Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
– Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956
After all the “I have an agent!” euphoria of my last blog entry (five months ago, ahem) I haven’t updated for several reasons:
One: everything else has been far less exciting than that.
Two: I’ve been busy rewriting.
If signing with DKW Literary Agency was then the equivalent of travelling to London in a golden carriage and drunkenly waltzing around in a fancy frock and glass slippers, then the last few months have had me back sweeping cinders from the hearth, watched over by the ugly stepsisters of Perfectionism and Darling-Killer, who keep telling me I've missed a spot.
So, rewriting. Of course the manuscript I first submitted to Bryony had already been rewritten several times, and was in fact pretty unrecognisable from the first draft I’d nervously shown my MA group months before, but settling down to editing the novel, after securing representation for it, felt completely different.
On the plus side, having such great editorial advice was just wonderful, and all of the suggestions from Bryony have made the book SO much stronger, but then knowing that there’s somebody awaiting the new draft causes anxiety, and silly fears about getting it all wrong, this time, and then there’s visions of my agent clicking on her email to receive the latest draft and bellowing “This is monstrous! Why oh why have I signed this cretin!” All a world away from reality, of course, but such is the endless neurotic fretting of the writers' mind. This adrenalin rush does get bottom-in-computer- chair, and knowing that you’ve made it as far as getting an agent is an excellent motivator in itself, but on motivation….
Forward planning/prolonged concentration is not my strong point. I'm also very easily bored. I did ALL of my university essays a few days before the deadline (and my dissertation in one-panic-fuelled-sobbing-month), and as I always got good grades I never really learnt that doing things that way probably wasn’t the best way. During my MA writing workshops, too, the work I submitted that was rushed weirdly got far better feedback than the sections I’d worked on for longer (and probably overthought), with my peers complimenting the sense of energy and confidence in those oh-my-god-write-something-now-right-now pieces. But that’s what they were. Pieces. Not a 100,000 word manuscript. Which was the start of the learning curve.
I had to sit down, every day, and not rush. I had to read the same sections over and over and over, and make them shine. I couldn't get whooshed along by a flood of new ideas, I had to focus on these ones, the same old ones I'd been working on for months and months. It couldn’t be rushed, or shoddy, and I couldn’t “baffle them with bullshit” (the words of one wise uni professor, to be used in times of academic doubt), and while Good Me wanted nothing better than meticulous, calm rewriting, I was going up against years of Bad Me. But Good Me was getting stronger!
I felt both like some merciless personal trainer getting some inveterate couch potato do five billion star jumps at 6 a.m on a December morning – “Take that manuscript! You can find a better word than that! You will be lean, and mean!”- and the poor, whining bastard having to do them- “I give up. I’ll never be in shape. I don’t even want to be fit. What’s the point?” I'm not quite one of those mentalists who run marathons with a fridge strapped to their backs- for fun- yet, but I'm definitely much more disciplined, now, which can only be a good thing.
So how long has it taken? After meeting Bryony the next phase of editing took about three months; longer than I’d anticipated but some structural changes meant altering a lot of chapters to accommodate the revisions (a domino effect, where changing chapter 26 means going back to chapters 2, 17, 19, 21, even if just to fine-tune dialogue/drop hints etc), so that was draft two. Draft three included some additional changes to the plot, which didn’t work, so draft four took them all out again and cleared up some of the stubborn plot problems, and this draft was sent back to Bryony last week. Which may –fingers crossed- be the last draft I need to do, at this point. (The main problems with the novel, incidentally, being that my plot is complex, and with a bright, perceptive protagonist and a mystery slowly being unravelled, it’s been hard to get the balance right between withholding information and giving my main character enough to be able to work things out…but not before time, to maintain suspense to the end. Juggle, juggle, drop, argh, juggle. And again.)
So, there we go, and before I go, some wise words on rewriting from the greats:
20 great writers on the art of revision: