CHAPTER 12: Writing, Rewriting, Editing
THE BAD FIRST DRAFT
They say Shakespeare never revised, nor did Mozart. However, the rest of us will have to slave over our work once it’s “finished” to get it in shape to be published. Writing a novel is a bit like riding a wild horse bareback. You’re astraddle all that energy, and you get thrown now and then. The horse never wants to stay on the trail, and much of the time you can’t see it yourself. So you panic, knowing it’s all slipping away. But writing a novel is also a little like preparing for a Broadway play. You’ll have a lot of rehearsals, so maybe you’ll get it right. The “rehearsals,” of course, are the rewrites.
So now you have all your plotting, your chapter summaries, and all the research material you accumulated. Using all this material, you write each chapter. The first time through, the novelsmith works to find the story. In spite of all his preparation, he still struggles through the first draft, hoping that storyline he’s following is a vein of gold. Here, he’s working with caterpillars, backhoes, tractors. He moves earth around, creates gullies, hills, moves mountains. It’s ugly, dirty work. He turns his chapter summaries into narration, setting, and scene.
Although the novelsmith tries for brilliance with all his might, the first time through is always a rough draft. You should allow yourself the freedom to write that bad first draft. Be fearless in your pursuit of storyline, using the central conflict as your guide, and let nothing slow your pace. The most important thing about it is not to be brilliant, but to get through it. You should write fast, and not look back. As Annie Dillard put it in The Writing Life:
The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that… original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph’s role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work’s ends.77
The more the novelsmith works the words, the more they become cast in concrete. You may not be able to change them later regardless of how badly they fit. You should leave it loose so that on the next pass you can work it in with the full context of the novel.
During this initial period of discovery, you do have your planning to guide you, but the energy in the story will constantly lead you astray. Pull it back in line as best you can and keep going. You may even be writing several chapters at once. While writing one, you’ll realize how it affects another, and you’ll be skipping back and forth scattering words like seeding a field of alfalfa. Keep from looking back as best you can. When you do, it’ll be a horror show, but don’t let that discourage you. The real writing is yet to come. If you keep going over it, polishing, you’ll have difficulty swinging the ax later on. The less you like your work the first time through, the better off you are.
THE SECOND PASS
This is your first look at the full work, and your reaction is one of despair. What a pile of junk. Your older brother has been right all along. You really are a moron. But the novelsmith inside you knows that you should set the despair aside and get down to business. Now the novelsmith goes to work with the shovel, pick, hammer, chisel, the ax, maybe even a chain saw. During the rewrite, you will find the real story. You might even start to feel more confident about your Premise. You look again at structure, select which chapters fit, which should change place, which you have to cut. Use the Premise and novel geometry as a guide.
The novelsmith’s attitude for the second pass: courage, ruthlessness, heartlessness. To really do some good, according to Eudora Welty, you have to “kill all your darlin’s.” In a similar vein, Samuel Johnson is supposed to have said, “Read over your composition and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Although I don’t totally agree with this, I do believe you should realize that this is a process of getting rid of the fool’s gold. The novelsmith’s attempts at brilliance call attention to themselves and are generally disruptive. You can feel yourself trying to be a great writer instead of simply telling the story. Avoid the metaphysics. The “metaphysics” are the passages where you talk directly about the premise. Don’t do it.
Examine each character, particularly minor ones, to make sure a change has occurred in each, that each has an “arc.” Examine them to see if some might actually be the same character. If you have two characters that never appear together, or if one is present in the first half of the novel and the other in the second half, they may actually be the same character. This can come as a great surprise. These you can combine to great effect. You can also combine characters somewhat arbitrarily to make your characters more multi-dimensional. Another possibility, if you have a character that’s not working, is to change the gender. This can really breathe life into not only the character but also the story.
The novel has to be written at least three times. The first time through yields raw material that has to be shaped into a more solidly constructed novel. It also insures you have found the premise and fully explored the subject. The second pass provides the novel with its proper shape. With the third pass, you get pickier.
