At the end of my last writers’ group before the summer break, one of my colleagues approached me in the corridor and asked me if this was going to be the last draft of my novel. I could have read her wrongly, but it seemed to me she was suggesting that it should be the last draft. I understand. Thirteen drafts surely suggests that you’re just hacking over old ground. What about the liberation of new turf?
Except that in the course of the last eight years, by ploughing back and forth, changing characters, plot, dialogue – you name it – I have been learning how to write.
At the moment, I’m sowing in a new plot line. What has surprised me is the pleasure of doing so. A confidence in the voice. The way solutions have presented themselves. Perhaps it’s because I know the field (sorry about this, I’ve got stuck in a metaphor), and there are joys in staying here a while longer. I’ll finish when I know that I have truly transformed it to something I can happily leave behind.
I’m not there yet. There may be many drafts to come. I hope not too many. But I’m willing to stay.
My novel just got fatter. By about 14,000 words. Which, for a novel which was about 57,000 words in its last version, is quite considerable. I blame the younger female lead. This whole rewrite has been about putting her in place of the previous male character. Must have worked, if only by the word count. I certainly enjoyed writing her chapters.
In my last post, I had just worked out that I had 12 significant alterations to make, from minor to major (apologies to Ella Fitzgerald): rewriting a chapter, making sure that both sides of the novel (told from two different points of view) are consistent, or just getting the names right.
Starting in on the list on New Year’s Day, I was relieved to find that I had written some initial notes and suggests under each alteration heading. By the first week, I had knocked off six of them, though it’s taken me the rest of January to complete the rest.
The process with each one has been the same:
- This is impossible!
- I’ll read through and see how it sounds.
- Ooh look, I could that…and that…and that.
- (Reading through new version): it might be better if I do this…
- Actually, that’s all rather good.
- On to the next.
So now, for the first time since last January when I started this rewrite, I have finally put all the chapters into a single document. And that’s where the fatness came in. I had been expecting that I would still be struggling to reach 60,000, so the 71,000 came as a pleasant surprise.
The next challenge is to read it through from beginning to end and make yet more notes on what needs to change. There will be things. Not least, the shifts in style between the two points of view, which have been effectively written years apart. We’ll see. Back into the fray…
With only a little way to go on the rewrite, I decided to put all of the chapters together in a separate folder called, ‘Completed.’
Ha! The process only revealed more work to do. Twelve pieces, to be exact. The problem is that the younger character has really begun to shine. This has made some of her original chapters look, at best, functional. Also, seeing it in order, some chapters don’t make sense, or need to be amalgamated with others.
I have a picture of a house that needs repairs and painting. Every time the decorator looks up from his pot, the house has changed shaped, or one bit doesn’t look as good as it used to. Back to the DIY store.
Oddly, the process is not dispiriting. I feel I’m really getting somewhere. I like the way the two characters are interacting and there’s some writing I’m really pleased with.
In a way, I’m constructing a to-do list for the new year.
Last January, I started this last rewrite and promised the editor I would be finished by March. It is now December. I have emailed to let her know I may not be finished until spring or summer. Who knows? I don’t. But I’m still enjoying the process.
Oddly, I’m fine with a list of chapters to rewrite. It’s the unexpected knots that can knock the wind out of me. In this case encountering the mysterious case of the number of elderly woman’s sons.
In one chapter, the first one turns up; in another, they are seen together; in the third, it’s just the second son. But there have been various rewrites, and in some, it all drops down to just one son. This makes sense, as it stops the cluttering of minor characters. But in the version I’m rewriting, the second son turned up.
My heart sank at the prospect of having to rewrite and/or decide the question of one son or two, again. Fortunately, a moment of clarity at the end of a meditation, and the discovery that the other chapters matched the one-son solution, made the actual rewrite quick and fairly easy.
I feel as if I have permission to go on with the next of my listed chapters.
Second stage of the twelfth draft done. All the new chapters I had written to introduce the new character have now been revised, to make them even more reflective of that character. Some had already been re-written for writers’ groups. But it now means the forty-two chapters with her in them are up-to-date.
Which leads to the next stage. The novel is told from two characters’ points of view, by alternating chapters. By my estimate there are about twenty-one from the established character and now forty-two from the new one. Somehow, they’ve got to fit together.
One the reasons for the disparity is that, in writing the new character, I allowed myself to follow hunches and go off-piste, meandering away from the boundaries of the original structure. Very good for creating the freedom for the character to flourish; not so good for putting it all back together again.
Which is why, yesterday, I stood in the Rymans opposite Charing Cross Station, looking at their full range of Post-its: heart-shaped, arrows, full traditional squares, little flappy ones, colourful spirals. I picked the pack of small-squares. Four different colours, one for each character and the extra ones for their subplots.
I’ll go back through the chapters, write a brief account of each on a Post-it, then see what it all looks like when I arrange it all on the table. The advantage being that they are easily moved around.
I’m looking for a clear structure and perhaps new insights into the ways in which their stories intertwine. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to let go of some more writing I like.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
Pulleys confuse me. How can it be, that you can hang three-hundred metres up a rock, pull on a thin rope in front of you, and somehow your body rises? Where, if you just stuck two hands under your bum and pulled, nothing would happen.
Thank god for them, though.
Some time back, I wrote about having been advised to rewrite my novel and imagined myself hanging from a rock, not knowing whether to carry on up, or lower myself down. I got back on the rock. Little pulley rises, until, I can today announce that I have finished the first draft – of the twelfth draft – of my novel.
The new chapters are a mess, of course. And god knows what I’ll find when I actually go back and read them properly. Some have been edited for writers’ groups, others are still in a raw state. I suspect the character will come in-and-out of focus, she will say things that no longer make sense. But I am hoping there will be nuggets for me to collect, passages to expand on.
My metaphor for success in writing has been the ladder in Snakes and Ladders. Perhaps I should exchange it for that of a pulley. Small rises against the rock and, in the end, a great distance covered.
When I was a child, one of my most-prized possessions was a transistor radio. A present for my eighth or ninth birthday. Six shillings from the local hardware shop, I think. On days off-sick from school I would listen to Tony Blackburn (loved Tony Blackburn!) and the rest of the Radio One D.J.s until tea – or when the TV started. In the evening, while pretending to be going to sleep, I would try to tune into Radio Luxembourg. A signal so weak that it would come and go across the airwaves. Half the game was turning the dial to catch it.
I have reached an interesting point in the rewrite for my novel. A pivotal chapter in which the middle-aged male comedian goes to visit the elderly woman he has been teaching. She is now deep in dementia and unaware of what she has done.
Except, in the rewrite, it’s not a middle-aged man, it’s a twenty-nine year old woman. Which is a shame, because there was some great writing in the original – cough, cough. And the deal is, it has to go.
But I have found myself, as I walk the new character through a similar scene, wondering if I could just lift one or two nice sentences from the old version. Who would know?
So I do and guess what? The new character disappears. Not in a strop, and with no great fanfare, just…disappears. Holding on to the old version, I lose the signal from the new.
So, I have had to stop. Retune. Get back in her head and set off again. There have already been rewards in doing so.
If I have time and patience, creative signals are there. As long as I’m willing to give up what I want and listen in to what is able and willing to come through.