Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Rewriting by Nicky Browne

According to John Green ‘All writing is rewriting.’ Yeah, I know and a first draft is only the
beginning of a process. I explain this to my creative writing students and tell them to get anything down on the page because it can all be fixed in edit. I am utterly sincere and a total hypocrite. I hate rewriting. I grew up in the twentieth century (without a type writer) I want to do as little of it as possible.
I vividly remember the first day I realised that editing was a necessity. I must have been about  twenty-seven and working with a real live journalist on a press release for an international oil company. Reader, he changed my words!

I was horrified. I’d said what I wanted to say. It made sense, what was his problem? He peered at the printed text and chewed on his lip. ‘Now, how can we say this better?’ he asked. Reader, with that polite question he changed my world! What? You can change things and make them better? I was a lesson I needed to learn, but years on I remain a reluctant, recalcitrant, heel-dragging, chocolate-consuming, ill tempered procrastinator when it comes to rewrites. 

Over the years I have published nine novels and like most writers  have four, maybe five, completed novels knocking around that need fixing. Periodically I go back to them. I reread them, pleasantly surprised to find that they aren’t that bad, that with a little bit of tweaking they could almost be good. All I need to do is edit them and get them out into the world.  So I try to fix them. One is now 10% fixed - the rewritten section has a moderately engaging first person voice with an  entertaining ghost as a side kick/ conscience and  some commercial potential and the rest of it  hasn’t. I won’t bore you with my inadequate attempts to fix the others. I know what they need. I just balk at doing it. Even short novels are long when all the words in them need changing and all the words need changing  because I know I can make every line  better: I wish I’d never met that journalist.

I will be honest, I have been overwhelmed with the weight of these unfixed words: the switch from distant third to intimate first person, the dream sections to be excised, the new characters to be introduced, the witty apercu I am required to invent, and all that honing and polishing! Frankly it makes housework look interesting.  So, this week, I put the endless rewrites to one side and started something new. 

Oh. My. God. As I would write if I were twenty years younger. I remember now, this is what I do. I take a blank page and make stuff happen. At the beginning of the day there is nothing, at the end, a growing story: characters, conversations, complications, motivations, proliferate like weeds and there isn’t time to prune or tidy because this thing is growing so fast. Who would stop? I don’t care about the uncrossed ‘t’s, the slightly dodgy phrasing, the overuse of ‘ slightly’ and probably ‘dodgy’, this thing is alive and thrusting all over the place.

Yes, proper grown up writing is all about rewriting, but this other thing, this mad tumult of ideas and words, the wild moments of making things up, for me is what writing is all about. It is raw and messy and unexpected and probably a bit rubbish but it is joyful and fun and, if I’m honest, the reason I am a writer at all. So, it will be a little bit longer before my four or five unfixed novels get fixed. Sorry.


Nick Green said...

John Green needs to rewrite his aphorism. Not all writing is rewriting. A first draft is not rewriting! What he obviously means is, 'Rewriting is a fundamental part of writing'. Or to put that better, 'To write, you must rewrite.'

I think of it as being like the work of a sculptor. First the sculptor knocks great chunks off the block of rock with a hammer. Then they use hammer and chisel, and progress to smaller and smaller tools, until they are smoothing the marble curves with abrasives so fine that you could brush your teeth with them.

But they don't call it 'sculpting and resculpting' or say, 'I've got to get the sandpaper out and do my revisions.' Their task is the whole task, made up of all the different stages. If they stop before they've completed every stage, then they simply haven't finished.

Lydia Bennet said...

Some writers love the editing and cutting process as much as or more than the first draft rush. Clearly you enjoy that that the most. Although there is writing because you enjoy the process of writing, and there is working on the writing so readers enjoy the process of reading it. If we write for anyone but ourselves, the crafting is essential and so is achieving a certain distance from the first gallop of the work, or so it seems to me as writer and reader.

Lee said...

Lydia, it doesn't matter whether we write for ourselves, other people, or aliens on the far side of the galaxy: crafting is always essential. In fact, if I don't think of myself as a worthy reader, why should I bother at all? I reserve 'good enough' for tasks like cleaning the loo or washing the car.

Lydia Bennet said...

you might think so Lee and so would I, but someone who just enjoyed the sensation of writing might not bother. that's nobody's business but theirs. i'm only saying a reader deserves more care and crafting.

Nicky said...

I don't think you can be a professional writer and not edit, rewrite and craft. However, not all of us enjoy it and some of us will procrastinate to avoid it. I would always prefer to write something new than fix old stuff, which is why I have a backlog of unsold work!

Reb MacRath said...

The second draft is the toughest for me--a job almost brutal enough to lead me to say that I hate rewriting. But with each draft the process grows less exhausting. And it starts to seem less like digging a ditch than mimicking Swiss watchmakers. I enjoy this precision work more than the vomit phase of the first draft. But I'm with Nick in believing that the whole process is our job.

JO said...

If it stops being fun and messy and unexpected - then there's no point. And I'm learning to enjoy the rewrites - thanks to a daughter who reads stuff for me, and writes pointed things in the margin such as, 'If you really want me to understand this you'll not write at midnight!'

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I love rewriting and polishing. Just LOVE it. I like it much better than getting the first draft onto the PC if the truth be told, although I don't dislike that part of the work either. But for me too it's a continuum - there's no sense that one is 'fixing' something. It's a single long process, interrogating the characters, finding out what makes them what they are. I write the first draft without stopping, even if it means leaving gaps, knowing that something isn't right, isn't working. It's a big splurge and I do it very quickly. I wouldn't show ANYONE that draft, ever. Then the real work starts, but I just love doing it so it's no hardship. Having something to work with, to PLAY with is wonderful, and it does seem to me like play. For me, a novel can go through ten or twelve or more drafts. (But even then I work quite quickly!) If you have a stage play in full development and you're working with actors and a director, you may stop rewriting only when actors say that they can't learn new lines. On the other hand, just occasionally you can find yourself writing something that hardly changes at all - and that's a bonus! I know some writers who work very very slowly, getting it more or less right the first time - Bernard MacLaverty for instance. I couldn't do it, but it works for him. I started my writing life as a poet, and wonder if that has something to do with the way I approach fiction. Poetry is so often a process of paring down, of removing whatever is not essential.

Nicky said...

It's interesting that almost every writer I know works differently. The only consensus is that there is no consensus. For me craft is graft and the most fun is riding the creative wave.