainly so that anyone could understand my work. I learned how to hit a deadline–and how to miss it if the story was important enough. I learned how to be (mostly) professional, how to do research, how to interview subjects and quote them accurately. I learned writing is work. I learned cadences of speech that help me when I write dialogue.

But I never learned the art of rewrite. And that’s one arrow that is missing from my quiver, even now. Rewrite (or revision) scares the hell out of me. Going back now and diving into Twisted gives me the heebie-jeebies. For one thing, the book isn’t as good as I remembered it being. If I could talk to myself a decade in the past, I would say “Self–you have no shot. Stay in the newspaper business. Fiction ain’t your bag.”

Seriously. Looking at this manuscript now, I want to say “Stop. Writing. Forever.” It’s that bad. You want to know how bad it is? I re-named a character halfway through the (124,000-word) manuscript. And never noticed.

Come on, son. There’s not a facepalm big enough in this world to cover that.

But here I am, rewriting the damned thing. I’ve chopped 20,000 words off the manuscript already. See, there was this bank robbery in the opening 10 chapters–and I don’t need it. The novel is about what happens to the robbers AFTER the bank robbery. I can start it in media res, and it loses nothing. Gains something, in fact. It took me a decade (more, really) to realize that.

This is why revision is helpful. This is why they tell you to put your manuscript away for awhile and come back to it weeks later, with your eyes and heart and head fresh. If I’d done that, I might’ve been able to save myself a decade of angst.

Someone said that all writing is rewriting. I guess that’s true. If I want to be professional, it’s required.

3 thoughts on “How newspaper writing helps (and hurts) my fiction

  1. Great post. I struggle with the editing/rewriting process as well. Most writers probably do. The thrill of the first draft is full of surges of adrenaline as creative juices flow all over the keyboard. It’s gratifying and self-stimulating to get those words down the first time. At the end, one just wants praise, a drink, or maybe a cigarette but certainly not the painstaking task of going back and refining. It’s…boring, but it always pays off. Even with my Twitter writing I’ve noticed that if I take the time to write down a tweet and work on it for a few minutes the end result is so much cleaner.

    That said, a good editor does help. But even they require you to do the hard work and changes on your own. Can’t wait to read more of your posts!

    • Thanks for the comment! You’re right–rewriting/revision seems to be where the real work gets done, ESPECIALLY in fiction. I’ve gotta suck it up and get it done or I’m never gonna get to where I want to be.

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