THE THIRD PASS
Up until now, the novelsmith has been out in the field digging up his ore, and he has put it in the smelter to separate the metal from the slag. He has taken it out of the fire, placed it on his anvil and pounded it into the rough shape he’s looking for. And now he goes to work with screwdrivers, pliers, tin snips, files, and wire-cutters. This is the tinkering stage, when he focuses on paragraphs, sentences, and words. It is also a purification process. As Leon Surmelion says:
The writer purifies his ore to show the shining metal in it. He removes the insignificant, the irrelevant, and preserves only that which is essential to his purpose…78
Research has brought material from a lot of different sources, and you’ll have to erase the seams, smooth over the narrative voice, and eliminate what you don’t need. Everything must undergo the conversion so that it will fit into the fictional world. Remember that the craftsman is ever the enemy of the artist, in that you can tinker it to death, yet the art only shines through the use of craft.
Just like chapters, paragraphs give the reader breathing space. Most large paragraphs are actually multiple paragraphs and should be broken down. Don’t think brilliance comes from writing long ones as did Russian novelists 150 years ago. On the other hand, don’t use the carriage return as a substitute for inspiration, even though a short, one–sentence paragraph may add emphasis.
Craft your paragraphs with attention to reader needs and according to the topic at hand. You don’t construct paragraphs as rigidly as you would in an essay (topic sentence, exposition, etc.), but you’ll still find that frequently, they’ll have the same characteristics. The writer of fiction is much more attuned to the flow of emotion, and emotional content will frequently determine a paragraph’s structure and length.
Sentences are about thoughts. One that goes on too long can confuse the reader. On the other hand, long meandering sentences can be a part of the voice and give it an ethereal or even some other unimaginable quality. Consider Moly’s monologue from Ulysses by James Joyce. It’s the last chapter in the novel, and comes as one paragraph, thirty-six long pages without punctuations marks, apostrophes or any other niceties of the English language. It’s written in what’s known as “stream-of-consciousness,” Here’s a bit at the beginning:
Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting for the old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methyladted spirit telling me all her ailments…79
And here a little from the end of that chapter:
…and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kidded me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.80
As you can see from these excerpts, let nothing stand in the way of what you’re doing if you know your business and are good at it.
Avoid “false subject” sentences. They start out, “It is…” or “There is…” These are generic openings and will put your reader to sleep for the first two words. They are also statements of existence and will lead to a static narrative. Example: “There is a church on the hill overlooking the town and its people.” Change this to: “The church on the hill overlooks the town and its people.” Of course exceptions to this abound. Consider again the opening paragraph of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Minimize passive voice sentence construction. Passive voice occurs when the subject of the sentence does not perform the action of the verb. The actor is left out of the sentence completely in passive voice. Example: “The book was put on the shelf.” Note that we don’t know who performed the action; therefore, the action has lost the human element. Correction: “James put the book on the shelf.” Now we have a character in the story, and the difference is crucial to good storytelling.
Keep it simple. Use “use” instead of “utilize,” “to” stead of “in order to” (has nothing to do with ordering), no “suddenly’s,” and don’t use “very” very often. Remember that the most profound statement in all English literature consists of only six words, two of them repeats, all of one syllable, only one of them more than two letters: “To be or not to be?” Words gather importance through context. Don’t be pedantic by throwing big words around. Don’t be verbose. View every word with suspicion. Remember that the reader isn’t interested in you, he is interested in the story. If you want to be really smart, just tell the story.
Use the skills of the poets. Most of us are aware of rhyme, but it should be minimized in narrative fiction. On the other hand, some of the more obscure techniques are the prose writer’s bread and butter:
Assonance: Repetition of vowels without repetition of consonants (as in stony and holy).
Alliteration: Repetition of initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words (as in the terrible twos).
