Last week it was a real pleasure to be asked to write a guest post for Writers’ Workshop on the much hoped-for outcome of my rewriting mission – getting an agent. Literary Sofa regulars have followed the process, given me invaluable support and shared their own experiences here (see Writing section), but the WW post gives an overview of the task which has occupied a large part of my year. After all the hard work and excitement, I’ve now had a chance to reflect on what I’ve learnt and how I hope to build on that when writing my second novel.
Just in case the tongue-in-cheek title passed you by – this is not a writing advice post. I’m sceptical about generalised writing advice, especially the kind that tells you what you shouldn’t do. (My novel contains references to the weather in the first chapter and it has people looking in mirrors!) Fortunately rewriting presents such specific issues, different for every book, that I haven’t heard much said about it at all.
I’ve done this the hard way but I’m really happy about that. I’ve learnt far more from screwing it up than if I’d miraculously managed to get it right in the first place. These are the things which made the difference (I think):
My radical quest to cut wordcount resulted in a whopping 22,000 being axed (now down to a svelte 86,000). I could almost feel the manuscript heaving a sign of relief. It’s no coincidence that between finishing the original and embarking on the rewrite, I developed a love of reading and writing short fiction. The discipline of challenging every scene, paragraph, line of description and dialogue – every word – to justify its existence had a positive influence on the new version. It also helped me find my real voice. Turned out I was only whispering before.
The pressure to write an insanely gripping opening which grabs the reader by the collar is notorious amongst those chasing an agent. Foolishly I resisted it for too long, thinking it was more appropriate for crime or psychological suspense. (As an aside, I’m still puzzled by how many published novels get off to a slow start!) I rewrote the first five chapters over and over before I caved in to the need to write a genuinely – as opposed to artificially – dramatic new beginning, hinting at secrets which had previously been revealed much later. The novel used to start in London; now it begins in Colorado with the other character. Doing this made me look at the whole story in a new way and energised me to tackle the restructuring.
The Building Blocks
I’ll always love reading and writing novels with a complex structure, but in future I will use my trusty Post-It board, or Scrivener, or make notes in my own blood – whatever it takes to keep tabs on the story strands and the structure as I write. I never ever want to have to take a book completely to pieces again. That is all.
Too bad Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours theory doesn’t apply to writing. When you start out, it’s like being an artist or being in a band: no matter how hard you work there’s no guaranteed outcome and luck frequently plays a part in success. Halfway through the rewrite I heard Lionel Shriver acknowledge this at a Word Factory salon. It was exactly the right time for me to hear her say, ‘Write what matters to you. It’s the only way you can be sure your time is not wasted.’
With that in mind, I decided I had nothing to lose and threw off my inhibitions, which stemmed from various kinds of fear: of upsetting or offending people, of being judged and having assumptions made about me. The whole act of writing fiction is very exposing but I’ve come to terms with that – as an author I can only determine the output, not the response. I wrote in scenes I’d shied away from because the story didn’t work without them. Sometimes this hurt far more than I would have expected but above all, it was exhilarating and liberating. I’m officially done with cautious writing. The biggest breakthrough has been the one in my head.
I wrote the original book as a member of a workshop, taking a new chapter to each meeting. It was motivating to have those deadlines and to benefit from feedback. I don’t regret anything because it was all great writing practice, but I did spend ages polishing vast amounts of material which was subsequently cut. Next time I’ll use the more common method of getting the story down in a first draft, putting it through the various stages it needs and saving the finessing for later. I’m very excited about working with Diana on future books and having the benefit of her insight and editorial experience.
I’ll finish with my nomination for:
Best writing advice
Enter the scene at the latest possible moment and leave at the earliest. I found that this ups the intensity and gives the reader something to think about.
And the worst…
Write what you know. If I’d listened to this, my novel wouldn’t exist. Discovering new places, subjects and experiences is one of the reasons I write fiction.
What lessons have you learned from editing or rewriting? Is there anything you would or wouldn’t do again? And what are your most loved (if any) or hated pieces of writing advice?