Monday, 23 September 2013

Do you have the bottle for a major re-write?

Yes, I have a cheeky little Sauvignon chilling in my fridge...

That might help but it's not what I'm talking about, sadly. I'm talking about bottle. Bravery. Even bravado. A touch of derring-do.

It's something that separates the sheep from the goats, writing-wise: the ability and willingness (OK, that's two things) to tackle a major rewrite. Some writers - and I'm one of them - feel that all their writing is rewriting. I'm constantly trying to improve, hone, think what might be better. But I am not talking about tinkering and self-editing. 

I'm not talking about going through from beginning to end looking for typos, or making one of your characters different, or removing a scene or thread, or adding a scene or thread, or removing examples of over-writing, or altering the pace, or injecting cliff-hangers, or strengthening a theme, or removing a theme. I'm talking about radical, fundamental changes that make the whole book different. I'm talking about The Big Rewrite. Brace yourselves. And get your bottle out of the fridge.

There are times, (and, in case you're a Supertramp fan, yes, it may be when all the world's asleep and the questions run so deep) when a BR is necessary. And at those times we must find the strength to bite the bullet and just damn well do it. 

Often on these occasions you've sensed (and ignored) an earlier whiff of eel-vomit*, a suspicion that this is not your best book, a blind faith that any holes will sort themselves by magic. You can ignore these whiffs if you want to - and sometimes, you have to because you don't know what the source of the whiff is yet - but eventually you will need to act.

(*I don't think eel-vomit smells but allow me some artistic licence. Eel-vomit is the word I regularly assign to rubbish writing.)

Let me tell you about a novel I've been writing. Let us call it Castle Crone, because that is what it is called (though it wasn't at first.) I started about four years ago. And "finished" less than a year later. I was happy with it, though I knew it had a problem with the ending - but I ignored this because it was to be the start of a series anyway - and another problem (or three) I couldn't quite put my finger on. But I felt I had something good and interesting and unusual and generally happifying. Agent loved it. So that was good. She sent it to publishers. They loved it. I received amazing feedback, including from one who said it was the best submission they'd seen all year but they couldn't take it because it competed with something they'd just commissioned. And by the way, they said, we wonder whether X quite works. And Y. And whether the ending is right?

To cut a long story short, two things happened. The recession hit, so publishers wouldn't commit to a major (expensive) series. And I found myself busy with the publication and knock-on effects of Wasted and then the new edition of Blame My Brain and then the contract for The Teenage Guide to Stress. However, during that time, I did rewrite it. Twice. Totally. Two BRs. Then I didn't like it so much, and nor did my agent. So we decided to wait till the time was right and see whether I'd like to tackle it again.

I rewrote it the following year but didn't send it out. I'd lost my way.

Ditto the next year. Wahhhhhh. 

By then, I had so many drafts I didn't know what they all were. They had document names such as "Castle Without Climber", "Final Castle With Climber", "Castle Crone With Dragon Bits", "Final Castle Sept 2011", "Final Final Castle Without Dragons" and "Final Frigging Castle".

Inspired partly by desperation, partly by a love for the world I'd created and partly by my agent, I've just done two more Big Rewrites in the last few months, including the one I finished last week, which I have called, "I'VE BLOOMIN DONE IT." 

1. Voice. Voice A, which I had loved (and which had made it feel really original) had to go, to make it more commercial. (Ouch, but there were good reasons - and, remember, I write for children.) Voice B transmogrified into Voice C and then a mixture of Voices A, B, C and D. Now, we all know you can't have a random mixture of voices, so that wasn't OK at all. So, I discarded B, C and D, and went back to a modified A - let's call it A2. My agent said that A2 was holding the pace back in some parts. So that wasn't OK at all. She said Voice A2 was great for one character's POV but not the rest. I didn't agree but I did what I was told, because she is Always Right. So, I then created a structured, reasoned alternation between Voice A2 and Voice E. Then I realised that Saint Agent was definitely right and I chopped Voice A2 some more until it was more of an A-. 

2. In one version, my MC was terrified of climbing, in a mountainous land where climbing is the most valued and necessary skill. In the next version, he was utterly brilliant at it, which, as you can imagine, changed everything. Like everything. Apart from the rockfaces and castle walls he had to climb. In the final version, he's utterly terrified of it... Most of the other characters also changed personalities. Often. 

3. Tense. In the first version, I used present tense, because I'd been writing Wasted, which is present tense. PT was quite wrong for this new story. As Saint Agent pointed out. Grr.

4. Structure. I can't even face telling you. 

5. Characters. There are a lot of them and I changed the relationships between almost all of them. Every change had a knock-on effect.

6. The ending. This was my final and almost last minute (heck of a long minute...) change, despite being the thing I'd known was wrong four years ago. The new ending is eleventy million times better. And so different as to be unrecognisable

7. The beginning. Because endings affect beginnings.

8. Stuff. 

The only thing that never changed is the Castle that forms the imaginary world. And that's interesting, as the whole point about this Castle is that is will not fall or be changed. It is immutable. Unlike books.

And now there is no whiff of eel-vomit!

What do I hope you will learn from this sorry saga?