Rhythm: An ordered recurrent alternation of strong and weak elements in the flow of sound and silence in speech. Consider the opening to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls:
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.81
The natural “beat” of the individual words, accompanied by assonance and alliteration, create the rhythm in this sentence and take it to the level of prose poetry.
But don’t make your work overly poetic. These techniques should be used when the mood and tone are right for it. Use them in situations of heightened tension, when the commonness of reality metamorphoses into the surreal landscape of escalating human emotion.
Editing is itself a skill and must be continually developed. A highly skilled novelsmith can slave over his work for months to good effect, while a less skilful one will perhaps even do it damage. Work on your writing skills every day of your life. You never become so proficient that you can’t improve. The way you use words is your bread and butter. Don’t become arrogant about it. Your writing should grow every day until you die.
While writing the novel over and over, the author builds on the material and provides clarity and precision. He also finds the hidden significance of events and uncovers unintended relationships. This “worrying” until the story fully exposes itself is a necessary part of the craft. Some elements will be hypergolic, igniting on contact. Other elements will be synergistic, will become more than the sum of the parts.
Though you probably don’t want to hear it, you’ll have to edit your novel again sometime in the future. You should let it set a while to gain distance, perspective. Some authors say, jokingly, that they paste it on the wall, back up and read it through binoculars. You can gain distance from a work by letting it set for a day, weeks, months, years. The point is, a gestation period is required to gain distance so that the imperfections become visible to the novelsmith.
During all the rewriting, find ways to integrate the senses into the narrative, all five senses. The senses are so difficult to deal with that you should never be complacent about them, and during the edit phase, you’ll have the time to ensure you haven’t left them out where they are needed. Always keep them in the back of your mind. I’ll say it again: The reader suffers from total sensory deprivation in the fictional world. Without the character’s feelings, he has no contact with that world.
GETTING IT CRITIQUED
Unless you’re in a writing group, the first to see your work will be family and friends. This may lead to all sorts of strange responses. First of all, be assured that if you’ve written it in first person (POV), they’ll believe that you’re the character doing the talking and that the story is about your family. After reading the first chapter of my novel set in my hometown, my mother called me and bawled me out, saying that none of that happened, as if it was about our family. I’ve talked to many other writers who’ve had similar experiences. In spite of this, I do have a sister-in-law who always sees my work first, and before it’s complete. Generally, I say don’t give it to anyone close to you, particularly a family member. You don’t need the grief.
I continue to be amazed at the subtlety and complexity of a novel. A friend of mine in Colorado has a degree in creative writing and whines that it doesn’t help him at all. The founder of the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild in Boulder is fond of saying that the reason he’s never been able to get a novel published is that he is too educated. He has a PhD in literature.
To bolster my writing skills and confidence, I’ve engaged in a wide array of activities. I started out by taking creative and critical writing at the University of Colorado, and classes in the American novel. I attended both the Aspen Writers Conference and the Sierra Writing Camp. While living in Boulder, Colorado, I was a member of the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild for seven years. I served on its Board of Directors, attended its novel workshops and was a member of its Live Poets Society. I was the founding member of the Guild’s Literary Society and chaired its meetings. I supervised the publication of and provided articles for the Guild’s newsletter. I also founded an independent writing group that consisted of six members and lasted for eight years. All this helped me to feel like a writer, and I’d advise you to become a member of some group that will help you think of yourself as one.
But writing groups can also be problematic. When you walk into a bookstore, in all probability, 99% of everything on the shelf won’t interest you. Don’t think that when you walk into a critique group that all those there will be in tune with what you’ve written. You’ll get a wide variety of opinions about it. You should look for that one special reader, one who is supportive, understands your work as you do, and can provide valuable insight into its shortcomings.
Realize the limitations of writing groups. Rarely can anyone in a writing group help you with the overall novel because they see it in bits and pieces. Besides, rarely does anyone know anything about the overall structure of a novel. The good critics provide support and creative criticism. The bad ones stifle originality and critique toward the stereotypical. The ugly ones harbor jealousy and unleash harsh criticism.
