Flaubert, who redrafted obsessively, said, ‘It’s never finished; there is always something to do over,’ (Conrad 1990: 204)[i] Tolstoy, Joyce and Fitzgerald kept reworking right through until the printing presses rolled (and sometimes beyond), and Hemingway claimed, “I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied”. (Dick 1972: 175)[ii]
I began my novel The Former Boy Wonder in 2012, and clearly I have worked on it a good many years, during which most of my time was spent not writing but rewriting. In folders dated by month and year, I have all the evidence that this is the case. I would like to consider this experience and reflect on the role redrafting plays in writing prose fiction.
Chaos to Order
Redrafting begins with a draft, and a draft comes out of an inchoate mess. As John Singleton suggests, “We should start with mess and stay with it as long as possible. Mess in my view is the first and most critical phrase of composition.”(Graham et al 2014: 33) [iii] In the beginning, I had a solitary idea: middle-aged man meets first love at a party. This evolved, and the man in question became someone with father issues. Next, there would be a party at the beginning when the protagonist as a young man meets this first love. This led to the parties forming a bookended structure for the novel. Using parties as settings prompted me to adopt two novels where parties performed similar purposes: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. And so on. In this fashion, I arrived at a first draft, which was hopefully not as inchoate as the material I began with, but still perhaps as close to mess as order. In a talk to my students a few years ago, the writer David Gaffney said, “You write your novel and then you plan it.” Once you have a draft, you have something to work with; once you have something to work with, redrafting begins – because, as Stephen King has said, all writing is re-writing.
Redrafting involved giving all of my attention to an existing draft and reflecting on how I might improve and develop it. George V. Higgins has this advice: ‘It is necessary to remember at all times, especially when most frustrated and cranky, that the writer is always at the mercy of his story.’ (Higgins 1991: 85) [iv] The essence of redrafting was studying what I had written and thinking about it and deciding what needed to be done. Being at the mercy of the story meant concentrating on it and seeing what it said to me. It has often felt as if the novel you are writing already exists on the far side of consciousness, in another world. In this way, too, the writer is at the mercy of the story. It’s almost as if the story is broadcasting its nature from this other world and if writers can tune into the correct frequency they will be able to import it into this world. They strain with all their might to try and get down on paper this story they can hear from the other side, and that listening process will help them decide what to cut. Finding this other world has to do with tuning in to the part of the mind where it exists, as Michèle Roberts explains: ‘The unconscious is part of yourself: it’s like this big country which sends you messages if you tune in and do your work.’ (Monteith et al 2004: 128) [v]
When importing a novel from this other place, where a perfect version of it is already in existence, one of the important things to consider is what belongs in the novel. To do this, writers need a clear understanding of what it’s actually about, what it concerns. If they know what the story is about, they will know what to leave in, what to take out and what to add. ‘The writer,’ John Gardner says, ‘sharpens and clarifies his ideas, or finds out exactly what it is that he must say, testing his beliefs against reality as the story represents it, by examining every element in the story for its possible implications with regard to his theme.’ (Gardner 1991: 70) [vi]
Paying Attention / Macro and Micro
In my experience, all redrafting activity can be reduced to these three words: attention, reflection and revision. I paid attention to the drafts, reflected on what I saw there and revised it. Everything I did in the process was with the aim of making the novel what it should be. As Jane Smiley suggests: ‘Your only task is to let what you have talk back to you and teach you what is missing or superfluous or not quite right, and then to suggest what would be better than what you have.(Checkaway 1999: 249) [vii] When I redraft, I look at what I have written with a view to improving and developing it. This involves revising and remaking the most significant aspects of the story: plot, character, narrative tension, structure, chronology, tone. Here I have sought to improve the larger elements of the story by working below the surface, beneath line-level. Macro-editing. The other side, micro-editing, involved line-level tasks: vocabulary choices, accuracy, concision, syntax, sentences, rhythm, paragraphs. An example of my macro-editing might be to do with the way I structured the novel, for example, making the narrative strand set in the past chronological, and an example of my micro-editing might be re-ordering a sentence to group together words that are related.
