I told myself I’m editing my manuscript. I was going to say “my new manuscript” but it’s actually the oldest of the three unfinished books I have waiting to be finished. So, I told myself I was editing. This lasted for about three paragraphs before I had to admit the truth: editing is when you have something relatively complete. What I had to do with these 135 pages of mess was to rework it into something relatively complete that merited editing. Welcome to Re-world.
Words beginning with re tend to be positive, don’t you find? Recycle, of course, and also reuse and restore, and recover, and many more. And then there’s rewording. Rephrasing. Revising. Positive as these may be, just like the good words above, they are not exactly the most pleasant of undertakings.
I’ve wondered why it is that when you write a text, parts of it look and sound so wonderfully flawless you allow yourself a moment of quiet but deep pride in the fact you could create something so wonderfully flawless. A few months later, you read the same text and shudder with horror at the nonsense that stares at you from the page. Provided the text was written sober and read sober a few months later, this is one of the great mysteries of the human brain for me.
There are two ways to deal with the horror: you throw it all away or you start fixing it. In keeping with my general minimum-waste policy I went the fixing way. Which meant I spent a few hours (not all in one go) staring at pages containing what I used to think was pretty good writing when I wrote it but turned out to be complete drivel when I read it. The story required a complete rewriting. This, of course, meant the death of a lot of darlings — scenes and characters.
One might think it’s not such a big deal to remove a scene or a character from a story but that’s only true for those with a lot of experience, I suppose. I still take all my characters personally, I like them all and I hate to see them go. And scenes? Some scenes could be so brilliant in their own right but if they can’t find a place in the new reworked story, they’d have to go. That’s a lot of brilliance lost and this is sad. Even sadder is that nobody but me will ever know about it. Excuse me while I wipe a tear of grief.
Okay, I may have tuned up the drama there. If a scene is so brilliant, there is usually a way to keep it and share the brilliance with the world. If a scene is good enough, then it would help move the narrative forward and it would not deserve to die. It would have to be reworked, of course, but it will survive.
It’s the same with characters: I have this lovely evil character who’s not so much evil as simply having a perspective different from the perspective of the Good Ones in the story. In the first draft she was the Ultimate Evil along with another character. Now, I don’t need two of them so, in a way, they will both need to die. From another perspective, though, they will both survive… just not in their original form. (This is my latest favourite idea that struck me last night in bed while I was listening to Megaherz.)
Reworking a story is by far the hardest part of writing for me. It’s also largely unpleasant because the re part here means I didn’t get things right the first time. Yet it is also surprisingly satisfying. At this point, I already know my characters quite well and I know which parts of the first draft simply can’t work with these characters and this story I want to tell. The reworking part — the second draft for this book — also helps me understand what the story actually is. No matter how much I try to plan and outline, no matter how much I want the outline and planning to work they never do from the first try not as well as I want them to.
So I rework. I reword and rephrase, and rearrange and revise, and then revise again. It’s not as much fun as writing proper but it is, in a way, a lot more gratifying. If, as per Stephen King, writing a story is like unearthing a fossil, then the writing proper, the first draft, is the uncovering part. The subsequent drafts, the often tedious, no-fun-at-all, even tortuous work is the part where you painstakingly clean up all the bits to reveal the shape you’ve uncovered with the first draft. I told you it was gratifying.