I never planned three posts about my big rewrite but having talked about it at the start and the halfway point, I feel I should sign off. At the same time, it slightly feels like cheating, because this should have been the triumphant post saying it’s finished. I wanted to have it done by now, but it’s taken much longer than expected. Several times I thought the end was in sight, only to find I was still miles off. I’m no more than mildly frustrated about all this. The aim was never to rush it. The aim was to get it right.
I realise I’ve never mentioned the Kaboom! moment which prompted this process. On holiday last August I wrote a story in response to Fifty Shades of Grey (Bet you think I’m joking. I’m not.) I wrote it with real conviction – it just poured out. I immediately knew it was better than anything else I’d written. Unfortunately that included the novel that had taken me over two years.
Writing a book is especially daunting if the writers you most admire are renowned literary novelists, but knowing I could never be in their league had allowed me to set my own bar far too low. I had to push myself to become a better writer. Once I’d experienced the rush of writing without holding back, it was confirmation of something that had already become abundantly clear: that book was going nowhere, and what’s more, I didn’t want it to. I hastily asked anyone who had the manuscript not to read it!
But where did that leave me? I’d got as far as I could on my own. Only a paid editor would have told me the book needed taking to pieces and fundamentally restructuring. Debi Alper did just that in her excellent editorial report and I’m very grateful to her for being tough and honest with me as well as guiding me in the right direction.
None of this was easy to hear, and if I hadn’t really believed in the book, I couldn’t have faced such a daunting task. I did wonder if I would ever get my head round the restructuring. Like most novelists, I had set out to write the kind of book I like to read; it has a complex structure, with two back stories woven in with the main narrative. The radical repositioning of key parts of the story meant that I had to start from scratch with the synergy between the different strands. I’ve been staring at this Post-It board by my desk for months and I WANT IT GONE (not that I’d ever write a book without one in future.)
Fortunately, there was an upside to all this: it made me look at the story differently, to the point where I realised it wasn’t even about what I originally thought it was about. My original guiding idea was randomness and chance encounters, which have always fascinated me. That still has an important role, but once I noticed that connections and relationships (of many kinds: family, friends, lovers, exes) were at the heart of the story, I thought of a much better title – which I won’t reveal, because it hasn’t yet been used. This really fired me up to give the story the ‘spark’ it lacked and presented me with a stronger and more enticing pitch.
Once I’d worked out what was going where, the rewriting was a pleasure by comparison. As major new scenes of back story were needed, I had to cut the original wordcount, axing surplus description, adjectives and speech tags. Entire paragraphs and scenes have disappeared throughout. Writing short fiction has taught me strict and useful discipline. I could sense the novel tightening and gaining in intensity as a result. The editing has been so radical I doubt more than 20% of the previous draft remains untouched.
Speaking of intensity, I needed to delve deeper into the characters’ heads to increase emotional engagement. I have loved this part. I said before that to give up on this book would be like ‘locking two friends in a cupboard’. Rewriting it has been like being locked in there with them, sometimes claustrophobic, often surprisingly emotional. Not only did I get right into their heads, I couldn’t get them out of mine.
New writers are constantly told: Write the book only you can write and Write what matters to you. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Inevitably, there are aspects of me and my life in the book and the issues are ones which mean something to me. Once again, I was holding back, not ‘going there’ out of embarrassment, lack of confidence and a need to protect myself.
Now I’ve taken a lot more risks, and am amazed to find I’m comfortable with that. Things have changed in every sense. I’ve stopped worrying about offending people, being too dark or that readers won’t like my book. (Of course not everyone will.) That probably makes it sound controversial and depressing, but it isn’t either. It’s about real people and their messed-up, complicated lives. That’s something I know about – I have one of my own.
There were horrible moments when I asked myself what I was doing and why. I was tormented by glimpses of what the novel could be and fear that I lacked the ability to deliver it. That’s the bit where you either grit your teeth and keep going or give up, and having got this far, no way was I giving up. To paraphrase one of A M Homes’s titles, this book has changed my life. Five years ago I was going out of my mind not writing. I never want to go back to being that person.
When I was ‘close to finishing’, I received some editorial input on the new opening chapters from my friend, top literary editor Gillian Stern. It was vitally important for me to get this right, not least because the novel now opened with the American character and a brand new chapter. It is a real buzz to have your work taken seriously by someone with Gillian’s insight and experience. She was very encouraging and constructive but her feedback made me realise I wasn’t there yet, still laying on unnecessary detail and piling in too early with the back story. It wasn’t enough just to revisit the opening chapters – I took those messages on board and went through the entire manuscript again.
Whatever happens, I won’t regret the time I’ve put into reworking this book, which has taught me more about writing than anything else ever has. It’s been very satisfying and (mostly) enjoyable and I should nail it in September. I’ve sent off my submissions for this year’s York Festival of Writing and (like everyone else) I’m hoping for my big break. But before then, I’m off to spend August in the States; the first week in Brooklyn, which is not just one of the settings for the novel but a great source of inspiration. Whenever I visit the USA I come back full of energy, raring to write and believing anything is possible. Maybe even this.
A very big thank you to Gillian, Debi, my American writing partner Kristin and everybody who has supported me along the way, and there are a lot of you.
Who else has rewritten a novel?
My final post before vacating the Literary Sofa for August will be about my Stateside TBR – the books I’m planning to read on my trip. If you’re looking for recommendations, try my Top Summer Reads.