Posts Tagged revising your novel
I have a friend on Facebook who posts thoughtful quotes about writing. This, from literary agent Jonny Geller, struck a chord. ‘One thing you learn working with good writers: the easier it was for you to read their story, the harder it was for them to write it.’
My last novel took 23 drafts, and people find this surprising. Why would you rewrite that number of times? But you get seized with love, a love for what the book could be.
And that love can be hard won. A creative person thrives on a mission. If the mission hasn’t arrived when we’re ready to work, we have to somehow find it, which can be thoroughly dispiriting. Nick Cave has just written about trying to start his next album. He talks about a profound feeling of inadequacy, ‘the familiar feeling of lack.’
Every time you listen to a complex and beautiful album, or read a complex and beautiful book, its creator has likely been through this.
Once the mission is found, the work begins. In my 23 drafts of Ever Rest, I was all the time grappling with the very essence of the book. Everything went on the analyst’s couch. Was this scene in the right place? Should I move it? Should I use it for a different purpose, perhaps to make exposition more interesting, perhaps to create a more exquisite conflict? The next revision, I’d change it all again.
Frequently, I’d change a scene’s point of view. Indeed, the novel began as one point of view and became seven, because that’s what I eventually needed.
What a lot of fuss, you might say. And how disorganised. Roz, I thought you had a process.
I do have a process, but there is no faster way. A book has to find what it wants to be, its personal mysteries, its distinctive humanity. And this hard and haphazard journey is also a joy (eventually).
I promised to tell you how
So if this kind of writing is also your inclination, here are some lights to guide you.
How to revise your novel without getting stale – take a tip from Michael Caine
The slow-burn writer – what takes literary writers so long?
Revision is re-vision
I rewrote my novel through a critique group and now I’ve lost my way
Making my honest art – writing and publishing literary fiction
Seven steps of a long-haul novel
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
And so I have a novel coming out.
It’s not that I’ve been unproductive in that time. I’ve released courses, writing books, a travel memoir I didn’t expect to be writing. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words in my coaching and editing reports. And blogs, guest posts, journalism, newsletters.
If we totalled that as a words biomass, it would be substantial. My three novels – my now three novels – would be only a tiny proportion. So I’m a novelist who mostly does other things.
But my novels are my truest purpose. They are the work I am most painstakingly careful about. If I get an epitaph, I want the novels as the headline. Everything else is an also.
So how long did Ever Rest take me? Seven years, and it seemed to fall into seven distinct steps, though that is coincidental. Some steps took more than one year. Anyway, the sequence might be familiar if you’re also a long-haul writer.
Step 1 – short story to novel
Ever Rest started as a short story – here’s a post about expanding a short story into a long one. I wasn’t good at short stories, which is why you’ve never seen a short story from me. I get too involved. I can’t let them go. You’ll see this in later steps.
Step 2 – vow of silence
Authors on social media are used to sharing their work in progress. Character back stories, snippets of chapters. I wanted to join their ranks, share the proof that I was working as they were, get cheery encouragement. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t workshop my rough ideas in case they tarnished the finished book. Also, I couldn’t talk about it. It was too deeply difficult. I discussed that here – how much do you talk about the novel you’re writing?
Step 3 – losing faith
I didn’t know what I was writing. The same happened with Lifeform Three. For a long time, I was merely its baffled interpreter. I lost faith in it, hundreds of times. I wrote about that here, especially the idea of creative faith and long-term determination.
Step 4 – write 100 pages, discard 80
In terms of word biomass, this book is substantial, but much was wastage. I wrote a lot; I binned a lot. During that phase, I read an interview where Marlon James said ‘you can write 100 pages and only use 20’. Even though I knew this to be the case from previous novels, I found his comment comforting. At the time, I was on my third draft and the book was already scar tissue. I eventually did 23 drafts. Here’s how that went.
Step 5 – never let it go
After 15 drafts, the novel operated as I hoped it would. I was ready for beta readers. For many years, the book had dominated my thoughts and my reading choices. I could now widen my diet. Pursue other interests. But did I want to? Very mixed feelings.
Step 6 – red pen and sweet reunion
I knew there would be more work after the readers’ feedback. Some was forehead-smacking, but most was a relief. It was good to be back. A final dance. No, several. Revise, revise, until draft 23.
Step 7 – real writer again
Now, I have it ready. My third novel. Look, I’m a real writer again.
Last month I was preparing for beta reader comments on the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest.
I’ve now received them, so I thought it might be useful to write a follow-up post for how I tackle them.
