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Sunday, April 05, 2009


Oh, those sweet rewrite blues

If I'm seeming quiet lately, there's a reason: I'm settling down to a major rewrite.

It's very hard to judge how a book's worked out when you've just finished a first draft, but my agency has confirmed what I suspected: my third novel needs a lot of rewriting. It's been an interesting experience, because you make different mistakes with each book. My first two books, I set myself challenges I sometimes felt were impossible to meet, and as a result would sometimes jam up for weeks at a time. My third book, I'd gotten a bit more confidence in my ability to plough through, but a certain proportion of the time was spent ploughing in the wrong direction.

So I'm going at it with an axe. Certain characters are going to die. So are certain plot strands. Some characters are going to change sex. Others are going to be created. It will be a eugenic bloodbath, and a massive headache as well, because I'm restructuring as well as rewriting. But I wasn't happy with the first draft, and this is the kind of thing you have to do if you want to be professional about it.

There's an old saying that if you can be discouraged from writing, you should be. Being dissatisfied with your own first draft is discouraging, and rewrites are scary; in truth, I find myself fantasising about a nice straightforward job in admin some of the time. But it's not going to put me off; all I can do is try again and hope for the best. This book may or may not see the light of day, but I can promise that I won't try to palm off work that I know I can do better.

I may be a bit quiet for a while; if so, that's the reason. Any subject requests, while I'm at it?

Well, I believe you don't like talking specifically about work in progress, but if you wanted to expand on any of this, I think it'd be very interesting.

Someone's changing sex? Why? What difference does it make? (besides everything, as one of Lois Bujold's characters put it after a sex change).

Someone's going to die? Do you mean as characters, that the book's integrity demands that some stories end in death? Or do you mean that characters are going to be cut out of the book, in a "murder your darlings" kind of way, because they don't advance the plot or distract from the theme or something?

Plot strands are going to be created? How did you decide that the book was missing something, or what it was?

Also, do you read reviews of your published work? "Real" reviews-- that is, in actual publications, or any random blog or book club? And do reviews influence you at all?

And anyway, don't you have a wedding coming up pretty soon? Are you planning to do much of this heavy lifting before you take off into matrimony, or putting it off until afterwards? Do you have a deadline, self-imposed or agent-imposed?

Hmmm. I seem to be pretty inquisitive tonight; answer if and what you feel like answering. And of course, you can always sic Mika on me!

Anyway, good luck with it. But we have every confidence that the woman who wrote In Great Waters is going to get through this too.

Word: knesox. They keep your legs warm on those cold spring evenings.
Gosh, what a lot of questions! Questions are good.

Well, the 'killing' of characters means I'm going to excise them rather than write their deaths. The reason is fairly simple: they don't add to the plot, and, probably in consequence, never quite came alive for me. So out they go.

This is one reason why certain other characters will change sex, in order to keep the gender balance roughly plausible. I'm also thinking of changing a male character to female simply because I think the character would be more interesting that way; he reminds me a bit too much of a character from an earlier book, and I believe I could make her more complex. It won't be the same person; she'll simply occupy the same location in the plot that he did.

The central character's sexual orientation is probably going to change from gay to straight, not because I'm worried about offending the prejudiced but for certain plot reasons I won't disclose in detail. Her girlfriend was one of the characters who didn't contribute much to the plot, so will be going anyway; when she turned up I thought her position in the plot was potentially useful, but I never found an ideal use for her, so she'll have to be knocked on the head. Beyond that, suffice to say that given what I'm planning, keeping her gay would feel more contrived.

How did I decide? Well, I was never quite happy with the first draft; I ground out a finish on the 'at least I'll have something to improve' principle, and sent it to my agency. My agent liked it with a few provisos, but as I wasn't happy she agreed to send it to the agency's editorial consultant for a second opinion. The consultant's opinion was that it didn't really work. While I wasn't thrilled to hear that, I actually agreed, so it at least confirms I've got a reasonable sense of judgement when it comes to my own work.

In a way it was reassuring. I'd shown it to a friend of mine at the same time as sending it to my agent as well, and while I was pleased to hear that she liked it too (and obviously I appreciated her being nice enough to take the time to read it), it wasn't the same kind of pleased I'd felt when people liked In Great Waters. I finished that in a kind of terrified frenzy and handed it in thinking, 'Well, if people don't like this I'm just going to have to give up because I honestly don't think I've got it in me to do much better.' So when people did like it, I felt desperate relief, because it meant my best was all right. I didn't feel that about this draft. It wasn't my friend's fault, but her good opinion didn't cheer me up, because I felt something was wrong.

