Tag Archives: writing process

The re-write is complete

Phew!

Now that was more an effort than I realised it would be.

I removed about 40,000 words from my manuscript over the past few months. That’s nearly a quarter of its weight!

Many of these were removed on a line-by-line edit: clarifying sentences, dealing death to adjective clusters, seeking out adverbs remorselessly and casting their brutally beaten bodies from my work. I did away with many dialogue tags. I found ways to say with ten words what I had said with twelve or fifteen. I found all of these little slivers of fat that still clung to the meat of my tale and I carved them off with a wicked sharp blade.

Then I had to really get stuck in.

This wasn’t my first pass with the scalpel, and on a project this size trimming fat didn’t shrink the manuscript by the requisite amount, so I started cutting away at the muscle, the flesh, in some cases the connective tissue. That hurt. I lost some good stuff I think. A character was erased from existence. Another had his role cut significantly. Two characters became so peripheral that to survive they had to undergo a melding of bodies and minds and become one. Details were lost, poignant moments, not-quite-salient anecdotes, slightly obscure back-story, geographical references, subtle foreshadowings… but these things ultimately were bloating the story into something more than what it should have been.

So now I have 131,000 words. Still big by the standards of a debut novel, but it’s a manageable big.

I asked a few agents (through the wonder of Twitter) what would be a maximum word-limit they would consider as a submission from an unpublished novelist and the answers were in the range of 140,000 to 150,000. I’m happily below that upper limit, and I’m sure the manuscript is much better for it.

I said at the outset that my goal here was not necessarily to become a professional writer, not even necessarily to become published, though both of those are measures of success. My goal is to become a better writer, and whatever comes as an outcome of this process I feel that the process has already achieved some success toward that goal. I made brutal decisions, but they were the right ones. Some years ago, perhaps even some months ago, I would have baulked those decisions, and I would have remained in a comfort zone of bloat and easy-living. That is not a good place for a writer to remain.

I also now have a much clearer delineation of writing and editing. When I was starting I would open the document and start editing the material I had just written the day before, and so writing was a crawl. I would write a couple of hundred words in a day, but then spend a day or two editing those before adding another couple of hundred and restarting the edit process. It’s a dysfunctional approach. It’s the wrong one. To borrow from Chuck Wendig:

“Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.”

I believe I have done that. I believe my words are not shitty.

And now? Now I get the query letter dressed up. Now I nail that synopsis. Now I go back to Chapter One, Page One, Paragraph One, Word One. Now I make that opening irresistible. Because this week the queries go out (agents be warned) and I think I’ve got a good chance now of putting my best foot forward. That might or might not lead somewhere, but at least I’ll be stepping out knowing I’ve put the work in to make it possible.

 


… and continue…

So I’ve got more than 50,000 words which have survived these revisions (in fact 53,300-ish).

That’s the good news. It represents 18 chapters of the novel and I’m hitting the point where the narratives are becoming quite divergent so there will be (I’m hoping) some chapters upcoming from POVs or in locations which are only minimally affected by the necessary changes.

I’m on page 177 of the word document (out of 633) and the total is still hovering on 195,000 words (so I’m more than 25% of the way there – kind of). I’m thinking I’m going to have to cut a whole scene, or perhaps whole characters / sub-plots to really get this thing down the the lean piece of writing I think it needs to be.

Big job, but I accepted the challenge, and if I’m going to go around calling myself a writer I’d better be doing some writing to justify the tag.

If deep cuts helped Cormac McCarthy produce Blood Meridian then who am I to puff out the chest and insist all my words are worthy of being spared?


a hundred indecisions

and time yet for a hundred indecisions

and for a hundred visions and revisions,

before the taking of a toast and tea

(T.S Eliot: ‘the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock)

The question I must ask today is: ‘when is a story finished?’

I ask this as a result of some valuable feedback I got from a trusted friend and reader. I believe that this feedback may have saved me some embarrassment. I believe it has gotten me closer to my stated goal – that being in the first instance to be a better writer and in the second to be a published author.

The trouble is that you sometimes need to go backward to go forward… or perhaps that’s not quite what I mean.

I am developing a new understanding of what it means to write, and as a result I have had to seriously reconsider my claim to having a finished novel manuscript.

I shall here use the metaphor of the sculptor. When recently I was in Paris I went to the Musée Rodin. I can highly recommend this to anyone in Paris. It was free the day we went to wander through the gardens, and it is in the gardens that some of his greatest and most famous work resides. One of the exhibits in the garden is the work which was unfinished at the time of his death. These statues and busts are in various ways incomplete, and in so being they give the most marvellous insight into the craft of the artist.

Rodin’s pieces give the unshakable impression that the artist is not so much carving a shape from the stone as much as he is removing the excess stone from the sculpture within. It is as if, where we see a block of stone, he sees what is within and labours to reveal it to the rest of us. By this reckoning the sculptors process is thus: select the stone, envisage the sculpture within, reveal.

How does this apply to writing?

I put together a 241,000 word draft for my novel (at one point it was over 300,000). I ensured it had all the narrative elements, that it finished on a climactic scene and that the main threads of the plot were resolved (and enough left loose that a sequel would work). I thought at this point I was finished, but now I think I was at the second stage of my sculpting analogy.