Perspective / The unconscious
If redrafting is to be effective, distance and perspective are needed. Each time I approached a significant new draft I had to step away from the work and create some space. ‘The greater the distance, the clearer the view.’ W.G. Sebald wrote. ‘One sees the tiniest details with the utmost clarity’(Sebald 2002: 19) [viii] Distance lends perspective. When you’re in the forest you can’t see the wood for the trees, but if you leave the woods and stand on a hill, you may be able to see the full picture. This is the secret to redrafting. You need distance to gain perspective, and distance will always involve time. I have had periods of up to eighteen months away from the project, which was always fruitful, and I would say that to reach any significant perspective, I needed to distance myself from the draft for at least a month. Distancing myself from the work meant that I could come back to it fresh, but alongside that I believe the space left my unconscious mind free to go to work on what I had produced. Janet Burroway’s recommendation is: ‘Put it away. Don’t look at it for a matter of days or weeks — until you feel fresh on the project. In addition to getting some distance on your story, you’re nailing it to your unconscious’.[ix] Why? Because as Dorothea Brande puts it, ‘an excellent piece of art… takes shape and has its origin outside the region of the conscious intellect.’ (Brande 1934: 149) [x] Further to that, Brande suggests that the conscious element co-labours with the unconscious so that the functions of each complement one another:
The unconscious must flow freely and richly, bringing at demand all the treasures of memory, all the emotions, incidents, scenes, intimations of character and relationship which it has stored away in its depths; the conscious mind must control, combine, and discriminate between these materials without hampering the unconscious flow.’ (Brande 1934: 45-6) [xi]
Given space, the unconscious will throw up ideas that will bear fruit, but it takes the conscious mind to consider these ideas and decide what to do with them. In an early hiatus, as I’ve said, the idea came to me of presenting chronologically the material that was set in the past of the novel. It was a possibility that excited me, but before responding, I reflected on the value of this potential change. In a 2013 notebook, I wrote that one advantage of making the past of the novel chronological would be that “the reader would be equipped with the necessary material one piece at a time and that this would make it have a cumulative effect”. The unconscious sent me an idea and the conscious mind helped me decide whether or not to use it.
Another writer who came to speak to my students recently was the novelist Jenn Ashworth, who had interesting advice about macro- and micro-editing and recommended that the novelist should be her own triage nurse. It is easy to duck addressing the larger issues and instead settle down to the arguably less demanding redrafting task of tinkering with the prose. When editing, Jenn argued, we should first consider the significant decisions we are faced with – plot, setting, the load bearing structure.
For me a considerable part of my macro-editing, my beneath the surface redrafting, has been focused on re-ordering. ‘I wrote and rewrote sections and moved them around until I had what I wanted,’ is the way Roddy Doyle describes the process. (Monteith et al 2004: 64) [xii] In redrafting TFBW, I spend a good deal of time moving around pieces of text of various sizes. Making the narrative strand set in the past chronological was a significant alteration to the structure, and from beginning to end of the composition of this novel I have made many changes of this order of magnitude. Chapters have been known to move around. However, often the re-ordering was low-level and might consist of breaking up bits of information that are grouped together in the space of a page or two. In the first draft, when Peter Duffy, the viewpoint character, arrives at Loston Manor, the country house where a party that initiates the narrative strand of the past takes place, I included a wealth of detail (the approach to the house, the coloured lights on the façade, the sounds of the party, the clumps of people and snatches of conversation – very many details). Coming back to that draft, I would could see that the level of description involved slowed the story down. An easy way round this was to break this block of description down into smaller passages and drop them in later in the story, sprinkled here and there as it progresses.
Another higher-level re-ordering has to do with dramatic impact rather than chronology. One such revision arose because, when I get some distance and perspective on my first draft, I saw that the scene where Peter deduces that his father has betrayed him would be more significant to the story if it came at a different point in the novel. Similarly, distance revealed to me that I was reinforcing a characteristic more than I needed to. Lucy, Peter’s wife, was originally shown to be formidable in four scenes, but I realised that less would be more (also that readers don’t need to be given information that they have already absorbed) and cut a lengthy scene in the bookshop she runs.
