Posts Tagged writing is rewriting
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.
The magic happens when you rewrite.
If you’re a regular at this blog or you follow my newsletter, you’ll know I’m a huge believer in creative self-editing.
That’s what I’m teaching at this three-part masterclass at Jane Friedman’s online academy. I’ll be delving into the art of self-editing, showing you techniques to evaluate your work, spot opportunities to deepen characters, sharpen the plot, restructure if necessary, strengthen the themes and refine the language – all to help you take a rough manuscript and polish it to professional standards.
The course starts this Thursday (15 April 2021) and continues on the two Thursdays that follow. If those times aren’t convenient, each session will be available as a recording afterwards. Step this way.
I love systems. And here’s one I developed to help with a knotty aspect of revising a novel – the moment when you suddenly fear you’ve missed something big.
This happened to me with Ever Rest, which I recently finished. I was well advanced in revisions when I read an essay that brought me to a screeching halt.
One of the characters dies tragically young, and the story follows the fall-out of this. So when I saw an essay about young grief on Literary Hub I gave it a read.
It was spellbinding, raw. So unexpected. I finished with sickening anxiety. This was what I wanted for my characters, but I feared I hadn’t done it. My confidence was in tatters.
This is what might have happened: open the manuscript, flail about in a panic, rewriting stuff. Over-reacting etc etc. Making ill-considered changes. Getting in a big heap of mess.
However, I’ve been here before. I know not to revise in a panic.
In crises like this, we tend to think everything’s wrong. And it might not be.
Sure, you might be right, you might have missed something big.
Or – it’s probably not as dire as it seems, but something needs to be adjusted.
How do you discover the right thing to do? And how do you remain sober and sensible, and not make edits that mess up everything you’ve already got working well?
In my other life, I edit magazines for doctors. (Very useful when writing characters who are medics.) With my book howling in pain, I decided I’d think like a doctor. If a patient comes to the surgery saying they feel dreadful and they hurt all over, what do you do? Take a history. Ask: where does it hurt? And what causes it to hurt?
Stage 1 – start a panic (document)
I copied the LitHub piece into a textfile. We will call this the panic document.
I read the article again. Every time I came to a sentence that bothered me, I highlighted it. (Find the source of pain.)
Already this was more manageable. Large parts of the article didn’t hurt at all. It was toes and fingers, not the whole arm or leg, not the whole body.
This surprised me. See what I mean about panic?
Some parts were very sore, though.
Stage 2 – where does it hurt?
Find where the pain is coming from. These sentences twinged because they suggested issues I hadn’t paid attention to.
Were they major (arm and leg), or were they just a finger or toe?
When I’m unsure about something in a manuscript, I don’t change the manuscript. I use Word’s comments feature. I did this with the panic document. On each highlighted section, I opened a comment box and discussed the issues it raised. This included:
- Which of my scenes made me wince with this new insight
- Which of my characters it affected
- Which of the characters’ actions it might influence
- What I might add or adjust.
Soon, a few issues emerged. (In medical parlance, targets for treatment.)
I went through the panic document several times, discussing, re-discussing, reminding myself what I intended for the book, considering how significant these issues were in the overall balance.
Stage 3 – venturing into the manuscript
I opened the manuscript. I went to the scenes I’d earmarked as problems. But I did not change a word!
I now knew the scenes where I might tackle the problem, but I still didn’t know if I should.
Once again, I reread my discussions in the panic document. It was now clear that my notes were all the same solution, in several versions. I probably didn’t need them all. The revision task was not nearly as large as I first thought.
I used comments again, this time in the manuscript. I began by copying the most useful notes from my panic document. Many of them already seemed unnecessary now I’d calmed down and had a grip of the true problem.
Yes, there was indeed a problem. It was just one scene, actually, where the ending was weak. The character needed to go to a deeper level. To fix it, I needed a few other adjustments in earlier scenes too. But the situation now felt good. (Especially after the aforementioned panic.)
Stage 4 – something else
I went out running. Best to edit with a clear eye.
Stage 5 – do what must be done
I opened the manuscript again, looked at the notes. Did I still agree with them? Was this the solution? (Often, a good skip in the outdoors will suggest a different angle.)
From Stage 1 – panic and disaster – to stage 5 – a detail I was glad to rethink. Phew.
And that, my friends, is the panic document. I used it to tackle my response to an essay, but it will work for any situation that trashes your confidence in your book. Just write down the problem in detail, cover all the points that triggered your worries, and discuss with yourself what to do about them.
Thanks for the panic and freak out pic, RSNY on Flickr;
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. 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.
Ever Rest is now complete and is seeking its fortune with literary agents. Here’s a preview. 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.
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!
A friend has turned into a writer. Unbeknown to me, she’s been chipping away at a novel and her husband just sent this email.
Her novel is more or less finished!!! I may need to pick your brains about marketing! We also think we need to get it professionally proof-read. We tried doing it ourselves with Grammarly, but realise it’s way more complex than it seems …’
Ah bless. If you’re well seasoned in the author world, you’ll already be counting the many erroneous assumptions. Carts before horses. Running before walking.
But we all have to start somewhere. And even if you’re already wiser than my beginner friend here, you might know a writer who’s effervescing in a similar state of enthusiastic, ecstatic, multi-plinged euphoria. High on all those well-earned Es, they can’t possibly know what’s coming next.
So this post is a gentle reality check, a bit of tough love, a bit of hand-holding and a jolly, genuine thump between the shoulder blades to say: well done, welcome to the club.
Marketing? Proof reading?
Let me explain about those production processes.