I was very lucky – and relieved – that the verdict was overwhelmingly positive. The book works. Nevertheless, each reader found minor queries, which is entirely expected.
Some are easy to solve – a change of word or phrase. They won’t upset the flow. But some will be more disruptive, requiring explanations to be unpicked, dialogue to be altered, scene choreography to change. Those notes are more stressful.
But I have a strategy!
1 – Merge everything
My first step is to merge all the comments onto one Word doc. Not every query needs to be acted on, unless the reader is a specialist in a factual area, then their comments obviously have extra weight. But I pay serious attention if more than one person raises a particular problem.
Then I get to work. I split the edit into two phases.
2a – the factual and literal stage.
I chop in the new material, amend inaccuracies, add clarifications. Change events if necessary. I keep it rough and obvious. I change the text colour to red so I can instantly see it needs better treatment, like a sore thumb.
2b – the flow stage.
Here’s where I integrate the change properly, re-edit the scene, consider if the characters’ reactions should change, decide if there are more consequences to be stitched in later.
In phase 2b, I might decide that some of the 2a additions aren’t necessary. They might be too literal. Or they might need more oblique treatment. Sometimes a reader’s pain point is not caused in the place they registered it. Like sciatica, it might be referred from elsewhere.
This two-phase system allows me to give all the comments a fair hearing, to accept that something needs to be adjusted, without panicking about the wreckage it might leave, without worrying about the wrong things at the wrong time. It often brings me to better insights, to better understand what I’m making.
I’m just finishing phase 1. My manuscript now has new pieces, chopped in like rough surgery. But I’m excited about healing the joins. I know it’s now more authentic, effective, solid, reliable, which is what I want it to be.
PS Update – Ever Rest is now out! (With a shortlisting in the Eric Hoffer Awards 2022, actually….) Find it here.
PPS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
How do you integrate reader comments? Share below!
Here’s another of my favourite discussions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass…
How to write several narrators and make them sound distinct
One student had several narrators and was finding it hard to make them distinct. His writer group reported that they sounded too similar, especially in dialogue. One character was male and one female, so some of his critiquers were assuming the gender was the problem; that he as a male couldn’t write as a female.
Hold it there. Some writers – and readers – believe that males can’t write plausible females and vice versa. And certainly, there may be some gender-specific mentalities that are impossible to disguise … but before we all assume we’re tethered to our chromosomes, let’s consider what makes a character distinct.
Difference usually comes from outlook, education standard, moral compass, background and the character’s emotional state. I thought it far more likely that the problem came from not making the characters individual enough, rather than the influence of our writer’s gender.
Sure enough, he said that when he explored his writing group’s objection, they had observed that his characters used similar vocabulary in dialogue. So perhaps the problem was not gender at all.
Where the differences really lie
If you have several narrators, you need to find different ways for them to express themselves. Different catch-phrases, senses of humour, frames of reference, moral and social codes.
If you like writing with music, that can take you to a gut sense of who your different people are – this post on The Undercover Soundtrack by actor-writer Jason Hewitt shows how a few talisman pieces of music conjured a character’s state of mind and helped him remember who each person was … on the inside.
Two characters …. two tenses?
Another of my students had a similar problem. She had two characters in the Arctic; one a hard-bitten scientist, the other a wonder-struck friend who was visiting. They narrated alternate chapters. In her own mind she had a sense of how they were distinct, but despite this she found they sounded too similar on the page. So she decided she’d write one as first-person present and the other as close-third past.
I said I thought that sounded confusing. Some readers would think the shift of tenses was significant in story terms and would look for a reason. Did it mean the action was happening at a different time? Was it a parallel thread? I suggested she scrap that approach and look more forensically at the characters’ outlook, attitudes etc. She agreed as she’d worried about that herself.
But then she said something that was rather interesting.
She’d never written in first-person present before, and when she did she found she felt and thought differently. She found herself inventing all sorts of back story and behaviour that took her by surprise. By squiffing the tenses, she’d hit on a new creative mindset that suited this book.
The verdict was clear – and exciting; write a discovery draft in these two tenses. Then edit and make them uniform, marvelling at the new inventions. Eureka.
Just like listening to music, a change of writing style or technique can get you to new places. Do whatever you need to, then tidy up afterwards. The reader never needs to know how you did it.
There are a lot more discussions on how to make characters distinct in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Have you tackled a similar problem? Especially, have you hit on any tricks that helped you give your characters different voices, and then later removed the evidence of how you did it?