Arrows and crossings-out: The fun of rewriting

“I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.” — Susan Sontag

editingI think I prefer editing to writing. But then, how can we separate them? As Robert Graves said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

If some cruel person was to rifle through my papers (good luck) and read my first drafts, I would be caught out at once. I don’t necessarily think of myself as a bad writer when I’m actually writing the first draft, because usually I’m deluded by the flow of the story, but if I judged myself by those initial attempts I would not be mad enough to call myself a writer.

Of course, there are those first drafts I have to know to abandon entirely. I have to recognise when something is just way too rough to stand a chance of being turned into anything that will shine.

All of this is part of the fun of first drafts. You can let yourself be bad, get things down quickly, think “I’ll fix that later,” put dashes in for words you need to find or facts you need to check, but this only works if you have faith in the rewriting.

I always write the first and second drafts longhand in full. Typing is too seductive. The words come too quickly. You put five where you need one. Typing is a lot less thoughtful, it has all the wrong flow. So after I have my sheets of lined paper filled I leave them for a couple of days and then get out some more, have the first lot on my desk for reference and rewrite the whole thing. The second draft is never much better than the first. But I begin to know the story better, it’s less about a crazy flow of a story and word association and starts to get a structure. I still don’t know what I want to say though.

I will then type up the second draft, print it out and leave it for a while. A while can mean a few days or a few weeks. I have lots of other things to work on. I rotate drafts like a production line. Hoping they will come out a little better at each step.

Leaving drafts for a while is sometimes enough for me to be confused by some things a reader would be confused by, things I haven’t made clear enough, and to let go of some of the bits I find charming but are useless. To be less self-indulgent. To kill a few of my darlings.

The first thing I find myself scratching out (using pen on the printed copy) is explication. Things I needed explaining to myself when I was figuring out the story while I wrote, but that really don’t need explaining to a reader. It’s better to imagine your reader as more intelligent than they really are, rather than stupider. I know I’m reading bad writing when the writer feels the need to tell me every thought a character has, to give me the reasons for a character eating toast or lighting a fire. That’s something all bad writers have in common and it’s the main reason I throw books against the wall. One example from a couple of my drafts:

Her face looked kind in the streetlights that were faint against the riotous sky. She stepped back and I went inside. There was no smoke, only a clean dark.

This should become:

Her face looked kind in the streetlights that were faint against the riotous sky. She stepped back and I went inside. There was no smoke inside, only a clean dark.

Obviously the woman has let the narrator inside, because the rest of the story continues in the house. The reader would roll their eyes at me pointing it out.

In the fourth draft this became:

Her face looked kind in the streetlights. There was no smoke inside, only a clean dark.

Yes, those adjectives were beautiful, but they weren’t doing anything. In fact, they detracted from the mindset the narrator is in, in shock and sort of detached. She notices a lot, but she doesn’t have space in her head for those kind of flowery thoughts.

After I have got rid of a lot of the “fat” of a story – unnecessarily explication, description and pure wordage – I need to figure out what I’m trying to say.

My first draft flows from a single image, place or relationship. I don’t know anything about the plot, so I discover it as I go along. But this means that even by the third draft I don’t have a concrete sense of what the story is trying to say. So I read it a few times. Think about all the images and people that have come onto the page without much interference from me. In other words, I need to bring the story out of my unconscious and into my conscious mind. I have to analyse my own work, as I’d do in an English essay.

Once I half understand what is going on, I can see if the structure works fine or needs fixing. Sometimes a lot of the story simply needs to be excised, because it is overkill or just a distraction. Sometimes a character has to be taken out or one put in. Things I don’t ever remember having to change are the point of view or the ending. For some reason those things come in the right way, or they are just so attached to the story I’ve got on the page that I couldn’t change them without writing something completely different.

The beginning is another matter. This is the start of the first draft of the story I quoted from above:

The branches were ochre-painted against the sky. The debris of clay, watery, soft. The sky all grey and red. As the trees blew over the leaves pressed one way like hands, they were spread with stuff of clay. The sky was a fire itself, orange in the middle, ash-coloured outside. Everything was caught in the gust and smoke, the drying, firing, and might later be glazed.

I have already admitted my first drafts wouldn’t let anyone guess I call myself a writer. That came out of a real smoky afternoon when I was just looking out my window describing what I was seeing. Too dull for an opening. Too much. The reader doesn’t yet care. It’s just a collection of phrases, trying to grasp something visually and symbolically powerful. By the fourth draft, the beginning of the story became:

A pair of lorikeets streaked across the sky, greener than the greenery. All the plants were drained in the smoke. Only things with heartbeats kept their colour. I looked at my skin. It seemed all right, but the pores were no doubt gaping in the smoke.

In the first draft, those ideas were there, but they needed to be condensed. That image of the lorikeets returns at the end, so I wondered what it would look like at the beginning of the story too. Something is happening, some movement, and something that might make the reader wonder, though that story has quite a few more drafts to endure before it becomes respectable.

It is only through rewriting that my ideas become plain to me, or as plain as they’ll ever be. It is the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I need to pare back so the good things can show themselves. I need to cross out, make additions in the margins, explain what should be explained and take out what the reader would roll her eyes at. I find ideas I didn’t know I had. I find connections I didn’t know were there, buried in unexpected places. It’s my job to unearth them for the reader so that she can discover them for herself. And probably a whole lot more I never realised was there.

“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman

“Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in the edit.” — Will Self


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