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.
Amazing to read this Isabel – your persistence and fortitude, along with the pain and pleasures they bring. It makes me think of a work project I am involved in (as a psychologist) – on the psychology of resilience and what it means to develop resilient thinking – something you have very evidently done. Respect…!! x
Hi Voula thanks for your comment. I’ve always been quite driven when I really want to achieve something (but with writing there’s less guarantee than with practically anything else that it’ll come to anything!) but resilience seems to be something that I’ve gained since I started writing: accepting feedback without taking it too personally, and of course, the very difficult experience of rejection. When the book’s finished, I’ll have to set off along that path again. Yikes.
Hello there, just re writing my novel set in 1970s Spain and England and a daughter’s narrative in 1990. Large chunks are being ditched. New ones much better. Someday I will get it sorted.
Like the sound of your novel! The Brooklyn part of mine is set in 1976. Good luck with your rewrite.
Can’t wait to read the re-write Isabel ! Your process sounds amazing – what a journey ! Chloe
So nice of you to comment. Without doubt you are one of the book’s believers – even in its previous form. I’m really grateful to you – and feel very guilty for not getting in touch. Promise I will email you this week ! xx
No worries.. ! get in touch when you have a minute…. !! Chloe |
It’s so good to read that you’re much happier now with your novel and almost ready to send it out into the world. We seem to have been following a similar journey in pursuing our publishing dream over the last couple of years and I’ve found it inspiring that you’ve worked so hard making your ms something that you’re now rightfully proud of taking to the York Festival. You’ve invested a huge commitment on many levels and I hope all your efforts pay off and you get the success you deserve. But we both know that there needs to be an element of luck involved too and I’m interested to know if you’d consider the self-publishing route if traditional isn’t an option. Do you have a Plan B? Best of luck with Plan A and enjoy your family holiday when it comes!
Hi Helen Thanks for your ongoing support – you’re starting to really get somewhere now and I’d be delighted to continue with you along the road to success. You’re right though, it can be very elusive. At the moment my sights are still firmly on my goal of getting traditionally published. So I’m not sure I could claim to have a Plan B. I wouldn’t rush to self-publish as I don’t read self-pubbed stuff (unless I know the author) and hardly anybody I know does. I know that’s mad and that there are lots of talented authors who can’t get a break the established way, it’s just that the thought of having to market and publicise my own book fills me with horror. It can work very well for some people but I’m not sure it would be the right answer for me, but never say never… Would you do it?
Hi Isobel, Yes, I’ve had a bit of success recently but I’m still a long way off being published. Ultimately, I could end up with a novel sitting in my laptop and read by no one. Lots of folk say I should self publish to get it out there and be read but I’m still wary. Like you, the thought of becoming a salesperson isn’t attractive and folk who tweet constant book promos annoy me. I’d hate to feel the pressure to do the same. There are lots of inspiring success stories e.g. Mel Sherrat who then get a book deal but I think the chances are slim. I’ll wait until the outcome of the Hookline comp before I commit to a final decision. Never say never applies to me too…
Hi Isobel, Yes, I’ve had a bit of success recently but I’m still a long way off being published. Ultimately, I could end up with a novel sitting in my laptop and read by no one. Lots of folk say I should self publish to get it out there and be read but I’m still wary. Like you, the thought of becoming a salesperson isn’t attractive and folk who tweet constant book promos annoy me. I’d hate to feel the pressure to do the same. There are lots of inspiring success stories e.g. Mel Sherrat who then get a book deal but I think the chances are slim. I’ll wait until the outcome of the Hookline comp before I commit to a final decision . Never say never applies to me too…
Congratulations on completing the rewrite, Isabel! Glad to hear you’re so pleased with the outcome and can’t wait to read it.Like yours, my rewrite is taking far longer than I had expected and not much of the original ms has survived. However, I’ve loved creating this version so much more than I did the earlier drafts. I still have a long way to go but I feel like this time around I’m actually telling the story. Have a fantastic holiday and I look forward to seeing you in York in September. Good luck!
Thanks Anouska. Well, not quite there yet but hopefully it won’t be long now. I have a much stronger sense of being on the home strait than I’ve had before. It sounds like you’ve enjoyed your rewriting process as well. I think if you’re confident that you’re making it better, it can be very satisfying. For me that was one of the real benefits of getting professional input I trust. Look forward to meeting you too!
Phew! I empathise. I suppose the novel has to find its own level of ‘perfection’ as we sculpt, and something different may well emerge when the themes, structure and ideas are complex to begin with.
It’s actually quite a fascinating process, not really knowing what it is you’re saying. When people read my completed manuscript the first time round (over a year ago) including my own book group, I was amazed at the things readers could see in it that I wasn’t conscious of having put in. It seems to prove that we bring a lot of our own experiences and perceptions to reading – and I guess it’s why people’s responses and tastes vary so much.
I have so much respect for you completing this epic rewrite, Isabel. We finished our first MSs about the same time, and again a few months down the line realised they were in pretty poor shape. I decided to start working on something entirely new because I just didn’t think I’d be able to tear my MS up enough. I was too close to it and the story was too cemented in my mind. Your estimation that only 20% of the original work remained in tact is really impressive, you must have been ruthless.