The writer does not approach the task of revision all by himself. When it comes to freshness, one would be hard pressed to beat the perspective readers bring to a piece of writing. They might only confirm things that the writers themselves know, but often they will see things that the writer cannot – because they are not the writer. Early on, I developed the habit of farming my work out to others who would generously look at it and offer their responses. Sometimes these readers are friends, but most of the feedback on my work that I have had has been given by the members of writers’ workshops that I have been a member of. The workshop not only offers writers an informed, critical audience, it also builds confidence in the work they submit to it and helps them believe in the validity of their work.
Workshops afford the writer a considerable amount of feedback. The workshops I have been in during the composition of this novel have had up to ten members and while most of the feedback is helpful, some of it will not be. The novelist Madison Smartt Bell has written about the limitations of workshop feedback and among other things suggests that ‘Fiction workshops are inherently incapable of recognising success…The attitude of the group towards the work is surgical. A process of dissection is going on. The text is handled as a machine in need of repair.’ (Smartt Bell 1997: 6) [xiii] This has been my experience: that its members enter a workshop with one question uppermost in their minds: What’s wrong with this piece? That, and How can we make it better? There are two problems with this. First of all, it would be possible to take a diagnostic view of any piece of published fiction, by anyone from Charles Dickens to Hilary Mantel and find something wrong with it; perhaps there will always be a flaw in any writing. And secondly, although once could find fault with any draft, it will not be helpful for the writer to keep on improving it – not if he or she plans to write another novel. But my experience has been that most workshop feedback has benefited my novel.
My approach to processing feedback from my readers is two-fold. I take note of everything that everyone says unless it is clearly stupid – very rare. Then I live with the advice for a while and if the suggestions still appeal a few weeks later, I try to act on them. Also, I consider whether a suggestion is an isolated one – in which case it may be unhelpful – or a view held by several readers. If the latter, I will certainly give it serious consideration. An example of feedback I received that was shared by several readers is Peter’s relationship with Lucy. One suggested that what was missing from the novel was her story. Another that the relationship needed more shape and more substance. It needed, they felt, to develop as the novel moves forward. Another reader suggested that their relationship felt static, that it was more of an ongoing situation than a plot. Because more than one reader felt that Lucy, in various ways, needed work, I grappled with it long and hard. (And I say “long”, because this concern was expressed over a period of years.) The solution I came up with was to open our Lucy’s character. As I have intimated earlier, Lucy’s dominant characteristic was being formidable. To try to address the consistent feedback I had had, I decided to show a vulnerable side to her. Whether or not this works remains too be seen, but my point here is that I would not have struggled with Lucy had I not had feedback from several sources. Most redrafting is dependent on the writer’s own insights. (Sadly, no one else is interested enough to come back to the novel nearly as often as the author.) The input of readers and workshops, though, is a significant redrafting tool.
In The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist, Thomas McCormack talks about ‘the dermal’ flaw. (McCormack 1988: 16) [xiv]The dermal, he contends, consists of blemishes on the surface of the novel and he lists a good many examples of them:
Failures of diction, grace, freshness, materiality, credibility, pace, vividness, understandability, interest…clichés, repetitions, stale modifiers, abstract generalities where concrete specificities are needed; phrases, images, and metaphors that simply misfire. (McCormack 1988: 17) [xv]
Like many writers, I suspect, I find line-level redrafting easier than attending to flaws beneath the surface, and over the years my line-level work has developed so that by the time I came to work on this novel, I had developed a substantial number of surface redrafting tasks. I will not be able to give illustrations of all of them, my to-do list for this form of revision would include editing (removing extraneous words, phrases, sentences and passages and de-cluttering sentences, for example); refining (cutting, distilling, rephrasing and re-arranging in order to hone the language); sharpening the vocabulary to make the writing more effective (what Flaubert called seeking le mot just, the right word); eliminating what John Gardner calls ‘needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness’ (Gardner 1991: 98) [xvi] (“The fly was trapped in the web” rather than “He noticed the fly trapped in the web”); replacing the passive with the active; correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar; ensuring that I am saying what I intend to say; weeding out vocabulary repeats; making sure to use concrete rather than abstract nouns; and hunting down clichés to ensure the writing is fresh. If I look through my notebooks, I can see many examples of line-level edits of these various kinds. Here, I made an alteration because a sentence was too similar in structure to the one that preceded it.
