I had the privilege of reading an ARC of Robert Sharenow’s newest book, The Girl in the Torch, an intriguing and fresh immigration story, and he was kind enough to agree to be a guest blogger for Friend Friday.
EMBRACING THE DREADED TOTAL REWRITE
Like most writers, I tend to despise rewriting.
When I’m working on a first draft, I feel free and uninhibited. Although I start with a general idea of my plot and characters, I don’t work from outlines. So writing is a true act of discovery. I imagine myself running barefoot through an open field, twirling around joyously like Julie Andrews in the opening scene of The Sound of Music. Unfortunately, this unbridled/Julie Andrews approach often leads to rather unwieldy first drafts and here is where the trouble begins. The rewriting process is inevitably cruel and labored. I’m often tasked with destroying scenes, characters, and dialogue that I once loved. And instead of Julie Andrews, I feel as if I’m being watched over by the Nazi thugs who were after those adorable Von Trapp kids, making sure I don’t step out of line (like I did on the first draft).
Each of my first two novels underwent some rewriting. With my new book, The Girl in the Torch, I had my first experience with a total rewrite. The plot of the story concerns an immigrant girl named Sarah, who is orphaned when her mother dies on their journey to Ellis Island escaping from Czarist Russia. Instead of submitting to her fate of being returned to the old country, Sarah leaps off the night boat into New York harbor and eventually takes refuge inside the Statue of Liberty. She sleeps inside the crown room by night and scavenges for food discarded by tourists by day. In the first draft, I attempted to write a modern fable, almost like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. None of the characters were named. It wasn’t set in any particular time period. I wanted to the story to be some sort of timeless and universal expression of the immigrant experience. Unfortunately, when I read that first draft, the whole thing felt pretentious and I couldn’t connect to any of the characters (they didn’t have names, after all). My wife, agent, and editor agreed. I also came to the bizarre realization that I hadn’t really enjoyed The Alchemist, and I had no idea why I ever thought that I should use it as a model for my own book.
So I rewrote the novel and grounded it in the turn-of-the-century world of my great-grandparents. Filling in more period details like the ubiquity of newsies and horses in old New York made the story come alive for me and new characters emerged who were part of that more specific world. I also gained a deeper understanding and affection for my core characters, as I tried to piece together how they might have existed in that particular time and place. For instance, Mrs. Lee, an elderly Chinese woman who runs a boarding house and becomes one of Sarah’s protectors, barely had a role in the first draft. But in filling in her details and exploring the harsh reality and rarity of women in Chinatown, she emerged as one of my favorite characters. The end result blends some true historical elements with some of the original story’s fable-like feel. The characters and details are more real and yet come together in way that is unusual, and almost magical. The rewriting was long and difficult. And from conception to publication the book took several years (and it’s not a very long book). Although I never want to face a total rewrite again, I do believe that in this instance, I wound up with a better book that would appeal to the right audience. As painful as it was, I learned to listen to my instincts and my trusted first draft readers and embrace even large scale changes, if it will lead me to the right book.
Robert Sharenow is an award-winning writer and television producer. His most recent novel, The Berlin Boxing Club, was awarded the Sydney Taylor Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries, and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He is also an Emmy-award-winning television producer and serves as Executive Vice President and General Manager of Lifetime. He lives in New York with his wife, two daughters, and their dog, Lucy. You can visit him online at www.robertsharenow.com.