Enjoy your holiday, fingers crossed for you at York FoW!
Thanks Cariad! I must admit, I’ll be hugely relieved when it really IS finished, and that’ll be it then, unless an agent or editor wants changes. I remember saying to a friend that the original ms didn’t amount to the kind of novel I’d bother discussing on this blog (if someone else had written it, obviously!) whereas the new version has a lot more of the ingredients I look for as a reader, largely do to the zooming in on psychic distance. Regardless of the outcome, that’s a satisfying place to have reached. Good luck with yours too!
Well done, Isabel! Such a lovely place to get to before your holiday and the York conference. I found your post really moving and it rang so many bells for me. It took me years of painstaking revisions and another whole novel (that somehow wrote itself much more readily) before I could face up to the fact that my MS needed a total rewrite, which involved ditching two of the three point of view characters. Very traumatic but the novel is definitely better … Now whether it’s good enough?
Fingers and toes crossed for every one of us!
Thanks for your comment. It has been quite an emotionally draining experience and I’ve frequently had to fall back on my ability to ‘imagine success’!
I was very interested in what you said about your second novel coming much more easily. Don’t know if you’ve read my earlier posts on the rewrite, but it was also when I started a second novel and it immediately felt much better that I realised I hadn’t given the first one my best shot. Hopefully I have this time. All the best with your novels.
No, I hadn’t picked up on the coincidence of the second novel – I just thought you were saying you had the good sense to realise when you wrote that short story. It took me quite a lot longer to accept is something wrong with the structure of mine; I just thought the other was coming together better because my writing skills were improving.
It’s a strange old process,isn’t it? Like everyone else, looking forward to reading your book in print.
Hi Isabel, ooh, how exciting, love this stage where it’s finally working for you and you know you’re going to get there. Like everyone else, I can’t wait to read it.
I hear you loud and clear about “letting go” in your writing and experiencing that moment when you throw caution to the wind, turn off your inner critic, stop imagining your mum’s horrified face when she reads the naughty bits, and just do it. It’s like flying, rather than stumbling along, not really knowing where you are or where you’re going. The best feeling any writer can have, I reckon. Re-writing is the hardest part, also the best part, because that’s where you discover what the story really is about, which characters really count, and also with re-writing you discover the kind of writer you are.
Have a fabulous holiday and I’ll look forward to seeing you at York in September x
Thanks Louise! I love your description of that feeling of liberation where you think ‘if I’m going to bother writing a novel at all, I’m going to write about what I want’ and worry about the rest later. The best part is that this seems to have a beneficial effect on the writing and the characters. It’s lovely so many people telling me they want to read my novel and I really hope you all get the chance. Can’t wait to read yours and look forward to seeing you at York.
Brilliant post, Isabel. I totally relate to this! It’s terrifying when you think about restructuring and radical rewriting, but as you say, once you can see where you’re going and you start to feel the novel lightning as you go, it becomes a pleasure. I always put too much backstory in the first few chapters, and one of the things I enjoy most about rewriting is taking out the backstory from the beginning and then putting it back in later – usually much more fully realised because by that time, I’ve worked out what it means and why it was there in the first place. It’s also quite liberating to take risks, isn’t it? You have to write the story you want to tell, whether it offends people or not. Well done for finishing this major rewrite, and well done for this excellent post sharing your experience. Good luck with your submissions, and I can’t wait to read the book!
Susan, you’ve been an inspiration to me and I’ve thought about you many times, knowing that you had to do something similar with your book. It’s almost magical how different the end result can be from earlier, less successful versions. I’ve realised my novel was underwritten in many ways. I must be the only writer who was told to put in more back story (but then it is a novel where back story is a major part): I was leaving out some major scenes or skating over them rather than showing them ‘on stage’.
So excited to hear that you’re at this stage, Isabel. Thanks for sharing the joys and the pain of this funny old business of writing. Can’t wait to see you again at York.
Thanks Debi. I hope when you read the final version you think it works. I’m feeling very optimistic right now!
I can really relate to your story, Isabel! I’ve been writing my first book on and off for years. It’s been through two critiques, which resulted in major rewrites and has been shortlisted for an award. I’m still working on it hoping to self-publish, but it’s hard getting to grips with the big changes to plot when you’re so far through the rewriting process.
I’m also hoping to go to York; good luck with your manuscript!
Hi Amy, your experience sounds really interesting. Hope we get to have a chat at York and good luck with your novel – it’s obviously got real potential to have been shortlisted.
Hi Isabel, what a wonderful post. It’s so honest and detailed – it should help others out there who also have to wrestle with rewrites (possibly every writer who is subscribed to your posts, including yours truly). I feel privileged to be a part of your writing journey, though, of course, you deserve all the credit. I cannot wait to read the new version, and all of my best hopes for you and your manuscript will be traveling with you to York this year!
Hi Kristin, you star! You’ve done so much to help me improve this novel, and to shore up my wobbling morale along the way. Thanks for your faith in me and the book and I really hope you enjoy it even more when you read the new version. I think you’ll be surprised how different it feels, even though the story hasn’t changed much at all!
All I can say is ..you are pretty amazing. Keeping my fingers crossed! Ness