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Overwriting: It’s Totally A Thing

September 23, 2013 by Kiersi

Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Cave of the Two Lovers

I didn’t think overwriting would happen in my book. I’m a re-writer, not a reviser, so instead of trimming the fat and beveling the edges and picking at each word until it’s perfect, I usually just scrap a scene completely and start over if it’s just not cutting it for me. That strategy’s worked pretty well so far; it’s like losing a document in a computer crash before you’ve saved it, but then the second time around is obviously better than the first now that your brain has had some time to work through it.

Or maybe I just think that’s the case, and I’m actually overwriting this book to death.

It’s a problem of setup. In this novel, an agonizingly specific set of events need to occur in order to send the two heroes off on their journey, and the difficulty lies in A) introducing the status quo naturally and as quickly as possible, B) getting the order of events right that change the status quo, and C) making the actions of each character leading to the next event completely believable and inevitable. All of this has proven far more complicated than I anticipated when I began planning this novel. As my friend Amber Keyser put it, “It needs to be like a raging river carrying you along, unstoppable.” (Yes, it does make me feel better to know other writers–very talented writers–also struggle with setups.)

So instead of finagling each scene a little when I get feedback from critique partners/writing group/writer friends, I keep starting over. I have three drafts of one character introduction, and not one of those drafts has satisfied everyone.

“I want less,” one person in my critique group said. “I want it to start right when things get interesting.”

Okay. I did that. I chopped everything at the beginning and launched right into the moment my two heroes meet.

“I want more,” another person said. “I want to know a little bit about the boy before we meet him.”

Oh. Well. Okay. That’s pretty different from the other feedback I got, but maybe he’s right–maybe, when I chopped the beginning, I chopped it too close to the scalp. Perhaps I got carried away. But much like trimming a tree, once the branch’s gone, it’s a bit tricky to get it back again.

I tried anyway. I started over at the beginning, wondering: What do readers need to think and feel about this character right away? How can I slip in the status quo and then immediately set it on fire?

I wrote a thing. I didn’t particularly like it or dislike it. It just was, and that should have been my first sign.

I sent it over to one of my critique partners. He wrote back, “It reads like you checked off all the boxes. Introduce this character, this conflict, check, check.”

Frost’s first chapter had lost all heart and feeling and magic. It was soulless.

I’ll not lie; I had a little meltdown right about then. I rifled through my files and pulled out the first version of the whole manuscript, printed out on paper and only half-read. I pored over my first stab at Frost’s intro; and there it was. The magic. It was wordy and long, but there was soul in it. So much soul. I was still new to Frost when I wrote it; I was discovering him, falling in love with him as my hero.

Assembling all three versions–the first go, the chopped second, the mechanical third–I picked what parts I wanted and what parts would go. I’m still cobbling them together in a way that makes sense, while adding, refining, and trimming. I’m not sure if it’s going to work.

But what I’ve decided is this: I’m not going to show it to anyone. I have to just trust my gut on this, and keep moving forward.


  1. We need at least enough about each character to root for him/her. That’s why on game shows they ask each contestant to “tell us a little about yourself.”

    You can reveal more as time goes in – we don’t need to know what a character’s first baby food was and how his grandparents met (unless it’s key, like in Middlesex), but we need at least enough to “hook into” him or her.

    So easy in theory, so rough in practice. I think your plan to keep going and NOT show this part to anyone makes a lot of sense.

    • Kiersi says:

      You’re so right–finding out what just the minimum required for the “hook” is… that’s the tricky part. Great advice, Bev!

  2. I agree with Beverly. Give us what we need to know so we can see why your MC is someone worth rooting for. The other details should be woven throughout as they are needed.

    Trusting your gut is probably a very good plan at this point. 🙂

    • Kiersi says:

      Good! Because it’s the only plan I’ve got. 🙂 Usually weaving isn’t difficult for me, but this character just has so much rich detail–it’s tricky to pick only the essentials! Thanks Kelly.

  3. Kiersi,

    I often like my first versions of what I write better than later drafts. I’m glad you kept a copy of your first draft. I Look forward to reading about this Frost someday.


  4. Chrys Fey says:

    When I was editing the first book in my series I really was editing it to death, but it was only because I felt like something was missing. So every time I thought it was perfect, some time would go by and I’d get this feeling that it wasn’t quite right yet. I kept working at it until I figured out the problem. Now I know it is done.

    I definitely agree that you shouldn’t show anyone until you are happy with the outcome. Your gut is a much better judge for your book than other people’s opinions. 🙂

  5. I feel your pain–truly! It’s so hard to try to please everyone, all our readers. I think we do lose the “soul” of our work when we do that. Holding onto your work without showing it to anyone until YOU really love it I think helps. Then you can take other’s advice with a grain of salt. The way I try to do is, if my Beta suggests something and a light goes on, and I think, wow, she’s totally right! Then I take her advice. Or if several betas all say the SAME thing, then I pay close attention. But the other stuff I take a pass on.

  6. Jim Snell says:

    Is it overwriting or over-rewriting?

    Is the book finished or are you rewriting this before going further – I’m a little hazy on where you’re at in the MS.

  7. Carol Nissenson says:

    Love this discussion. I’m in the editing phase of my first novel (it’s YA). I keep thinking I’ve completed it until I read through it again! I find the advice I get from agents, teachers and other experts is so all over the place, that it can be worse than no advice at all. So my current practice is to listen to what rings true for me, and, even better, to look at YA books that I’ve really enjoyed and figure out what it is I liked about them and whether they succeed despite breaking ‘rules.’ I discovered, for example, that I thoroughly enjoy novels with lots of dialogue and that you don’t always have to explain how someone got from the dinner table to the garden. Boy do things get stilted if you do.

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