26 June, 2013

Re-writing is a Glorious Bastard

Something I said on twitter a little while back inspired this post. "Re-writing is exciting when you hit a scene that you don't have to change much. That excitement is your enemy."

As many of you know, I'm re-writing my novel. My agent's feedback was generally along the lines of, "this is decent, but it should be better." I like to think she means that I should be able to do better. That interpretation is more convenient for my ego.

Anyway, there's a rant-worthy lesson in this. With every word of this post my intention is to beat myself in the face with a truth I've known for many years, that I struggle everyday to remind myself of. I know for a fact I'm not the only writer with this problem.

I'll take my own work as an example. In this draft, I don't have to change as much as before, but I should. I'm improving the tautness of the plot, essentially. For instance, one of my characters seemed a bit of a doormat and I'm making her into something more frightening. She was supposed to be frightening for being a doormat, calling my main character forwards like a siren into something I won't reveal here. But such a call is hard for the reader to hear. A siren should be active, distracting. She can be subtle and coaxing, too, but the reader must feel her ability. It's my main character who should fail to understand, not the reader. That's where the dramatic tension come from. You'll understand if you read the book, and if you don't want to buy it from anywhere traditional, I'm sure I'll accept cash.

Things in my draft are changing. The aforementioned change is quite stark, but most are subtle. Not many scenes need a re-write. Not many chapters need re-thinking. But every tweak in a story should influence the entirety of it. The best stories are perfectly molded around their own convictions.

A simple example: if I decide a character has a little more backbone, I have to examine every single line of her dialogue. Most of what she says could remain the same for the purpose of plot momentum, but not plot tension. For empathy with her, and indeed the entire book, the method of her action must reflect her motivation, even where that change appears slight. Everything begs examination.

After re-working her, every character's response around her begs examination. In actuality, I have to examine every scene that has anything to do with her, which in a good book will be all of them, if only subtly, for the simple reason that she's a vital character. I've said before that a novel is like a symphony. A short story is like a rock song. The symphony might be more complex, but each element supports each element much the same.

None of this is stuff will I have to do to make my book readable, or even good, but it's all necessary to make a book great.  I love the idea of having an advance, starting my life as a professional author et cetera, but I must love the idea of making great art more.  I have to write what I would want to read, i.e. what I think deserves to exist.

I never said I could make a great book. I have no idea. But if I don't try, what the smeg am I making art for? If I'm satisfied, by nature, to produce only that which is necessary, to just balance things until they make sense, why not be an accountant? No, art isn't about perfection. Perfection is a word with no reality whatsoever except in arithmetic. Art is about trying our best. And it's exciting coming across a section of my book that I don't really have to change. The day I wrote that tweet (I hate that phrase) I could have gone through 15,000 words of my story if I'd wanted. Instead I did 1,000, about half of what I usually get through in a day. Excitement was my enemy, so I made myself examine everything twice as hard.

I know there comes a point where you're doing this:

(I had to work this awesome image in somewhere. I couldn't find the artist's name, sadly.)

There's a point where you're recreating yourself without any regard to your intended creation. That's the point where it's time to stop, send this book away, and write a different one. I've been trying to write this book for a year, but it's my first decent one, and I want to learn the skills that I'll go on to use later. More than that, though, I want all my books to reflect my best efforts.


Misha Gericke said...

So true. I'm currently doing the same thing, because I sold my first book to an editor.

Although my editor keeps saying there's not much to change, I keep digging deep when I edit, because I want to publish the absolute best version of my story.

Best of luck with your edits!

Nicola Smith said...

About to start this process, just figuring out how to end the next one (what I thought was one book became 2). It's changing so much as I'm writing it that I know it's going to be a bear, but I'm learning so much about the characters that I'm really looking forward to it. I hear you on 'doing the best you can do'. In my moments of doubt, I know it's only a little portal fantasy faerie tale that probably doesn't deserve the blood, sweat and tears I'm pouring into it, but then I remember that it isn't just the story that I love, it's writing it. The art, the process, the moment when you get it just right. Whatever happens to my little portal fantasy, it won't be for lack of trying to do the best I can.

Samantha Dunaway Bryant said...

I just "finished" my first novel. It took four or five drafts. I think it might be as good as I can make it now, but I really get how excitement can be your enemy. Be wary of falling in love with your own words.

The artist, btw, is M.c. Escher, methinks.

Mex said...

Not sure I agree with the comments about perfection at the end, the rest is spot on though.

The artist of the pic is M. C. Escher by the way. If you don't know him, check out some of his other stuff, hell, even if you do know him, check out his other stuff LOL

Wm. Luke Everest said...

It's always a pleasure and an honour to get so many comments. Best of luck to you all. I'm proud to have helped inspire people to try their best, even if I'm embarrassed by not realising that drawing was M. C. Escher's. (I had like 20 people on Google + pointing that out, too.)

Nicola, write the best smegging portal fantasy faerie tale the world could ever conceive and it will be well worth the blood, sweat and tears.