Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Writing Novels and Things #1: Rewriting

'Writing is rewriting,' said someone smug.

And then (or, possibly, before) somebody new said that there are two kinds of writers: one who writes freely, rarely engaging their rational brain, and edits seriously after, and then the kind who struggles over every word but when they've finished are left with a more or less finished work.

I like to think that I write with a combination of both those approaches; I write freely, rarely engaging my rational brain, and then am left with a more or less finished work. In reality, of course, that's just not the case. I have to work on things. Usually as I'm going along (for non-fiction) or very much at the end (for fiction).

I was once (twice) lucky enough to be in a workshop with Kate Clanchy and she said something that seemed so completely alien that it more or less shook my belief system to the core, writing-wise. She said that she found the initial writing (be it fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or any of the other types of writing at which she excels) to be the most difficult part, and what she likes most about writing is moulding the words once they're already there on the page.

Which is basically the opposite of how I feel.

I just could not understand how someone who was successful in the field that I wanted to be successful in could take joy from the thing that I find so difficult and painful, and find difficulty and pain in the thing that I find joyous. It was like someone telling me that they liked watching porn for the story lines and acting and wished there were less of that icky sex stuff. I wish that weren't the only analogy I could think of, but you get the picture. I just didn't get it, and it made me really very worried about whether I was just doing it wrong.

(I had a similarly shocking epiphany recently while having dinner with a friend who makes documentaries. I was bemoaning the fact that for my next novel I would have to do research! And he said, quite casually, that that was the best part. And then, just like that, I realised that research really is quite fun when you think about it. People will tell a novelist anything, if they just ask. It's like being a policemen but without the hatred, I imagine.

However, and I know this aside has gone on too long, Kate Clanchy did not convert me towards liking revision. Oh, this is said friend's blog, by the way: He makes good things.)

But yes, I suppose what I'm saying is that there are different approaches for everyone. Kate Clanchy taught me some great things in that workshop, and forced me to edit down a piece I'd written, from three pages to three short paragraphs. It made me very sad, but I do think we're supposed to let go of that kind of attachment. The ability to like editing one's own work is probably a good sign of maturity.

So there's that.

In any case, this is all a prelude (a very long prelude, sorry) to saying that I have done the relatively easy part and written a first draft of a novel. It's a young adult fantasy novel about two teenagers and a talking fish and it needs a huge structural rewrite. This largely stems from not having really known what the deuce I was writing for about the first six chapters. So those six chapters are all going! And I introduced a new character at the end of the book, who I'm now going to have to thread through the preceding parts of the novel. AND I've done the same in reverse, in that I've introduced a new character in my rewritten plans of the first six chapters who I'm going to have to thread through the rest of it.

And that's before I get on to the language, narrative techniques, voice, dialogue, spelling, grammar, etc...

The thing is, I'm just not that desperately excited about making the rewrites. I absolutely loved writing the first draft; it was a solid month of the most fun busyness I've ever experienced. And I want to do it again on my next novel, already! But, my desire to get published aside, I do feel like I owe it to my story to make it the best story it can possibly be. Within reason. I say, 'within reason,' because in my experience, people like me only have a couple of good rewrites in us, before we go blind.

The longest piece of writing I did before this novel, was a 6,000 word short story about someone committing suicide on a train track, and how it affected various people on that line. At the time I was writing it, it felt like the best thing anyone had ever written. And then I went through and fixed some bits. And then I did it again. And then I sent it to some friends to proofread and I made some changes as per their suggestions, and I made some more of my own and then I just wanted it to GET OUT OF MY FUCKING FACE! By that point, I hadn't a clue if it were good or bad or a spaceship. I literally had no concept of its quality, I was completely blind to it and a year later I still can't read it, really.

(Just in case you were wondering, the end to this story about a story is that it all ended very well. Some people thought it was good, and I can now at least stand to be in the same room as it.)

So I don't want this blog to end on a Debbie Downer, because I think doing this revision will be very good for this and all my future novels, but I will probably have a bit of a moan about it to you sometimes, if you're still around.

Also, I have Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird in the house to get me through it. The chapter on Shitty First Drafts is amazing, as is the whole book. I'll do a whole blog post on it some time, I think.

Wish me luck, please!

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