Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Writing Lesson #9: Fix It In the Rewrite

Anyone watching writers on TV might get the impression that the first draft comes out perfect. There's never any indication of the endless rewriting that occurs in real life.

I don’t let anyone read my first draft. It comes out in a barely coherent form. With the lessons learned from previous novels, by the time I finished SUFFER THE CHILDREN, and started on the amateur sleuth novel, my priority was to get to the end of the first draft by whatever means necessary.

That tends to mean leaving huge plot holes and scenes that don’t make sense alone, resisting the urge to fiddle with them until Draft 2. If I am struggling with a particular scene, but I know how the next one goes, I might actually skip it completely, leaving a note to myself in the manuscript that says something like, “Character X has to learn about the affair here”, or whatever.

Therefore, when I get to the end of the first draft, what I tend to have is a horribly deformed mass, ugly and clunky with huge chunks missing. So I make a start on Draft 2 fairly swiftly, using my notes to try and fix what’s wrong. By the end of Draft 2 or maybe Draft 3 – depending on how much there is to fix – I will generally be ready for outside opinions. So I submit it to the writing group. By this point I am aware there are still things wrong, but I can no longer be objective about what they are – I’m too close to the manuscript. This is why my system of saving each chapter of each draft in a separate document serves me well. I find it easier to go back and fiddle with chapters this way.

Once the writing group have pulled the manuscript to pieces, I will make a start on the major overhaul that will become the next draft (3 or 4, by this stage). After that, it’s another major rewrite, to fix any new major problems that have been unearthed in the overhaul. Hopefully, by the time I get to Draft 5, I have reached a ‘minor amendments and polishing’ stage.

The Final Draft is normally Draft 7 or 8. Ultimately, you can carry on rewriting something forever more. This is the first lesson about rewrites. There comes a point when you have to say, “It’s done.” When I arrive at that stage, that’s the point at which I put the whole manuscript into one document and tidy up the page numbers, formatting and word count.

With DEATH SCENE, I think I arrived at this stage at Draft 6, and just over two years after I started the first draft – a marked improvement on the ten years it took me to complete SUFFER THE CHILDREN. However, it's undergone several rewrites since being accepted for publication, and the version that will eventually be published will be very different from the version that I decided was the final one.

Because this is the other lesson about rewrites. No matter how many times you rewrite, and how good your manuscript is, when it gets picked up by a publisher, there will always be more edits.

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