Friday, January 18, 2013

This $#@*^ business of rewriting



Most "normal" people - and by that I mean people who aren't writers... - seem to think that writing is all about sitting down with a mug of coffee, a bar of chocolate and sploshing words onto a page. Ha, if only it were that easy.

I'm rewriting The Novel, yet again.  I've been working on it since 2008.  Yes, you read that right - five years.  Admittedly, I was also working on another manuscript in 2008 - 2010 and - lest you missed it... - I was building a house in 2011 and 2012 - so I'll beg forgiveness for taking so long.  The thing is, the time involved has actually been good - ideas have been mulled over, little darlings have been murdered, thoughts have gelled, plots have been restructured and finally, finally I think I'm telling, to quote my lovely pal Candy Gourlay, the "right story". But it ain't over yet, oh no, not by a long shot - and hence further rewriting is happening.

The thing is, most times we'll sit down and spill a story onto a page, only to discover that the story we've told isn't exactly the story it's meant to be.  Instead it's a story full of warts and pustules and broken limbs and even someone else's artificial limbs  -  and it needs intensive surgery.

That process is one which is daunting, terrifying, challenging, but, if you're telling the right story, it's a process which is ultimately incredibly exciting.

While I love working on the words and making them perfect - there is so much more to writing and particularly rewriting than that.  It's definitely not about sitting down and sploshing words onto a page.  It's often not even about being creative.  Usually it's about being deeply analytical.  Both halves of the brain have to be working.  Writing?  An easy occupation?  Pffft!

As Susan Sontag was quoted as saying in a recent piece in the Atlantic on rewriting:  "I don't write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn't work, or what simply is not alive."

Or, to quote Stephen King from the same article: "Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that's what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings) ... I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: 'Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%. Good luck."

Candy has written an excellent blog post this morning entitled "Revising a Novel Has Nothing To Do With Courage" which is well worth reading (you can tell she's between books at the moment, her blogging has once again become prolific).  In it, she says:  "A novel is not...for the faint-hearted - it takes a LONG time and once committed, you've got to keep going till the bitter end.  I should know, it's taken three years to finish my current manuscript. In those three years, I wrote 'The End'  four times, pressed 'send' three times, and started from scratch twice."

The thing is writing is mostly about rewriting and the truth of the matter is we are constantly learning - we never stop (unless we're dead), and that means we're always honing our craft, looking to perfect our stories and rewriting, rewriting and then rewriting some more.


13 comments:

Nick Cross said...

I find the thought of rewriting holds a great deal of fear for me, whereas the action of rewriting is generally not that painful and often enjoyable. But it's so hard to get started, to accept the idea that a book is plastic enough to change, especially when you've spent so much damn time making it work in the first place!

Sue Hyams said...

Good luck with the revising. I love it, I must say, although I tend to rush through it when I should perhaps be more considered. Sadly, I'm still drifting about in the first draft.

K.M.Lockwood said...

Lots of tough love required, methinks.
Thanks for the post, Nicky

kathryn evans said...

You have to persist because it's so good! The 7 meme sent me back to my script , you know the one that's already with an editor, and even in 7 lines I wanted to rewrite - it's an unending job methinks...

Nicky Schmidt said...

Oh Nick, I totally understand that - I find I procrastinate terribly before rewriting but when it's time, and I actually getting going with it, then, while it's a challenge etc, it's not nearly as bad as the rewriting fear monster had me believe!

Sue, me too - I also tend to rush at it, so this time I'm trying to take a much slower far more considered and analytical approach - and I'm reading books on the stuff that needs work too - so I'm really trying to get the balance between creative and analytical right - which is I think what rewriting is so much about.

Always tough love, Philippa! :-)

Thanks, Kathy! x
I think the point Nick made on the SCBWI-BI list was a really good one - one does have to know when to stop - but equally, as Candy said in her blog, once it's published, it's done and you can't rewrite then, so make it as good as you can before it reaches that stage!

Candy Gourlay said...

Sorry I got here late! Thanks for the thoughtful response, Nicky, and all the interesting comments. All I can say to the when to stop revising question is that there is only one person who can tell when you should stop and it's not an agent or a publisher or an editor. It's the writer, naked of all ego, who's done her best and tried everything.

VioletSky said...

The most writing I do is on my meagre blog posts and sometimes that can take hours. I have been known to tweak a post long after it has been published and read by anyone who was ever going to read it, just because I was not satisfied.

I also imagine that re-writing must be harder with a self-published piece as there is no editor with a red pen to tell you where you are going off course.

Keren David said...

I love the rewriting stage - much more than writing the first draft. I know the shape of the story, I have an ending, I am writing about people that I know. A first draft is much harder - particularly as I don't seem to be very good at planning! I have six weeks of revisions ahead of me (on two books), looking forward to it.

Maureen Lynas said...

I think I love all of the stages, what I don't love is the confusion I can be left in if I end up with too many versions. They'll all have bits of excellent stuff (to me) that I want to keep but trying to amalgamate the work drives me nuts. I now try to have a very clear idea of where I want the story to go before I start and, what's even more important to me, a strong understanding of the protagonist. Thanks, Nicky. Glad you're able to get on with your writing now.

Marilynne said...

Nice post. I have a book I've been writing on forever. I keep changing this or that. I've finally decided to put it into Scrivener, then just keep the parts I think are good and see what I have left. (100 words?)

Vesper said...

I've been rewriting my novel, and rewriting, and rewriting, and it's not even finished in the first place...
But I see here the danger of getting in a zone of boredom if not careful enough; I've "played" with this story quite a lot and it starts feeling as if it were too much.
xoxoxo

Jan Markley said...

Great and timely post as I am rewriting a manuscript which was started before my two novels were published. Trying to get the story right!

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