How to revise your novel without getting stale – take a tip from Michael Caine

Do you hate going over your novel again and again?
Take a tip from Michael Caine and see it as
rehearsing your novel

Some writers hate redrafting. Analysing, dissecting and rewriting their work? A sure way to make themselves hate it.

But if you’re hoping to amuse a buying public, your first draft will probably not be good enough. I’ve written about this before in I had no idea novel-writing was such hard work.  Only the superhuman can get everything right on the first go. (I’m talking here about self-directed rewrites, before you show the novel to anyone else. Rewrites instigated by beta-readers, agents and editors are a different kettle of fish.)

So redrafting is a fact of life for writers. If you do it with gritted teeth, that’s a problem.

It so happens I love this phase. But I didn’t realise why until this week.

The penny dropped when I heard Michael Caine on the radio answering a question about giving natural performances.

He told the interviewer: I use one of the basic principles of Stanislavski. It’s called the method. That’s not looking at the floor and mumbling and scratching your bum. With the method, the rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation. By the time they say ‘action’, I’ve been through those lines 500 times.

This is exactly how I see my writing process.

The rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation

When I am drafting, I am in a continual state of rehearsal. Dissecting, questioning. Inventing new ways to test my story. Taking the characters for little rides outside the story. Digging for fundamental truth. I keep the writing rough while I chop the order of events around, concoct new scenes and drop them in. I always use mybeat sheet. My current WIP, Life Form 3, got so darn difficult it needed its own tool, and so I rewrote it as a fairy tale.

Certainly this can be frustrating, particularly when the story is flagging, there are too many unknowns. There’s always a stage where I’m convinced I’ve ruined an exciting idea. That’s why it’s called work.

But what comes out of it is intensely creative.

Ready to roll

There comes a day when I feel I understand, with a big U, fanfares and fireworks. I know what the characters want in each scene, what they show other people, what they’re hiding. I know the character of the book – its world, its struggles, what voice it has. I am confident the reader’s heart rate will soar in the right places.

That’s when I’m ready to relax and tell the story properly – with the final, in-depth rewrite.

Final draft is the performance

Performance. You know what I mean. If you’re a writer you have an urge to perform in prose. You can’t just dash off an email to a friend, a comment on someone else’s blog, a report for work. Even a note to the milkman will always be a bit of a song and dance. Words are never just words, they are indelible. That’s what we really enjoy, right?

My final pass is the performance – the language, style, voice. With all the work I’ve done, I’m ready to grab hold of the reader and show them something special.

Part of the problem with revising is that you get stale. But if with each pass you are building something richer and better, it gets more exciting, not less. Crucial to this is to keep the text rough until everything is place. Then you can give yourself something to look forward to – telling the story. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Are you a method writer? How do you motivate yourself through redrafts?

You can read more about my beat sheet and other revision tools in Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available from Amazon.com or outside the US from Lulu

Thank you, Tea, Two Sugars, for the picture

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  1. #1 by erikamarks on October 18, 2010 - 1:14 pm

    Boy, Roz, such a timely post for me…I’m in the midst of reworking a first chapter for a proposal and I needed the burst of advice. Generally speaking I love the process of editing, for the very reasons that Mr. Caine suggests–the feeling that by the end you know your characters so well and so intimately that writing their worlds and their voices and their choices feels so natural at that stage. It is the interim that can be the struggle for me, the process of understanding my story and its players, which can sometimes feel more like throwing seeds to the wind than actually planting a neat row of seeds in a tilled garden. (Forgive the landscaping analogies–can you tell I’m lamenting the end of the planting season?)

    • #2 by rozmorris on October 18, 2010 - 1:39 pm

      My pleasure, Erika. That interim is the hard part – no getting away from it. And it takes a while before everything feels authentic. To keep with the actor analogy, was it Simon Callow who said he liked to find a character’s walk before he could inhabit him? You can bet he didn’t just pick the first walk that occurred to him. But one day, he’d try a walk and it seemed right.

      • #3 by erikamarks on October 18, 2010 - 5:37 pm

        SO true…I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled with finding a character’s authenticity and then had him or her click into “place” as a result of figuring out something so seemingly small as a walk or a gesture. We live for those Ah ha! moments.