This touches on an important aspect of redrafting: revision doesn’t just entail eliminating poor material; sometimes you will have to eliminate good work, too. The idea that writers should kill their darlings has variously been attributed to William Faulkner, G.K. Chesterton and Kurt Vonnegut Jnr. It does not much matter who said it, the advice is good. Not necessarily easy though. Those darlings were hard to come by. You sat at your desk and laboured hard to come up with your 500 or 100 words per day and now you’re faced with cutting hundreds or thousands of words. It can be painful, but, as Isaac Bashevis Singer observed, “The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend”. That said, in the quest to perfect it is possible to go too far. More than once, I cut a whole scene at one stage of the redrafting only to decide weeks or months later, it might become apparent that this scene, perhaps with a nip and a tuck, is valuable enough to retain. For example, I cut a scene at a school parents’ night when (again) Lucy behaves in a forceful manner. When I came back to it, I could see that while, yes, this was another scene that showed how formidable she is, it demonstrated that she is a protective parent who is devoted to her son.
Cutting is central to the process of revision, but sometimes redrafting will require the opposite. I like the story of the sculptor who was asked how he made such life-like sculptures of his subjects: ‘I start with a block of stone and then I remove everything that doesn’t look like the subject.’ This is what I have just been discussing. However, editing may involve putting in as much as cutting out. In How We Write, Mike Sharples talks of composing “as a cycle of contemplating ideas, specifying plans and intentions, composing text and interpreting the text, leading to further ideas and continued composition”. He suggests that the three stages of writing – planning, composing and revising – are spiral, not linear. Any one stage is as important as the others. More than this, each stage is dependent on the others. Of revising, he says that looking at the first draft “prompts the writer to interpret it and contemplate ways in which the plan could be extended, leading to a new round of planning”. (Sharples 1999: 71-73) [xvii] Invention leads to revision, but revision leads to more invention. In revising TFBW, I often wrote new material to insert. Sometimes this was a significant amount of new writing, sometimes less so. In a read-through in 2016, I noted that it would generate more narrative tension if Peter arrived at the party that closes the novel – closed at that stage of redrafting, I should say – having already decided that his marriage was over. To communicate this to the reader, I thought of writing a scene where Peter meets with his friend and confidant Bill in which he would say that Jack, his son, would be old enough to cope with his parents splitting up. The rationale for this was that if Peter arrived at the party having decided that his marriage was over the reader might spend the whole of this chapter urging him not to end it. So I wrote the necessary scene, which was 1500 words long.
At the other end of the scale, a read-through in 2019 made me realise that the present-day narrative of the novel was incomplete. Up to that point, the story ended with the party I have just mentioned. Here, Peter found out that he had been comprehensively wrong in what he had thought and done and Lucy abandoned him. At the end of the party and the novel in that draft, all was over for my protagonist. His goal had been to repair his marriage and he had failed. This would have been an ending, and plenty of endings are as sombre, but after feedback from friends and others, I realised that a different conclusion to my novel might be more satisfying for the reader. In the first movement of the story I had established the status quo and demonstrated what needed to change – what my protagonist wanted to change, which, as I say was to repair his damaged relationship with his wife. In the next movement, he sets about accomplishing it, but fails, partly because his strategy is wrong and partly because he gets distracted, enormously, by the sudden possibility of seeing his first love again. Feedback suggested that rather than the end of the party being the point where he throws in the towel, it is when he needs to double down and return to what he tried and failed to achieve; he needs to find a new strategy to achieve his original goal. It would not matter if he tried again and failed again; the important thing was that he did not give up when his original attempt did not succeed. This led to me writing a whole new movement, a third act, essentially that turned out to be 16,000 words long. So, yes, in the course of completing a novel the writer will have to make many cuts, many of which will be painful but often reflecting on an existing draft will reveal the need to generate new material. As Sharples suggests, completing a piece of writing is a cyclical process: plan, compose and revise – and repeat, as necessary.