The 300,000 words made up the stone I had to work with. The narrative elements, climax, resolution, were my vision of what would be revealed within that stone.

What was lacking was the reveal. The feedback I got helped to confirm for me that I needed to act on those niggling doubts. They’d been there all along, but I’d denied them the gravitas they deserved. My sculpture was a hunk of shaped rock, but what I saw in it wasn’t necessarily seen by others.

So now I need to carve more stone away, shape the lines a little differently, cut-back and polish in some places, restore and reinforce in others. But this is a good thing. This is an essential part of the process.

There was a time when I thought that cutting words meant that the words themselves were wasted, but that’s not the case. Those cut words will determine how well the finished piece can be seen. All the stone that Rodin carved away from the sculptures he sought to reveal was important. Without the removal of that stone we couldn’t see the artist’s vision. Likewise the words we lose to the editing process are important.If such things were not removed art galleries would be full of stone slabs instead of sculptures.

So I’ve been neglecting the website a little in favour of carving words. That hoary old question of process over platform, and for the foreseeable future process is winning hands-down. I’ve also put on hold a short story in the final phases of development and the untitled novel project I had begun.

I want to get a pitch-worthy final revision done by November. So far I’m down to around 200,000 words, and I’m nearly a third of the way through the draft. At this rate I’ll get it down below 150,000 perhaps even to 120,000 words (which is a figure that has been recommended to me as an upper-limit for a first time novelist.

So head down, delete key on stand-by, and I’ll meet Prufrock for the toast and tea when I’m done.

 

 


The need for (safe) risk taking

I have always been more a solitary writer than one who actively seeks a community of the like-minded. The reasons for this are manifold:

Firstly I haven’t found a strong community of like-minded writers. Possibly (almost certainly) this is a bit of a chicken/egg argument, as I haven’t really actively sought one out. When I have, and I was for a short time part of a group of writers, the ‘like’ in like-minded was quite strained – incorporating everything from Hard SF to Paranormal Fiction to Epic Fantasy – and didn’t really fit within the genre niche I was carving for myself.

Secondly I have (until recently – more on that to come) been quite guarded about what I was doing. It was really only when I finished the ‘Exile’ manuscript (I’ve posted excerpts from the prologue here before) that I felt I had something I wanted people to read. Sharing scenes, excerpts, even chapters felt a bit false because they were so de-contextualised.

Thirdly, and perhaps most tellingly, I was just in an utter state of fear that it would all be rubbish. I had this thing I’d been building and crafting and drawing forth from my own creative energies for years (over a decade). How could I risk putting it out there and having it savaged? How could I risk being told that all that time and effort was wasted? Wasn’t it safer to keep my work of genius locked safely away from the harsh judgements of those that would seek to judge it?

No.

Of course not.

And yet it was a prevailing mindset. I recognise it sometimes when I think of my boys growing up. My eldest is off to school next year and I’m excited for him, but at the same time some part of me wishes I could hold him back – hold him locked in time – so he wouldn’t have to go out there and get bullied and fail at things and have his heart broken and risk all the myriad tragedies and tribulations of a life lived. That’s fair enough isn’t it? I’ll just keep him here in this happy (mostly) state of early child-hood where I can enjoy the beaming smile I get when he sees me and he will never tell me he hates me and storm out, and no one will be able to say a bad word about him?

No.

Of course not.

 

We know lives need to be lived, despite – or perhaps because of – all the inherent risks in the living. Books need to be read for the same reasons (I just compared my manuscript to my son. How droll. Forgive me.).

So I sent my book out to some (highly) trusted readers. Close friends. Family. People who have read and enjoyed the books I believe inspired me in the writing of ‘Exile’. The feedback I got was positive, and in some ways and in some cases constructive, but really it was a comfortable and familiar blanket in which to wrap myself. I mean no disrespect to my readers in saying that – they performed their role perfectly. My point is I needed someone to play another role.

I needed the harsh, but fair, critic. I needed the bald-faced truth. I needed someone to cast aside the flatteries and the positive reinforcement and to go straight to the heart of anything in the novel which didn’t work. I needed a critical eye to find the faults I had been denying to myself: the faults I most needed to fix before I pitch this tale.

And I found my man, and recently he gave me what I needed. I’ll give you all more detail on what that is in a series of subsequent posts. It’s a work in progress. Suffice it to say that some fairly drastic cuts are recommended and some significant changes to characters and characterisation. That in itself doesn’t amaze me (though to be honest I was amazed by the extent of the recommended cutting). What amazed me most was how well the advice I was getting struck those loose nerves that I had been soothing over. Almost everything which was identified for me aligned perfectly to some sense of uncertainty I’d been feeling, or some concern about the manuscript which I would occasionally glimpse and turn away from. It had become a ‘wilful unseeing’ of the faults in my work, and I’d gotten so fixated on looking at words within a scene that I hadn’t asked myself ‘does this paragraph need to be here?’ ‘does this scene?’ ‘does this chapter?’ ‘does this character?’.

I feel the answers may be difficult to nail down, and maybe all these alterations will take something away from the manuscript which will be lost forever. This is the risk involved in following these recommendations, but I’m at least now at a place with my writing that I have the courage to take the risk.