So I took a few weeks to let it filter, then sat down and started thinking about why I wasn't happy with it. I reread it, made notes, came to certain conclusions. One of the main ones was that I'd been inhibiting myself writing it: the heroine has a moral dilemma and I worried too much about whether she would alienate audiences by her decision, which is always fatal. I'd worried too much about the mechanics of the plot and spent less time planning what would be fun to write. There were structural things that could be improved as well, but the real problem was that I'd closed too many doors on opportunities to write in ways I'd enjoy because I'd been over-thinking.

It's a rule of thumb that if you bore yourself, you'll bore the reader. I was feeling pretty weary of the project by the time I finished it, and I concluded that I'd been denying myself opportunities for the kind of writing I really love. So I'm going to chop out the obstacles to that and try to have more fun.

Reviews have something to do with this, but that's another post.

I'm going to try to get at least started before the wedding which is on May 23, and if not completely organised, is at least mostly organised. Though I could certainly do with a break from planning...
Good luck with the rewrite. It's such a daunting task! How do you approach it: start at chapter one and work through to the end? Or pick out the chunks you know need the most work and deal with them first, then make everything fit that?

I'm psyching myself up to rewrite a novel in which I need to change the location. Not just the town, but the whole country, and I've no idea what the best way to deal with that is. Obviously "search and replace" will do some of the work, but all the little details and scenes that need to be altered are another issue.

Are you a believe in the "kill your darlings" method? As in, if you love a piece of writing, you probably need to cut it from the novel?
How do you approach it

With an axe, a scatter pattern and an element of I-don't-know-yet. Probably I'll be able to say something more intelligent than that after I've finished. :-)

Are you a believe in the "kill your darlings" method? As in, if you love a piece of writing, you probably need to cut it from the novel?

Actually no. I believe that a particular passage being one I love is no reason not to cut it if cutting it benefits the piece as a whole - the passage may be nice, but if it's wrong for the book, the book comes first - but that doesn't mean I have to cut all the passages I love.

In fact, most of my favourite passages are often other people's favourites as well.

At the risk of sounding horribly arrogant, I suspect that 'kill your darlings' is advice more often given to beginners - because they haven't yet worked out the difference between fine writing and overwriting, painstaking and laboured, and hence are likely to be particularly attached to stuff they've been heavy-handed on. But on the whole, it's been my experience that if I enjoy a passage, other people probably will too, and if I don't there's probably something wrong with it. I have a degree of confidence in my own judgement; later events may disprove it, but so far my favourite passages and characters have generally gone down well with readers.
"Murder your darlings" is one of those quotes that's been completely wrenched out of its original meaning, as far as I'm aware. I think it was originally said by Arthur Quiller-Couch, author and creative writing teacher, and what he meant was roughly what Kit just said above: If a piece of writing you really love happens to be right in the middle of a scene that has to go in order for the structure to work, don't mess up your structure just to save your beautiful writing.

But somehow that's got twisted into "if there's a bit of writing you like then take it out. No matter what. If you like it then it's got to be rubbish." And while, as Kit points out, this can sometimes be the case with beginning writers so in love with language that they tie themselves in knots with it, it's not going to be the case in the long term for anyone with enough word-sense to actually be a successful author.

Sorry. Bit of a rant there. But yeah, don't murder your darlings unless you have to. Don't murder them just because they're your darlings, anyway.
Claire and Kit - I'm with you on the "kill your darlings." I think Kit's right in that it might be more applicable to new writers than experienced ones.

It does seem to be advice that's thrown around a lot, however - I often see writers use it when talking about their revision process. I've written ten novels and done a degree in creative writing, so I personally feel I know when something has to go because it doesn't fit, rather than because I need to wildly hack at the writing.

So (in a roundabout way) I'm asking if this is ever a useful piece of advice - if new writers should be encouraged to kill their darlings, if it's a good way to feel your way to good writing when you're just starting out?

I've no idea if anything I just wrote made sense.
I've been reading through the archives, and I was wondering what your take would be on a recurring argument I used to have with my ex. He claimed that writers ought always to aim at saying something new, otherwise they would fall into worthless cliche. My view was that you have to write first and foremost about something that matters to you, and if you chase novelty to the exclusion of that, you're going to end up with something pretty empty. I also insisted that you can take an idea that, on paper, sounds pretty old, and put your own stamp on it, which he thought was no different from tracing a drawing and introducing a few of your own mistakes.

Sorry if this is the wrong place to ask, but you did ask about subject requests.
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