Writing is Rewriting
You might think it’s a bit early to start thinking about rewriting when I’m only 45,000 words into my current novel, but I’m already looking forward to the time when all those first rubbishy words are down on the page and I can get on with the real work of the novel.
My writing students (those who don’t know me very well anyway!) are often surprised when I suggest they could rework something. ‘But I’ve spent ages on it,’ they’ll say. ‘I’m bored with it now.’ One of them said to me the other week, ‘Professional writers don’t rewrite their books, do they?’
I suppose there are a lucky few whose first words appear on the page sharp and pristine, whose characters come alive in the first instance, whose plots fall onto the page well-structured and complex. But I’d say for the majority the main job of writing is rewriting:
- I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before I was satisfied. Ernest Hemingway
- I can’t write five words but that I change seven. Dorothy Parker
- I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive. Susan Sontag
- I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. Vladimir Nabokov
- And the famous one from Stephen King: Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.
So, the FIRST DRAFT is a process of finding out: who your characters, what elements of the plot are important; what on earth your story is about. This is the phase of creation, where you must dig dip into your subconscious and bring out ideas, emotions, experiences, which half the time you didn’t even know were in there. During this gloriously messy phase, you need to be uninhibited as a writer. Roz Morris in her book ‘Nail Your Novel’ writes:
You must go for full-blown operatic drama. This is where you live the book in Technicolour, not in washed out tones. You want it to take on a life of its own, be a bit crazy if it wants to be.
The SECOND draft tends to involve major structural changes. Does the timeline work? Does the plot fall apart in the middle? Are there places where the plot strands don’t hang together? Are the sub-plots bolted on or integrated? Some scenes must be cut; others expanded. Characters need to be strengthened – you need to go more deeply into their psyche to discover what makes them tick. And, sadly, some characters have to go. They refuse to come alive, or they’re not serving their purpose or they are too similar to another character.
This is the moment for honing the prose, cutting repetitions and redundancies, nurturing the images, making sure that every single scene in the novel is vital, every single word has earned its place. This is the time when you have to ‘Kill your darlings’.
Writing a novel is a long, lonely process. Many people dream of the journey, but never set out. Others embark on the journey, but get lost along the way. At half way through the first draft, I’ve got a long way to go. I’m in the gloriously messy, creative phase. I’ve got to go now because I need to get UNINHIBITED.