Retracing your steps

By Hugh Ashton

It’s probably fair to say that no one enjoys editing and rewriting their own work. The first flush of creation is fun – especially with fiction. Characters start to fill out and find their own voices. Neat little phrases that you’ve been saving up for some time pop out and appear in their appointed places, and the plot moves along nicely towards a satisfactory finish.

And then the bubble pops. A friend, whose judgement you trust, reads the manuscript and tells you that the plot detail you really loved is actually impossible. Of course, this tiny little plot detail is the one on which the whole of the rest of the book hinges. So… what you must do is rip up the story from that point on and rewrite it.

That’s the kind of situation I’m in now. At about the start of 2008 I finished the draft of a novel about the financial world in Tokyo. The dénouement (what a nice word that is, especially with the accent!) includes an account of a massive earthquake that rocks Tokyo. What it does not include is any account of the Lehman’s debacle – and any book dealing with financial matters which has any pretense to realism should definitely include a reference to this event.

So, seeing that the (long overdue) earthquake hasn’t occurred, but the collapse of the banking world has, I am busy rewriting, and it’s sometimes a bit painful to be retreading these old paths.

How is this different from the first burst of writing? On the one hand I know too much. I know how the story’s going to end, and how it’s going to come about (I tend not to micro-plan stories in advance but I like the ending I have already). So it’s boring not to create it from scratch.

On the other hand, I have a much clearer picture in my head of the
characters than I did first time round. They’re more real to me than they
were, and as a result, their dialog, as well as their actions, makes more sense to the reader. Because I am closer to them, I also have an emotional involvement with them – something that wasn’t really there before – and I think this makes a real difference to the writing.

One reader of the first draft made the valid criticism that he didn’t really feel he cared too much about what happened to the protagonist – there wasn’t enough there to hold psychological interest, though the story itself was interesting.

I am trying to rewrite the last quarter of the book from scratch, rather than re-use previously written material, and this introduces an obvious advantage to the rewriting process – the ability to revise and remove awkwardness in style and plot. But to me the major advantage, boring as it may be to actually perform the rewriting, is that I have become better acquainted with my characters, and I can breathe more life into them.

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10 Responses to “Retracing your steps”

  • Erik

    Great article. However, personally I love rewriting and editing. Must be my destructive mind; I prefer to rip a story apart rather than creating it. Seriously though, having your auto-correction on constantly is impractical. Another bad habit of mine.

  • Eric C

    Actually I agree with the Eric with a misplelled name. I’ve recently come to enjoy rewriting. Though, I hate proofreading and perfecting language. I don’t know.

  • Natalie E Bowers

    I love the thrill of writing a first draft, where I discover the story and characters, but it’s the editing and rewriting that really makes floats my boat! I see a first draft as being like a lump of clay. It requires moulding and shaping. It needs bits added here and there and bits taken away. It’s only after I have done a bit of sculpting that I have something worth looking at, something usable. It’s only after I have edited and rewritten my writing that I have a well-written story worth telling.

    In the words of E. B. White, “The best writing is rewriting.”

  • Levi Montgomery

    I don’t do the whole “draft/edit/rewrite” thing, myself. The story is an organic whole from one end to the other. It grows at its own pace, sometimes filling in over here and sometimes over there. Editing and rewriting are as much a part of this creative process as anything is.

    I like to point out that we’re not making rope. We’re weaving a tapestry. If you’re making rope, you have a big bucket o’ fiber, and you have some method of twisting it, and if you look down at the rope coming out of your fiber-twister and see a nice gold streak, you say “Hey, that’s pretty cool. Too bad it wasn’t there when I started,” and you keep turning the crank. The gold streak peters out and disappears. If you want the gold to run from end to end in the rope, you have to see it in the bucket before you begin to crank, and you have to have enough of it to begin with.

    But if you’re making a tapestry, and you see a nice streak of gold come up, you look in the bucket, find some more gold, and go back over what you’ve made with the tiniest crochet hook you have, picking and teasing those fibers through to the front of the story.

    That process of going back and discovering new things about your people and their lives and picking it through into the front of the story is an integral part of making the story as perfect as it can be.

    It does get hard on beta readers, though. “WHAT? I have to read chapter one AGAIN?!”

    Levi

  • Eric C

    I’m also not a discover-asI-go type writer. I think everyone is different.

  • Roberta B.

    Why would I want to read someone else’s “pretense to realism,” anyway? I’d much rather read a true account rather than be confused by the intertwining of real events with the contrived. True life is far more interesting than fiction, and it often motivates the reader to find out more about a subject even if it’s just to corroborate the story he or she just read. As one of the first-draft readers said above, “the story itself [can be] interesting.” Real life stories can be entertaining and enlightening, as well.

  • Deborah

    I am participating in National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo. It is killing me that I can’t go back and clarify or change something I wrote. I’m terrified that I won’t remember the flash of brilliance I had when it comes to edit and rewrite. (We are honor-bound not to edit, but to write write write for 30 days or 50,000 words.) Damn computers.

    Maybe it was easier with a typewriter. Some famous writer—I don’t remember which one, and maybe all famous writers do this: wrote the first draft on one color of paper, the second draft on a different color of paper, the third on still a third color—right up to five colors and edits to the finished product.

  • Eric C

    True life is not more interesting than fiction.

  • Hugh Ashton

    Quick follow-up to all:
    The novel’s ending has taken a completely different turn and I am having a lot of fun creating it. I do find a certain joy in making things better, as people mention, but the fun bit for me is always the first stage when the imagination gets going, and I do find over-revision to be drudgery (maybe I’ve had to write too much non-fiction-user manuals and the like–in my time).

    @Roberta B. – I did write “pretense to realism”, not “pretense to reality”. The first, to me, means that there is a credible scenario and setting in which the characters interact, rather than a fantasy land (though even fantasy worlds should play by a consistent set of rules). The second means that I am pretending that my story actually happened. Though truth may be stranger than fiction sometimes, I think that most people feel that fiction is more interesting. Otherwise, fiction as an art-form would have died many years ago.

    @Deborah – on the subject of typewriters – watch this space – I have an article coming out here on that very topic.

  • Judi

    I am in the same situation with my last 2 books. One I’m going to start the actual writing from scratch since I’ve learned so much since then and the second needs some major plot changes. EEEk. And I thought I had revised enough.

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