This post is angled for self-publishers, but it explains all the work that a publisher typically does on a book. Including proofreading etc
And here’s another post about production processes
NB Do NOT rely on Grammarly! To proof-read a book, you need a knowledgeable human. Also, you need to develop good grammar skills etc yourself. This may seem unsympathetic, but if you’re not sensitive to grammar, spelling and language use, how will you learn the linguistic and lexical control to write well? Seriously, would you expect a person who is tone deaf to play a musical instrument to a listenable standard? Here’s where I rant about that
But even with all that natural prowess, you’ll still need copy editors and proof readers because they read in a highly specialised way. They look for the mistakes you never dreamed were possible.
Did you say ‘self-publish’?
Are you going to self-publish or try for a traditional deal? Is this the first time you’ve ever been asked to think about it? Here’s a post about self-publishing vs traditional publishing – the similarities and the differences. They’re no longer mutually exclusive either – there are many options in between. And as you might expect, you’ll need to spot the rip-off merchants who are eager for your £££s, so I’ve pointed to some tell-tale signs.
You’ve heard of crowdfunding? Here’s how my friend Victoria Dougherty is using crowdfunding to support a creative departure
Do people still send manuscripts off to publishers and literary agents? Yes they do. And you can. But before you send your manuscript anywhere, read on.
Before you can walk….
Now you know how a book is made. But first, is the book really ready? Have you rewritten it until your fingers are in tatters?
Here’s a post about beginning with a muddle and rewriting into glory (with a dose of disco)
When you decide to work with an editor (and I recommend you do at some point), here’s what they can do for you
How much should you budget for an editor? And how should you choose one?
If those costs make you boggle, here are some low-cost ways to boost your writing skills
Will your editor trample all over your style? No, a good editor helps you to be yourself
Have you looked for feedback and ended up in a pickle? Here’s how to find your way again.
Will your editor laugh at your naïve efforts? Au contraire. Here’s why they admire you and appreciate what you’ve already achieved.
You asked about marketing. It’s not really my sphere of expertise, and each type of book and writer will require different approaches. But yes, you do have to make time for it. Here’s a post about finding a good balance
If you’re going to get on Twitter, for heaven’s sake use your author name. Here’s why
Wait, I’m overwhelmed! There are so many books already out there….
Yes there are. But the world still needs new voices. There’s never been a person like you, with your experiences, your perspective, your curiosities. You might have the unique outlook and insight that a reader needs to hear.
PS If you’re curious about what I’m working on at the moment, here’s the latest edition of my newsletter
PPS You should start a newsletter.
Have you ever had this type of comment in feedback?
‘You’re grasping for a strong thematic purpose. The characters’ actions and the plot are full of significance. Somewhere there’s a strong message. But it’s too abstract or muddied to come through.’
If so, this concept might help. It’s borrowed from writing instructor Lynn Steger Strong, and described in this article in Catapult. Think of your work in two phases – the writer phase and the reader phase.
What might that mean and how might it be useful?
First, an interpretation.
The writer phase
This is the dreaming draft, the phase where you splurge everything you have, go exploring, invent your socks off, have dinner with your characters, test their mettle, immerse in your settings and themes, storm your brains. You figure out what you mean, what you’ll have happen, what you understand.
The reader phase
This second half is where you sell it to the reader. If the first phase took place behind closed doors, here’s where you think about all those eyes and brains seeking a connection with you and your work. For this, you need to make a mental shift. Get ruthless and assess every moment of the story on its own terms. For you, the text is already thrumming with meaning and richness. But will the reader get it?
In the reader phase, that is your quest.
Again, how might it be useful?
You need both phases. Why? Because you can’t explore and refine at the same time. If you do, you’ll shortchange the book. You won’t mine its full potential because you’ll be thinking with your critical hat, wondering what a reader would make of it. And if you don’t switch the other way and ask yourself, am I making sense, you might have a muddled mess. One mode is the accelerator and one is the brake. And we all know not to press both at the same time.
So that means there are a few crucial differences in how you approach the two halves.
Mindset for writer phase
Be fearlessly inventive. Every idea is precious, rich and worth exploring.
Don’t invite critical feedback except on isolated points. Eg to solve specific plot problems, or to find story models that suggest useful structures or character functions. For instance, if you want a downbeat ending, you might want to look for other books that made it work. Meanwhile, keep the bulk of the book to yourself. Lock the doors and simmer.
Mindset for reader phase
Playtime is over. You have a duty to your audience. In phase 1 you were fearlessly inventive. Now you must be fearlessly adapatable. The more you question what serves the reader, the better your book will be. Do you have enough context? Often a manuscript is obscure because the writer hasn’t let us understand why certain plot events are important.
Here’s another essential of the reader phase. You must be prepared to make drastic change. Think like a vandal. The lines you gave to one character might be much better if said by another. A scene might be better in another point of view, or later in the book, or used as back story.
This means a lot of precious material might have to die, and you’ll find yourself resisting. If so, examine why. There are usually two reasons-
- You’ll steer the book wrong, perhaps with a tone you don’t want or an issue you’re not interested in. (This is a good reason to reject a change.)
- The change will cause a lot of difficult unpicking, or stop you using other fascinating bits. Ahem. In the reader phase, nothing is sacred. All is material.
This is the stage where you seek critical feedback. Indeed, if you’ve successfully switched to the reader mindset, you’ll welcome every glitch they find – because it supports your mission to find everything that doesn’t work. And here’s the real strength of this approach – switching to the reader mindset makes revision much more positive.
The writer’s journey and the reader’s journey
Lynn Steger Strong talks about the length of a journey. The writer takes a long journey to create the book. We’re inventing, looking for sense, patterns, resonance, pivot moments, grace and charm. The reader, though, needs to get there instantly. Taking them there is the challenge.
Thanks for the pic Joao Trindade
Let’s discuss! Do you find your mind works differently when writing and revising? Have you received feedback that said your book was too muddled or obscure? How did you tackle it?