The Ghosts of Past Drafts: Rewriting A Manuscript

“BITCH GET BACK DOWN THERE.”: St. Michael exorcising demons with the help of of his pretty floral bonnet.

Rewriting is harder than people think. I mean, you have the story down, in one form or another. You have the characters. Now it’s just a matter of taking out the bits that don’t work and replacing them with ones that do. Easy-peasy, right?

Imagine I’m pressing the world’s largest error buzzer right now.

See, it would be easy if the pieces you don’t want were happy to go away. If they would die, quietly and peacefully somewhere out of the way, like a gerbil that crawled into the wall and was never seen again.

But they don’t. They want to live. So they claw and scramble and pester, trying to get back into the story.

This is a problem I call the Haunting. Old drafts can haunt your current one, trying to warp it back to a mirror of themselves, flaws and all. 

Most of the problem is pure authorial laziness. Cutting and pasting without really—and I mean really—examining whether that scene works? Then get your bell, book, and candle, lads, because you’re going to have to exorcise something out of it in the future. 

Rewriting is like fighting the old draft for control. 

I was trying to rewrite a scene. A pivotal one, one that had been in the story since its very conception, when it was but a story fetus. I was fine with how it started and ended in the original, but the bits in the middle didn’t work with the changes I’d made. This will be easy, I thought. After all, the end points are the same. It’s just a matter of joining them up in a new way. Simple.

But every time I tried to rewrite it, the old scene wanted to intrude. Dialogue that I liked tried to work itself in, despite the fact that none of those characters were present any more. A fight kept trying to go a certain way when it had to go differently. Even setting details kept creeping in. The ghosts of those old drafts were doing their damnedest to hang on. 

When I realized what the problem was, I closed all other windows, including the old drafts I was working from, opened a new document, set my computer to block all incoming notifications, and started rewriting that scene again. With nothing to refer back to, it went easier. Not easy, mind you. I still had to claw for every sentence. But at the end of that day, I had a scene that was no longer haunted. 

A note for those of you embarking on the journey that is the rewrite: watch out for ghosts. Because they’ll drag you back every chance they get. 

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