What the Sharples model implies is that the novel that eventually emerges from the chaos it began with won’t be the novel you had in mind at the start. After, say, six cycles of plan, compose and revise, how much remains of the original concept for the writing? Talking about the way a piece of writing is composed, Annie Dillard articulates this:
You are wrong if you think that in the actual writing, or in the actual painting, you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page…Words lead to other words and down the garden path. You adjust the paints’ values and hues not to the world, not to the vision, but to the rest of the paint… And so you continue to work, and finish it. Probably by now you have been forced to toss out the most essential part of the vision… The work is not the vision itself, certainly. It is not the vision filled in, as if it had been a colouring book. It is not the vision reproduced in time; that were impossible. It is rather a simulacrum and a replacement. (Dillar 2001: 17-18) [xviii]
As writers, we may not be aware of this, but once it is pointed out, I think most of us would agree that it tallies with our experience. The execution of the work never lives up to the original conception, the vision we had for what they work would be. As Willard says, it is a replacement for that vision. Redrafting is the process which leads to that alteration and since we redraft with the intention of improving, we have to hope that the end result is of greater value than the original idea.
Paying Close Attention, Thinking To Some Purpose
Reading to Imitate, Reading To Steal
[i] From a letter by Gustave Flaubert, quoted in Barnaby Conrad, The Complete Guide To Writing Fiction (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990), p 204.
[ii] From Dick, Kay (ed.), (1972) Writers At Work: Interviews from Paris Review. London: Penguin Books. pp. 175-196.
[iii] Singleton, John in Graham R., Leach H. and Newall H., (2014) The Road To Somewhere: A Creative Writing Companion 2nd Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan p 33
[iv] Higgins, George V. On Writing (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), p 85.
[v] Michèle Roberts, interviewed by Jenny Newman in Monteith, Newman, Wheeler (eds.), Contemporary British and Irish Fiction: An Introduction Through Interviews (London: Arnold, 2004), p 128.
[vi] John Gardner, The Art Of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (New York: Vintage, 1991), p 70.
[vii] Jane Smiley. “What Stories Teach Their Writers: The Purpose and Practice of Revision” in Checkoway, Julie (ed.). (1999) Creating Fiction: Instruction and insights from teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati: Story Press. p. 249
[viii] W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (London: Vintage, 2002), p 19.
[ix] Burroway, Janet. (1992) Writing Fiction, A Guide To Narrative Craft. New York: HarperCollins. p. 335.
[x] Dorothea Brande, Becoming A Writer, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1934), p 149
[xi] Brande, pp 45-46.
[xii] Roddy Doyle, interviewed by Pat Wheeler and Jenny Newman in Monteith, Newman, Wheeler (eds.), Contemporary British and Irish Fiction: An Introduction Through Interviews (London: Arnold, 2004), p 64.
[xiii] Madison Smartt Bell from his chapter ‘Unconscious Mind’ in Narrative Design, A Writer’s Guide to Structure (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), pp 6-9.
[xiv] McCormack, Thomas. (1988) The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist. New York: St Martin’s Press. pp. 16 -17.
[xv] Ibid, p 17.
[xvi] Gardner, John The Art Of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (New York: Vintage, 1991), p 98.
[xvii] Sharples, Mike (1999) How We Write. London: Routledge. pp. 71-73.
[xviii] Dillard, Annie, ‘Ruining the Page’ in Mark Robert Waldman (ed.). (2001) The Spirit of Writing: Classic and Contemporary Essays Celebrating the Writing Life. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam. pp. 17-18.