Rewriting my rules

On how I stopped writing for writing’s sake, and instead learnt to write better, by reading, listening and thinking. Hard stares and ginger beer all round.

Ok. Enough writer’s woe. I feel I’ve given myself enough of a kicking over the various faults with my writing process, soliciting feedback, editing, querying and sulking. Yes, even my sulking sucked, in retrospect. Time for action. So – here’s what I’ve done:

  • I’ve read the manuscript all the way through. I tried to read it as an outsider – and summarised at the end of each chapter what it was I appear to have been trying to say and/or do with the plot. This in itself has been an education, but the time I have spent away from fiddlign with the plot has also helped me to identify problems easier (because I’m not kidding myself it’s fixed in chapter N or saying ‘ok, I wrote that but I meant this’).
  • Each time the writing drew attention to itself, I circled the phrase or section in pencil. Sometimes this was an adverb, more often a simile – occasionally something so entirely self-indulgent that nothing short of my new favourite marginal mark (WTF!) was sufficient.
  • Each time a new character, motif, key item or location is mentioned, I made a note in the header in ink, so that I can flick through and check back. In an early draft I’d lost a dog for three chapters because I’d forgotten about him. (If I were writing from scratch in Scrivener, I would add these as keywords). Each character also has the age they are at that time – this would have helped me with various continuity errors I made, had I been more diligent first time around.
  • Alongside the summary, I have made three types of comments on each chapter:
    • Starred items are things to keep but improve. For the most part these are ‘sharpen dialogue between X and Y’, ‘make more realistic’ or simply focus more on a specific plot point.
    • Question mark items are things I want to look at and think about in the edit, such as new character interactions, things to check against the timeline, or things I’m not sure whether to keep or not.
    • Delta mark items (what do you mean you don’t know ‘delta’ – that almost complete triangle from maths lessons aeons ago) – means ‘change this’.
  • Together these form a sort of ‘to-do’ list for the entire novel.

And now that I have the whole novel sitting in my head again (it’s rather disconcerting how so many weeks of effort can be digested again in just a few hours) I have made some adjustments to the plot that I, as a reader, would like to make. I parked these for a couple of days. No need to rush.

I went back to the list of things that my early readers liked or disliked, and I’ve measured them against the notes I’ve already made, adding a few things, and ignoring others. What I initially thought was inevitable (‘you can’t please everyone all of the time’) I now interpret as ‘this is how I pissed this (type of) reader off at this point’. Most, if not all, of the points they made need fixing. But it’s my choice/responsibility as to how this is achieved.

I revisited the notes I made listening to the authors and agents at various LBF and London Writers Club events I’ve attended recently – in particular Miranda Glover’s comments (documented in the previous blog entry), and Lucy Luck’s impromptu list of first-novel-cliche-bingo (rather mortifying to hear them direct from an agent at LWC Live): avoid writing first person, present tense, spiritual journeys that resolve broken relationships involving alcoholic fathers, and starting the novel with the lead character waking up from a hangover.  Oh dear. I did not call ‘house’ at the time, but I did want to crawl under a rock. Admittedly this may have been the lashings of ginger beer I had consumed that evening (top tip, writers, as a rule, like a drink. Next time, bring my drinking head). She was at least engagingly non-commital about the appeal talking pigeons, but sadly my pigeons merely bob, they do not speak.

The net result is that I have survived my first major test of faith, I think. I’ve blown it with the agent I really wanted (or thought I wanted, anyway), but Lucy recommended approaching at least 20 before accepting that perhaps this piece is not for public consumption. I’m on 2 formal rejections, of something I accept now wasn’t polished enough. So, there is hope.

And where there is hope, there is a drink, I mean way. Thus armed with oodles and squoodles of guidance, I have a plan:

  • Write to be read, not to draw attention to myself as author.
  • Self-indulgence is for blogging, not for fiction. I want to be a professional storyteller, not a professional blogger. I have a duty of care to the poor sods who may end up paying money for what I write. You, dear blog reader, get the more narcissistic/angst-ridden/petulant side. And aren’t you the lucky one?
  • I can ignore all of Lucy’s rules, as long as I observe Miranda’s (and so on and so on). No-one I’ve met, read or listened to agrees 100% on process, or plot or anything in fact. But all of them agree on one thing: write the best story you can in the most original voice you can.
  • I will not write to a word count, or to simply finish a chapter. I will write to the end, wherever that may be. I will keep the reader in mind at all times, and that reader will not be me, or my wife, or my mum, or my friends. It will be someone who only has the book to go on. Obvious, I know – but so much of what I’ve read in the manuscript is obviously (to me) aimed at one or more of the first group that it makes me a little mad with myself. Again, it’s about professional craftmanship, not being the best novelist in my own study.
  • I will stop worrying. I know I can write. The right words in the right order in the right voice. Prove it, monki.

Which all means that it’s not an edit, or a re-draft, but a more or less complete rewrite. But I’ve learnt so much along the way, that this can only make for a better book. It’s just taking a little longer than I’d have liked….

Do let me know of any other tips you use or have come across for self-editing or rewrites. (And while not specifically referenced above, I’d recommend ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers‘ to anyone who’s OCD about filling their shelves with books on writing rather than books they’ve written)

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