  2. #4 by fictionwitch on October 18, 2010 - 1:24 pm

    This is great stuff – and as a huge Michael Caine fan, I am thrilled to be able to relate this to my own method. I think it is so useful to rehearse and rehearse what you will say in your head even before you put pen to paper. This sort of mental writing, which can be done anywhere, at any time, is such a powerful technique. You can combine it with visual imagination so that you can see scenes before you write them as well. Then the actual writing is just as Caine says, more like performance – and is oddly more relaxing. You are just writing down what you have already established very firmly in your mind. Of course this doesn’t always work, but it’s something I try to do and when I do it it does reduce the labour of actual writing.
    Writing is so much more than just putting words on paper, isn’t it?

    • #5 by rozmorris on October 18, 2010 - 1:41 pm

      Writing is so much more – you’re dead right, Harriet. I think a good story has got to come from deep understanding, so that in the end you are telling people what you know to your very core.

  3. #6 by Dave Morris on October 18, 2010 - 1:45 pm

    I don’t know whether Michael Caine said it in that interview, but I bet he would also caution against over-rehearsing. When you have the characters loaded into memory and you can speak with their voice – then get it written!

    • #7 by rozmorris on October 18, 2010 - 10:38 pm

      He didn’t – but definitely you should capture it. And I have passages in my manuscript that will stay more or less as they are when I do the final edit. But I’m thinking here of how to play the whole book properly, not individual flashes of vividness.

  4. #8 by James Killick on October 18, 2010 - 10:31 pm

    More blinding insight for writers, Roz. Very good post. All that work before the final draft – it’s just practice, isn’t it?

    • #9 by rozmorris on October 18, 2010 - 10:41 pm

      Always great to see you here, James, and thank you.

      Yes, it is practice. I have more of a feel now than I used to for what needs to be done and what might be going wrong. There still seems to be just as much troubleshooting as ever, though. I’m just better at knowing where to point the gun.

  5. #10 by Karen Strong on October 18, 2010 - 10:57 pm

    I loved what Michael Caine had to say. The main part of being a writer is revision. I must say that I do love revising more than draft. I love it when I uncover something deeper. I use to be very impatient during the revision process — but now I’m learning to let this process take as long as it is needed to get the story right.

    • #11 by rozmorris on October 18, 2010 - 11:06 pm

      He’s a clever old fella, isn’t he? I think I started off thinking revision was just about tidying the language a bit. But now I think it’s part of the great journey of discovery.

  6. #12 by Carla René on October 18, 2010 - 11:45 pm

    I know this has absolutely nothing to do with the thesis of the article, but it sticks in my crawl anyway.

    Stanislavski had NOTHIING to do with The Method, and with the sort of calibre of actor that Michael Caine is, he clearly should’ve known better.

    The Method, or method acting, was developed solely by Lee Strasberg, and is vastly different than Stanislavski or even his arch rival, Sanford Meisner. But, it gets attributed to Stanislavski because it was his two pupils, Strasberg and Meisner, that began the disagreement over the use of affective memory from Stanislavski’s “system”. (He hated titles or tags and thus termed his own work a system. He would NEVER coin the term The Method for his work.)

    The Method caught on like wild-fire once Strasberg moved to the left coast and began his own acting workshop, with high-profile students such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Robert DeNiro.

    However, many decried the Method after seeing just how dangerous a technique it really was, and that’s certainly something Caine didn’t reveal in this interview. The actor was encouraged to use real, painful and traumatic experiences from his life that would evoke real emotions. The problem with this is two-fold:

    1. The actor can get so involved in his own pain that he becomes wildly out-of-control and raw on-stage, thus pulling him actively out of the character and setting, and

    2. After you’ve relived that pain “500 times” then it loses some of its sting–you become desensitised to it and thus from an emotional stand-point, it’s not as reliable.

    Meisner, and to some extent Stanislavski, determined that daydreaming, or imagining a set of circumstances and then allowing yourself to become affected emotionally, would evoke the same real emotion, and wouldn’t be of detriment or damage to the actor if employed night after night.

    It was on Stanislavski’s deathbed in 1932 in Paris, that Stella Adler, also a classmate of Strasberg and Meisner (along with Bobby Lewis, Robert Clurman, Uta Hagen and 7 others), transcribed his last notes on the issue of affective memory, and said that Strasberg’s interpretation was never what he meant at all.

    Again, I realise this has nothing to do with the topic, but in case any other actors are reading this, I wanted there to be no misconceptions or confusion. I’ve been Meisner-trained for over 6 years, and worked on stage and television (NBC, The Kennedy Centre) for many years, and there is a HUGE difference between the two.