The first law of getting your work critiqued is: It’s your job to protect your work from criticism. The second law is: Criticism cures delusion. By not accepting criticism, you tend to live with a false reality about how good your writing is. My advice is to put your work out there to good critics for a while, perhaps even a couple of years, but eventually, you should quit. Writing tends to correct itself if you do it long enough because your craft matures.
WORKING WITH AN EDITOR
Many writers work with a professional editor, and they pay them for their expertise. By a professional editor, I mean one with a B.A. in English at least and preferably an M.A. You can have them both story edit and copy edit. You don’t run onto these people at the corner drugstore, but look around on the Internet. You just might find someone who can really help you. Always have your manuscript professional edited before you send it to an agent or publisher.
Everyone who engages in this activity should remember that critiquing is, by its very nature, illicit. It’s a violation of the author/reader contract. The reader and the author have an agreement. The first law of imaginative literature is that the author writes fiction as if it is the truth, and the reader suspends disbelief. That is the contract. So any reader who critiques violates that contract since he casts a suspicious eye upon it under the pretext of judging its merits. If you talk to a psychologist, he’ll tell you that, along with the critic’s best intentions, he always comes to the process with a touch of anger, just a smidgen of irritation at the edge of the mind. That’s the nature of critiquing. The critic should keep this in mind while reading the work.
What can we do, as critics of our peers’ work, to redeem the situation? Several laws apply. The first law of critiquing is the same as it is for doctors: First and foremost, do no harm. This is a great deal more difficult than you might think. The inclination is to critique toward the stereotypical and stifle creativity to protect conventional standards for writing. The standard rules, however, all go out the window for fiction. The work establishes its own standards, and the role of the critic is then to judge the effectiveness of the writing, whether it impacts the reader. Each of us will have different opinions on that, since we all have different tastes in fiction. Critiquing is subjective. Samuel R. Delany’s science fiction novel Dhalgren starts this way:
to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.
All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle…83
What would you do with this in a critique group? Go on, admit it. You’d trash it. Yet, it passed the scrutiny of world-class editors.
The second law of critiquing is: Praise the art and critique the craft. But can art and craft be separated? Here are some definitions I find useful:
Art: (1) the conscious use of skill and creative imagination,84 (2) the application of skill, knowledge, etc., in a creative effort to produce works that have form or beauty, esthetic expression of feeling, etc.85
Craft: (1) skill in planning, making or executing,86 (2) skill or ingenuity in any calling, especially in a manual employment.87
As you can see, art and craft tend to merge in these definitions. I would prefer to define them as follows:
Art: That uncontrollable element of the work that comes from inspiration.
Craft: That element of the work under the control of the author.
Although they do tend to separate in these definitions, the two are still Siamese twins, inseparable but somehow distinguishable. Learn to recognize the difference and critique with a planned, compassionate strategy instead of “shooting from the hip.” Being supportive of the artistic elements will encourage the writer, and he will always appreciate knowing the imperfections in his craft.
Don’t critique toward what you like, but toward strengthening the elements already in the work. Hemingway would be shredded in a writing group. His prose is too stark and sparse. Faulkner would be laughed out of the room. His opening to The Sound and the Fury is practically unreadable unless you know the narrator is unreliable: a thirty-three year old mentally retarded man. If we could have gotten our hands on that before it was published, we could have “straightened it out.”
The third law of critiquing is: It’s not your job to save the author from himself. Unburden yourself as a critic. Realize that the author is responsible for his own work, and that if you don’t get your say, if you occasionally or even repeatedly pull your punches, the world may be a better place for it.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young admirer:
Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.88
(a) Make a list of the ways you plan to get your novel critiqued while in the process of writing it. (b) Develop a plan for getting the complete ms critiqued before making the final edits. (c) Make a list of your skills that qualify you to critique someone else’s work. (d) Write a paragraph on your particular critiquing method.