Retracing your steps
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.