    Now. Carry on. ;)

    • #13 by rozmorris on October 19, 2010 - 8:05 am

      Ho ho ho – Carla I wondered if someone would start to quibble terms. When I was writing this I googled Stanislavski to check spellings etc and found that what was described was rather different from what Mr Caine was describing. I then googled Strasberg, thinking I’d misheard, and found that didn’t fit either.
      Just as I was wondering what exactly he had said, I found someone else on line had transcribed that portion of the interview and it was as I remembered it… so I thought, okay, I’m not mistaken, he did say that and it is really how he works. The rehearsal/performance idea is what he’s actually talking about, and that’s what I think will really help readers – the idea that a lot of the revision time is ‘muddling’ time, aiming to find a deeper truth so that you can finally enjoy telling the story.
      I’m not an actor, so it’s not for me to quibble with his terms. But you, my dear – quibble away. We relish a lively debate here.

  7. #14 by Laura Pauling on October 19, 2010 - 1:20 pm

    Regardless of who meant what when it came to acting, I don’t hate revising. I try my best to work on macro and then go micro and then polish. I get through it so I can see the end. no one ever said it would be easy!

    • #15 by rozmorris on October 19, 2010 - 6:09 pm

      Certainly isn’t easy, Laura. But as we get more miles on our writing clock we know a little better how to get to the end.

  8. #16 by Kimberly Davis on October 19, 2010 - 1:53 pm

    Thanks for this great post, Roz. I’m working on a memoir, and many of the same issues apply, as I try to “re-imagine” what I lived through, and put it all into scenes. It feels like an acting job, where I play myself! Cheers, Kim

    • #17 by rozmorris on October 19, 2010 - 6:11 pm

      I often find that when I’m immersed in the characters I feel like an actor must feel. To write a scene authentically I need to live it.

  9. #18 by Terry Odell on October 19, 2010 - 3:06 pm

    I notice that Caine refers to being through his “lines” 500 times. That seems to eliminate the conveying of the emotions behind the words. Frankly, I never thought I’d be able to make it as an actor simply because dragging emotion to the surface time and time again seems beyond my scope of comprehension.

    My writing “method” tends to differ, as I don’t think of drafts of the manuscript. I just rewrite until I like what I see. And I do this as I go along, so my first visit to “the end” is relatively clean. Then it’s a matter of fixing things like wording and catching continuity errors–but as you mention in your article, that’s the fun part. Making it all flow.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    • #19 by rozmorris on October 19, 2010 - 6:12 pm

      Terry, that’s interesting – you revise as you go. I never feel secure to fiddle until I have a rough draft that has swum from one end to the other.

  10. #20 by Paul Greci on October 19, 2010 - 4:33 pm

    I do like revising. And I’m glad I do because like you stated above, much of writing is revising/rewriting/reinvisioning. I like having the “completed” form of the story and the characters to build from. I usually go thru several drafts before opening it up for beta critique. I think the key is remaining open to the process.

    • #21 by rozmorris on October 19, 2010 - 6:13 pm

      Hi Paul! Who was it who said ‘writing is rewriting’? It sure is.

  11. #22 by Randayle Greyson on October 19, 2010 - 6:43 pm

    B-E-A-utiful.

    And perfectly timed for me today. After this morning’s bit of words I was afraid I’d written these characters right into a corner. Sighed, and said, “I’ll fix it in the re-write” and plugged away to push them further into the corner.

    I love this – and it is dead on.

    Off to perform.

    The Survival Mama

    • #23 by rozmorris on October 19, 2010 - 11:43 pm

      Hey, thanks Randayle! Let’s hope those characters come out fighting.

  12. #24 by Emily on October 20, 2010 - 9:23 pm

    What I really like about your posts is that they really challenge me to explore my story world and the characters in it, instead of worry if this or that should happen. It reminds me that I am the creator, and that if need be, I can write a whole bunch of practice runs for scenes and characters before I feel like they are doing what I want the story to do.

    And if it is all practice, then I’d better stop dilly-dallying so I can get to performance!

    • #25 by rozmorris on October 20, 2010 - 9:47 pm

      Thank you, Emily! I get my inspiration from everything around me, not just writing. I’m always trying to find a deeper truth. Glad it helps you.
      Head up – and perform!

  13. #26 by Crafty Green Poet on November 7, 2010 - 9:45 pm

    this is brilliant advice, I’ve never thought of it like that before. I’m not a novelist, and have no plans to write a novel but if I ever do….

    • #27 by rozmorris on November 8, 2010 - 10:46 am

      Thank you! It probably goes for other art forms too.

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