1. That the writing process is not easy. But, it repays the effort. Be brave. It may be the hardest writing thing you'll do, but it will be the most important.
2. That the writing process is organic. A book doesn't arrive fully-formed. You have to grow it and shape it and be prepared to make mistakes with it and not to see them at first. I don't condemn myself for not dealing with them earlier. I don't think I could have done.
3. That a good agent is a thing of saintliness. 
4. That when there's a whiff of vomit, there's almost certainly vomit

Unless it's actually parmesan sauce. They do have a similar smell. However, if you know perfectly well that you haven't been cooking parmesan sauce, don't waste time thinking that's what you can smell.

It's your WIP whiffing. Take deep breaths and sort it. 


Penwright said...

I read this with my hands over my eyes, peeping between my fingers. For I too have known the hell of the BR. I wrote an entire novel from the point of view of one character - well, in the third person, but checking that it included only things that this one character would have witnessed, done, said, etc. After leaving it alone for three months, I re-read it and realised that I MUCH preferred another character, and decided to rewrite it from his POV - this time in the first person. I told my husband, who groaned inwardly and indeed outwardly, and said, "Well, you can just do a global find and replace - all the 'he's will become 'I's...". It took another ten months, but I think it's a much better book - and that's the one I self-published in the end. But the day I decided on the BR will live in my memory forever.

Anonymous said...

I completed my first novel in 2005. Then I edited and rewrote and tweaked and discarded. It's taken me 8 years to decide to start again. Same character, new plot, new voice, new POVs, new structure, new everything. It's going to be a lot of work, but I'm excited! ~Miriam

Nicola Morgan said...

Congratulations to BOTH of you! It's scary but exciting because you know it's right.

JO said...

Oh yes - I knew I had the change the voice of a MC and that knocked onto how other characters responded to her, and so they did different things ... but once I began it was fun!! That's the bit that surprised me - once I had a handle on her I felt the book was coming out to play, rather than me making it do as it was told.

catdownunder said...

Well yes, I sort of expect this to happen to me. What I start with is never what I end with.
I have written what I think needs to be written and put it aside. I have come back and thought, "That's rubbish." Then I start again...and again...and again. I thought I was writing about one person only to realise that I was really seeing that person through the eyes of other people. It's actually frightening and I don't know why I do it. It just happens.

Annalisa Crawford said...

I'm about to embark on a major rewrite - it's not my first, but it's certainly the most problematic because I don't know how to start the story. And because where I begin will dictate the whole structure, I'm currently in limbo... And this was supposed to be a project-between-projects!!

Rebecca Alexander said...

Oh, this is SO familiar! I'm wrestling with book 3 of a trilogy (first one comes out 10 October - terrifying) and no matter what I fiddle with the bloody iceberg still hits it at 50k. I went away to do something totally unrelated and on the drive home I realised - the whole book was sent in the wrong direction. On what turns out to be page twelve. Sigh. Rewrite - coming up.

Katherine Hetzel said...

Having done four major rewrites of current WIP already...can completely relate to this post! Only problem is that the version I have works as a story - but probably isn't commercial enough. It has rings in it - which apparently won't sell. (Thanks Tolkien and Wagner!)
Yet another BR to put the commercial in and take the rings out, or keep as is and see how it's received by agents?

Anonymous said...

I needed this post to help motivate me to do a major rewrite of my novelette! It never gets easier but you've reminded me that it will be a stronger story in the end. Thanks very much for this post.

Nicola Morgan said...

Glad it's hit the mark with lots of you! Sorry for the delay in replying - I'm snowed under and a bit overwhelmed.

Wendy Percival said...

I don't seem to able to write a novel without a major re-write. Frustratingly, that seems to be the only way it works for me. In spite of my planning, the 'better' way to write it is only obvious after the first draft... or worse, after the final draft when I'm just beginning to think I'm on the finishing straight!

The encouraging thing is that my first novel, Blood-Tied, was reworked several times before it was published. The following ones weren't and didn't find a publisher. The novel I'm currently writing is going through another re-write. Maybe I should see that as a comforting sign...

And on that thought, I'd better get this comment written and get back to work!

Nicola Morgan said...

Fingers crossed! I must say, I have not got any better at avoiding the major rewrite.

Anonymous said...

I got to about 30,000 words before the smell of eel-vomit became overpowering.
I killed off about 3/4 of my characters (the new version isn't a bloodbath, I just didn't put them in) and it seems a lot better. Different, but better.
I still miss the invisible minstrel, though.

Sally Zigmond said...

I have to say, Nicola, I found this post of yours enormously heartening. In that horrible world where everyone else seems to be churning out novels once a year and know exactly what they're doing, it is good to know I am not the only one who has discovered that the only novels worth producing involve a great deal of eel-vomit* eradication. And it's never to be found where you first whiff it. It's usually a few thousand words back.

*Can I use that compound or is it a Nicola Morgan patent?

Nicola Morgan said...

sinistrainksteyne - perhaps the minstrel will find its way into another book :)

Sally, you have my permission to use the phrase with abandon! It was actually Anne Rooney who prompted it, because I'd been using cockroach vomit and she pointed out that cockroaches don't vomit but eels (or, specifically, hagfish) do.