Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Rewriting the Novel - everybody's at it!

There's a lot being said at the moment by Macmillan New Writers (eg here and here as well as here at HB) about the rewriting/editing process and it's obvious that there's something of a divergence of opinion on the whole process. Some love it, some dread it.

I'll come clean, now and admit that I really enjoy the process of rewriting. I enjoy it so much that I'm constantly at it. I edit a huge amount as I go along. At the most basic level, I'll change a sentence twice or three times in the writing of it, just because I'm thinking and working out and weighing up the sound of the thing as I go along.

This will correctly suggest to you that I don't know what a sentence is going to sound like until I've actually written it; I have a vague, subconscious feel of what's happening and the act of writing turns this into something more real, more concrete.

I remember reading an interview with somebody, once – I think it was Mary Wesley – who said that writing on a typewriter made you far more economical with words and less prone to having to rewrite as you had to work out each sentence in your head before you started. That wouldn't work for me. Not at all. I'd go into terminal stall. I need to find out what a sentence is going to say by watching and listening to it unfold. And then rewriting it so it says it better. And then again. And then I'll move on to the next sentence.

But the editing doesn't stop there. That's the beginning. At the end of each day, I go through the day's output, rewriting, cutting, adding, trying to get it exactly right.

The following day, I read the previous day's work again, out loud. Again, I tweak sentences, add, cut and re-think. That'll take an hour or two. Then I start writing new stuff.

I'll go through the whole thing again when I read through the chapter before I add it to the file containing the whole of the work to date. That means each chapter has been through numerous batches of rewriting before I've even got to the end of what we probably shouldn't call draft one of the novel.

I can hear your question now. 'What the hell is there left to rewrite at the end?'

Well, actually, quite a lot.

In just the same way that I don't know what a sentence is going to say until I've written it, I find it really difficult to structure my books until I know what they're really about.

Let me explain what I mean when I say 'really about'. I'm not talking about plot, here. I know roughly what's going to happen – the beginning, the end, a few key events in between - before I begin, but what I don't know is what it's all going to turn out to mean. I don't start writing thinking 'ah, this is a book about loss/alienation/fear of being abandoned/insert your own overarching theme' I just wait to see what things emerge. I may have a notion of what will turn out to be important, but I'm loath to commit to that before seeing how my characters interact with each other and where they go with the action I've sketched out for them.

The other thing i'm often hazy about is motivation. If you know what happens but you want to let your characters develop naturally and not force them into some kind of cardboard cutout persona, then you're setting yourself up for a lot of reworking. I've spent a lot of time whilst writing The Black and The white getting to grips with why one of the characters does a particular thing – not just any old thing, a seminal thing that sparks the whole of the action. I tried one motivation but the whole thing just wouldn't gel – I was trying to force the issue and rely on my own interpretation to decide why he did it rather than just writing the story and letting him show me why he did it.

OK, I've just read that and it sounds flaky. I used to hate it when heard authors saying 'my characters just did this' or 'they just wouldn't do what I wanted them to' and I'd think 'they're your characters, make them behave!' But the truth is, if you're writing character-driven fiction they're only your characters up to a point. And after that point, they're you (or your unruly subconscious) and are you always under your own rational control?

So, anyway, the point is, I can't work out the best structure until I know what the important themes are and I can't decide why the events of the plot happen until I know who the characters are, and I can only find out both those things by writing the damn' story. [The whole 'write your characters' biography down to their earliest memory and their inside leg measurement' thing has never worked for me. I've tried it and one of two things happens. Either the characters fail to become real and I'm just making the whole thing happen rather than finding out what really happens, or the minute I start writing the book, they become somebody else and I might just as well not have bothered with the whole biog thing.]

The point of this rambling is that I'm always going to be stuck with a certain amount of structural rewriting because of the way I allow my novels to develop.

At the moment, I'm managing to cut at least half the material from the first 70 pages because I now know what matters and what doesn't, and also because some of that material needs to come later in the book for reasons of character development and suspense. But I couldn't possibly have written the book in its current (ie rewritten) form from the beginning, because I needed to find out a) what it was really about behind the plot and b) who these people really were behind the vague notions I had of the characters moving my plot forward.

Given all that, it's a good job that I like rewriting, isn't it?


Frances Garrood said...

Oh, lucky you, Alis, enjoying all this! I'm hating it, because I've decided I'm not much good at male characters, and now I've got to flesh one of them out, and I'm not sure where to put the flesh (he hasn't even got a job at the moment - he just travels around and earns, but how?).

But I so agree about letting characters develop.They just do. I too can't be doing with the chart with lists of hair colour and hobbies and birthday et etc. It's so booooooring. I like finding out as I go along. For instance, I had no idea that Gabs had illegal substances in her handbag until she fished them out, nor that the monkey would get into the car. Flaky it may be, but it's much more fun that way.

Faye L. Booth said...

I love rewriting and editing too. I think it's because I get to relive (and improve) while carving out the bits that are dragging the good stuff down with them - rewriting is when I tend to really feel as if I'm doing the MS justice, at least to the best of my ability.

Deborah Swift said...

Thanks for alerting me to this set of posts - they're great.Can't wait to read The Black and The White.

Alis said...

Hi Frances - yes, I think I am lucky, writing novels would be far less enjoyable if I didn't like this phase. And I know exactly what you mean about not knowing what characters are going to do until they do it. Sometimes characters I didn't even know were going to be in the book walk in and start throwing their weight about. And they're usually just wha thte novel needs - weird!

Hi Faye - I agree, I feel that this is when I'm really crafting the thing and making it into what it needs to be.

Hi Dee - glad you like them!

Karen said...

I love editing too; improving what's already written, and I edit a lot as I go along.

I don't know what I'd do without the PC. I used to use a typewriter back in the day and found it utterly frustrating!

Alis said...

Hi Karen - I just can't imagine using anything but a WP - I think a typewriter would just about win over longhand as I type far faster than I write, but both would be purgatory!

Akasha Savage. said...

Hey! Welcome back. I've just read all your recent blog posts to catch up with you and your writing, and my goodness Alis, what a busy little bee you're beeing! I found you posts really interesting as I'm trying to sort out my final draft and just don't seem to have enough time...ahhhh! We are so similar in our approach to writing; I edit and restructure as I'm going along from sentence to sentence. I can't start my next chapter until I'm happy with the one before, and I never have bio's for my characters. I wish you all the best with this novel, and you non-fiction work.
Glad you're back in the blogosphere.

Alis said...

Hi Akasha - thanks! How's Bathory doing?

Akasha Savage. said...

Bathory's coming along okay. I've put the opening chapters on (do you know of that website?) and it's placed at number 25 in their chart, which boosted my sometimes flagging ego.
I just can't believe how long it's taking me to complete - work gets in the way so much.

Summer Ross said...

Thats pretty extensive. I enjoy rewriting my work as well and even critiquing others works, but I'm not as into as this. :) But bravo to you that you can do all that. as a writer I find my piece is never quite finished, I always want to change something even after its been published.

Alis said...

Hi Summer, thanks for dropping in - Yes, I think 'into it' is really what I am. I suppose I see rewriting/editing as just as creative a process as producing the words on the screen in the first place.