Sunday, 25 October 2009

All writing is rewriting

Read over your compositions and when you meet a passage that you think particularly fine, strike it out. Samuel Johnson.
I try to leave out the parts other people skip.
Elmore Leonard.

Writing anything can involve such a huge effort that many people feel they can't face the redraft. And yet without the redraft, have we really written anything at all? Professional writers talk a great deal about the number of drafts they have gone through. But this doesn't mean they have started all over again.(Although of course it might, as I did with a novel last year. More of that later.)

Without the intention and committment to redrafting, a writer is unlikely to move their writing to a more complete and professional footing, where it will attract the attention of the industry. So how should we engage with the rewriting process without feeling that we will never finish the work?

I thought the best way to answer this would be by outlining the process I went through with my forthcoming novel, HIDDEN. I wrote the first draft of the novel in six months, quite quickly really. But along the way I was part of a critique group who were giving me feedback on themes, chapters, character development, etc. I didn't write alone.

Once the first draft was completed I happened to meet an editor, Gill Evans, from Walker Books and also I was taken on by an agent. However, the novel was rejected by the editor, who gave me a page of suggestions for rewrites. But I had moved on to a second novel, my agent continued to submit HIDDEN and I didn't do the rewrites. At the end of the year the agent dropped out of the business. So I had no agent and no publisher. I felt lost. I also felt that my manuscript needed a thorough rewrite.
I spent the Christmas holidays struggling with the comments from Walker books, other critique feedback and re-reading books which I felt underpinned the voice I was looking for with my main character.

At the beginning of 2008 I started HIDDEN again, with a whole new, exciting voice which had emerged from all my thinking and reading and struggling. It was worth it. By the end of 2008 I had a new agent who had made very useful suggestions for rewrites and had begun submitting. The journey was not yet over but I felt I was on a more certain path.

In September 2009 I was signed by my new publisher, Meadowside Children's Books. So that's it you might think, no more rewriting. But no, the industry doesn't work like that. My new editor,Lucy Cuthew, had an excellent range of suggestions to improve the book and this is my work for the rest of this year.
How do I feel about yet more rewrites? I'm loving it.

So what am I doing? Correcting grammar and spelling? No, that's the job of the copy editor.

Rewriting involves a new engagement with the text, new inspiration, taking your mind on a walk down a new path, to see the chapters, passages, themes, in a new light. Rewriting is your chance to enrich your text or remove the unnecessary parts and create an even better book than the earlier draft.

Regard all of your writing as rewriting, right from the start. Don't be afraid of rewrites. Redrafting should be an enjoyable and exciting experience which takes you deeper into the world you have created. Your imagination gets another chance to take off and follow themes which perhaps got lost in earlier drafts.

Writing a novel is the marathon of the writing profession. We cannot expect to get it all down in even two or three goes. The more practice we have in rewriting, the easier it gets.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Throw nothing away.

I have kept notebooks most of my life and have a cupboard full of them. Reading back through a couple of notebooks recently I found two poems which I had forgotten about and I'm working on them with a fresh eye and inspiration.

In the last three years my notebooks have been full of notes, thoughts, character studies, landscape descriptions, relating to my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island.

Here is an extract from one of my notebooks. It is written on the beach on Hayling Island during a visit to work on my novels and most of the material in this extract has found its way into the finished texts.

On the small narrow beach I always think of as Mum's beach, a long finger reaching out eastwards across the Solent and ending in the yacht club. Winter, but warm in a strong blue sunlight. I clamber down the grassy dune and suddenly I am here again and completely alone. No-one comes here in winter. The dog walkers stay on the other side, the sailors drive on the rough road to the club.

Here the sand is pure, soft and white beneath the low cliff, hard packed and fringed with green along the tidal line. I love tide in or tide out. At tide out the beach flattens out and my footprints sink satisfylingly deep. Brent geese from Canada, in winter migration, bob on the mirrored ripples. I collect driftwood, shells and pebbles.

At the head of Sandy Point the sand stretches out beyond the yacht club, beyond the boats tethered on the beach. Here the sand is white and gold, deep soft and luxurious, hardly ever used. Bathers never come here in summer. The sea holds hidden dangers, secret whirlpools to suck you down. This is a forgotten hideaway, a beach I used to come to with Mum when she was alive and we walked the dogs and later I ran with my kids.
Further west before the tourist beaches, covered with pebbles now to prevent the Island washing into the sea, there is the Lifeboat Station. Generations of men have launched from here into the waters that can rise twenty feet at the neap tide. On weekend afternoons you can wander in and volunteers sell RNLI souvenirs to raise money. I always buy something, usually a notebook and a pen......

Keep all your notes, scraps of paper with interesting words, sentences, paragraphs, all your notebooks and your drafts. Read back through them sometimes and discover the hidden nuggets for new inspiration.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Whose head are we in?

In my workshops we often discuss creating and holding a point of view in fiction. Why is this important? David Lodge in 'The Art of Fiction', maintains that when the writer constantly shifts the point of view "the reader's involvement ..'production'of the meaning of the text, will be disturbed."

Jumping around, in and out of many character's heads, makes it almost impossible for the reader to settle down and enter the 'fictional dream' of the story. Put more simply, Tish Farrell,says, "Find the right narrative point of view (POV) and your story's voice will ring clear and true. But mix up your viewpoints and you risk losing both reader and plot."

So what should the writer do?
When writing any piece of fiction - short story or novel, it is important to decide
from the outset whose story you are telling. You may decide on one voice for your story or two or three. But once you have made this decision, these are the only POVs the reader should have to commit to. Switching viewpoints from paragraph to paragraph, simply because you cannot work out how to show something from the single POV,won't work. The reader will not trust your voice and will put the book down.
Almost anything a writer wants to show can be achieved by the single POV. It is not necessary to be inside a character's head to find out about them. After all, in real life, we are only inside out own heads. Yet we successfully interact with a huge range of people. This is because we weigh up others by their actions and their words.
Action and dialogue are two of the most important tools for the writer. These are the tools by which we 'show' our character, rather than 'tell' in long, boring info-dumps, all the details of their lives and characteristics.

Commit to a POV for your novel, step into your character's shoes and revel in the challenge of holding your POV for the next 50,000 words. Its a wonderful place to be.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Raising the Human Spirit.

Melvin Burgess raised the concept of the human spirit in our characters during a recent Arvon creative writing course he lead with Malorie Blackman and which I attended this summer. So what does he mean?

"The human spirit," says Melvin, "shows how people keep on trying and living and making relationships in the most dreadful of circumstances." In his latest novel, Nicholas Dane, he evokes the character of Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist, a man who seems to be pure evil. But Melvin contends that Sykes was an abused child.

In Nicholas Dane, Melvin explores the experiences of abused children. The Sykes character is Jonesey, a violent criminal who abuses his girlfriend. Yet in a memorable scene, Melvin depicts another more mellow side to Jonesey and shows us his 'human spirit.' For Melvin, the human spirit lies in the bonds between people. "I think of the human spirit," writes Melvin. "as always moving towards the light. You don't always get there - but never stop moving!"
On the Arvon course and in our blog since, many of us have debated further this idea. It seems to me that everyone has something of the human spirit in them but sometimes we forget to show it in our characters.

Remember to show your characters as complex and multi-layered,just as we all are in real life. Even the most awful characters should have a moment when they offer a glimpse of another side, the possibility of the human spirit. The writer should be able to show such a moment with any character at some point in the text.