Letters from Somnolescent February 22, 2021

On Rewrites

by mariteaux

I come back to my “On” series of essays every couple of months to ruminate on little mindset shifts I have and myths and fallacies in the creative process. Whether I’m ever satisfied with them afterwards is less sure, but whatever, they’re cathartic. Worst case scenario, I’ll probably rewrite a few of them and have them on my site proper instead.

Fittingly, today’s little essay is on a weird mental wall I’ve had on the topic of rewrites. It’s easy, hell, the default to make something once and then never return to it. Drafting, building on what you’ve got–isn’t natural at all, but it’s important.

I felt for a long time like I had to get it right on the first shot. Come as I explore that some.

One of the cardinal sins I see of people who start as artists and move into writing and creating characters is that they think design-first. They come up with, we’ll say, a dog who’s a ringleader in a circus, and that’ll be the entire character. Even the presence of negative traits (anxiety is a far, far too common one) doesn’t give a character a reason to be in a story. They need a problem and something to grow from.

I’ve already discussed something to that effect in “On Purpose” two years ago, but say you’ve cleared that hurdle. You’ve got a character with a reason to be in the story, but then that character now no longer quite fits as you build more ideas and more arcs onto that story. Something about them needs to change. They need a rewrite.

And for whatever reason, revision took me an awful long time to be okay with. Revision is such a necessary part of the creative process, yet for a long time, I wanted to come up with a character or a story idea, and whatever worked is what went, and if it didn’t work at all, I’d hide it away and never speak of it again. The idea of reworking a personality, especially one I was as close to as Colton, seemed anathema.

A traditional, unreleased Caby doodle of Colton standing in a tree
Yep, it’s a Cammy ramble, and I go looking for Caby doodles as normal. Not my fault her art pairs so well with my words…

I’ve talked about my raccoon lad Colton in many a blog post. As said in “On Purpose”, Colton originated as someone whose loss would give “Darkpenny” emotional weight that a happy ending couldn’t quite achieve. “Darkpenny” still works as a standalone story, but as we’ve worked on the Pennyverse more and more, its tone started to clash with the events afterwards. What happened in it didn’t mesh with what it became. Penny’s addiction to a fake drug of amphetamines sprinkled on hard candy felt more goofy than deathly serious.

Yet even still, even after we’d revised it in our heads and consigned it to an eventual (we’re talking within the decade…) rewrite, Colton still wasn’t working somehow. I’ve long described stories as logic puzzles. Provided all the digits are lined up, the process of taking two characters, putting them into a setting, and determining how they’ll react to each other and the setting is logic, not creativity. It’s a feel thing for me, and yet, I couldn’t figure out how he talked or how he worked in stories.

Initially, after we decided to bring him back into the fold, I conceived him as a shy, avoidant, guilty lad trying to make up for the final act of “Darkpenny”–namely, him trying to kidnap Penny. And slowly, it just made less sense to me. His initial reason for going to Apricot Bay in the first place was to try and find Penny (as I infamously chronicled in the for-now-lost-media “Colton’s Adventure”), but it just seemed out of his character to get grabby in the first place.

We decided his reason for latching onto Penny was as a replacement for his MIA biological mother and that that ending would instead consist of a showdown on the fire escape outside their abandoned apartment. Still wasn’t working! Though it meshed better with the later events of the story, if Colton hadn’t physically threatened Penny, Colton had no reason to arrive there on regret, and Seb had no reason to get aggressive with him, which was the basis for Seb meeting the Guardian in the first place (“Seb vs the Guardian” also pending a rewrite).

Worse yet, the shyness made Colton’s actual arrival in Apricot Bay far more of a stretch. Colton was to meet Riley mid-painting and find something appealing in it, thus his hovering the art gallery. Why would a socially avoidant 15-year-old bother, exactly? How could I approach his narration if it was all just nerves, regret, and avoidance? Worse yet, when did his other emotions come into play? Things were feeling accidentally flat.

That’s when it hit me, around the time I wrote the later-in-the-timeline “Gonzo the Dissident”. Confident, independent Colton, one who’d try to help Gonzo, made perfect sense. I couldn’t just change the events around him. I had to change his personality. Weirdly enough, though–I already felt like I had? As I said, he’d grow to be this confident, bizarre-but-outgoing lad later in the story, so him being shy felt like the odd bit out.

This lead to a conversation I had with my Caby about a month ago (that’s how long I’ve been putting this off…) where I said that I wanted Colton to be independent and untethered to a fault from the start. Coming to Apricot Bay was for himself. Hovering the art gallery was for his own curiosity. He still had abandonment issues to grow from–it’s just that these took him in the more natural direction for a hormonal teenage raccoon boy.

And as for all the stories involving that earlier Colton, and all the ideas predicated on him being who he was–they’re all up for rewrites now.

More traditional Caby doodles of Colton
Another old Colton sketchpage from Caby. Think it suits him a lot nicer, doesn’t it?

I think my issue with rewriting was failure, the creative concept of it. Creative work is hard and takes a whole lot of drive. A lot of people stop after they find they “can’t draw”. Even if you keep going, it’s easy to fall into the trap of proving yourself, to feel like people will doubt your abilities or stop paying attention if you fail. For me, I developed a lot of bad habits to allow myself to fail more gracefully (read: play things safe and stiff).

Failure, in simple terms, is really just a miss of your original intentions. I know what it’s like to build that up in your head, but that’s all it is. You tried, and it didn’t do what you want it to. It doesn’t reflect on your abilities (least, not if you’re just a hobbyist like we are). Hell, in some cases, what’s technically a failure can even be quite pretty in its own right! A drawing with perspective mistakes and fails to capture the atmosphere you want can still work in capacities you didn’t even consider.

And to the point of this essay–you can always try again. I think it’s easy to get caught up in this thought of “must move forward, must do something new each time”, and it’s a good way to tank your momentum. It goes against the very idea of practice. I think it helps to free you from the feeling of having to get it perfect on the first shot too, to prove you can make magic happen on a whim. Some things take a second draft.

There’s something a little strange about these essays that I only realized mid-draft. Pennyverse is still very much a draft, still a work-in-progress on its own, so who knows. Maybe this’ll all be as obsolete as the way I described Pennyverse in my earlier essays. Consider it a snapshot. Maybe with the benefit of hindsight, the rewrite will make more sense.

About mariteaux

Somnolescent's webmaster with way too much to write about and a stack of CDs he'll never finish.

One comment on "On Rewrites"

  • dotcomboom says:

    > ‘A lot of people stop after they find they “can’t draw”. Even if you keep going, it’s easy to fall into the trap of proving yourself, to feel like people will doubt your abilities or stop paying attention if you fail.’

    Absolutely this. If anything, that’s the roadblock I’ve faced the most. It’s far too easy to get wrapped up in your own expectations or what you think other people expect of you. Ultimately, it’s a self-imposed restriction. Failure is brought up as this big scary thing rather than a sign of progress. (I feel that isn’t helped by the wonders of our education system…)

    Also, I’m reminded of a passage my sister read for class, “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott. Here’s a bit of that one’s conclusion:

    “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

    Drafting’s good. Necessary, even. I think it came more naturally to us when we all were working on paper, before you could just CTRL+A and backspace, or banish a file to the shadow realm without saving. I like paper. I’d like to use it more. The hardest step is just deciding to lift the pen and letting it spill.

    (By golly, I wish my subconscious had the same sentiments. We’ll get there.)

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