Car repair, novel repair, it's all the same. Right?

On Car Repair and Rewrites

As I have rewritten the manuscript of my novel, I’ve had a mental picture of myself: I’m a mechanic leaning so deep into a car’s innards that just my legs stick out. I’m pounding on something that probably shouldn’t be hit with a wrench. Every so often I yank out some part gross with rust and grease, which I toss over my shoulder onto the lawn.

Illustration by Almitra Clay
Car repair, novel repair, it’s all the same. Right?

There are quite a lot of those parts lying around. Discarded chapters. Plot arcs. Characters.

So yeah, that first car was my NaNoWriMo draft. It was my first novel ever. I was ever so proud that I’d made a proper car-shaped thing that did what a car is supposed to do. It rolled! The horn honked! Never mind the duct tape, or the missing exhaust system, or that the whole thing would have burst into flames going over a speed bump. I’d done it! I’d written a novel!

Well, sharing that “novel” with friends was my wake-up call. They took it for a drive and then politely handed back the keys, saying nothing. When I got back behind the wheel a couple of months later — woah, it was scary. The steering-wheel fell off in my hands. It wasn’t a car; it wasn’t even good enough to be called a lemon.

I came so close to scrapping that draft. What an embarrassment! But I stood back and gave my creation a good hard look. There had been a magical something that had pushed me to craft it in the first place. Some profound and perfect car-shape in my mind that haunted me in the dark. I had wanted to drive that imagined car so badly. Not this . . .thing.

And there it was. A shadow of a car, a perfect image, still there, hiding under the Frankenstein’s monster exterior. Still calling to me. Still demanding to be built.

It was obvious that I couldn’t just slap on a fresh layer of paint to finish the job. There were problems deep in the car’s structure. So I propped that car up on blocks on my lawn, ripped its innards out to learn from what I’d made, and. . . started over.

By starting over, I could ask important questions, like:

What if I swap the positions of these two parts? What happens if I mash them together? Do I really need this part at all?

How many parts can I get rid of and still have a functioning mode of transport? If I get rid of, say, a wheel, will it still conform to the trope of “car?”

And it worked. Car Version 2 was just like Car Version 1, only less painful on the eye and less likely to combust. Version 2 knew that it was an SUV and not a race car. And probably the best part was that it didn’t feel like I had wasted any effort on that first jalopy. Version 2 could not have existed without Version 1. So what if it meant that my lovingly hand-machined bits got kicked across the lawn? Making them for a second time meant that I made them better. More efficient. More elegant.

Okay, so anyone who has done more to a car than my single “I-changed-a-battery-once” is surely laughing at my car analogy. My real background is in art. If not for my experience doing drafts of paintings, I would have panicked at the realization that my first NaNo draft was unpolishable poop. I would have given up. Or I’d have corrected my spelling errors and self-published the thing as-is and effectively wasted my efforts by producing a book that only a masochist would read.

No, I wanted my novel to be done right. It was going to take major effort and major sacrifice to do it. Kill my darlings? I would have to kill more than that. There were going to be corpses everywhere.

But, okay, realistically? Even knowing the necessity of iteration, even having done so professionally with art, the idea of rewriting an entire novel was too much. I couldn’t make that sort of commitment, not all at once. I put my crappy car up on blocks and tried to figure out what parts I most needed to replace. “Just a few chapters,” I told myself. I would rewrite the critical bits and plug them into the original draft and maybe that would be enough.

And then? Surprise! I finally understood what I was building. My characters began to whisper to me. Retelling scenes for a second time felt less like the clumsy exploratory process of the first draft, and more like I was an intermediary between my imaginary friends and the blank page that they were excited to fill.

Rewriting — rebuilding my car — isn’t scary any more. It’s glorious.

I could never have reached this godlike state of destruction and recreation through editing. It had to happen through rewrite. Again and again. There are some parts of of my draft on which I’ve lost count of the number of rewrites I’ve done. I smash away old work and replace it, and nothing I’ve removed feels like wasted effort. Every rewrite has been a great leap forward. Every iteration has been a stepping-stone.

I’m now officially on Version 3. Now, the shape of the car’s rear is foreshadowed by the curves of the hood. The systems running through it have been tested and rerouted for optimal performance. There is still feedback to apply from my “car critique group.” Screws to be tightened, bearings to be oiled, individual parts to be iterated on. Then beta drives, tune-ups, inspections. Incrementally smaller revisions, until the engine purrs and my friends will be eager to take the wheel.

This car will drive on the highway someday. I will make it so.

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