Saturday, 15 January 2011

Getting my hands dirty

I'm making what feels like good progress with the novel rewrite, and thought I'd share something of the experience, new things I've learnt, old things I've ditched, or done differently. The first thing to say is what a difference having an agent and an editor makes! Not just because they've armed me with a blueprint for what needs to change, but because they so clearly have faith in my ability to do this. Too often in the past I've lost faith or enthusiasm at this stage in a writing project. Sometimes this is because I can't see what's wrong with a story or how to put it right. But it's usually got more to do with the fact that I need independent, expert validation of the concept and its execution. I'm fortunate enough to have that validation this time around. It's freed me from my usual diffidence and dithering. I'm swiping the red pen through swathes of text. Liberating? You bet.

In the past, my approach has been... cautious, to say the least. I liked to write out, in detail, notes for what I had to do and how I'd do it. If I made too mistakes on a page of notes, I'd tear it out and write it again, more neatly this time. I would sometimes transpose the same notes from one Moleskine to another, partly because I believed that the repeated act of writing the notes would help the sense to seep into my head and my hands, making the eventual typing of it more powerful. This time around, I sped through, scribbling brief notes that prompted me to remember where new stuff needed to go. I did it quickly because I wanted to maintain momentum. I knew I could go back and fill in the gaps later.

One of the chief challenges of this rewrite was completely changing a character. Age, name, motive, personality, all had to change. But the action taken, which propelled the plot at a vital moment in the story, had to remain the same. So in effect I was retrofitting character to action. One thing I learnt is that you can't create a character in notes alone. I made copious notes over the Christmas break, as to what and who and why this character would be. But it wasn't until I started writing the character's debut in the story that I really understood the voice and what it meant for who this person really was. Accept no substitutes, for black on white.

Some of my old habits have remained. I am still filling - and refilling - the manila Moleskines. I review them each night, re-reading what I've written to see if it fits with what I've done in the ms that day. But I'm learning to trust my instinct, which is essential for a writer. If I have a vague feeling that something isn't - or is - working, then it probably isn't, or is. This is the biggest difference for me, this time around. It's an instinct that needs honing, probably always will. But I trust it. And that makes all the difference.

10 comments:

MG said...

Excellent, good work!
It's tough but will put hairs on your chest...

Sarah Hilary said...

Do I want hairs on my chest?! I suppose I'll save money on vests...

Jarmara Falconer said...

Wow what a lot of hard work you have ahead of you. I love to learn how other writers work. Thank you for sharing it.

C. N. Nevets said...

Fleece vests are inexpensive.

Glad you're getting the confidence you need and the guidance that lets you be liberated to edit as you need.

Keep it up!

Sarah Hilary said...

Yes, a long way still to go, Jamara, but I'm enjoying the journey.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, C.N. I'll check out those fleece vests of which you speak.

Tania Hershman said...

It sounds like you a really interesting learning process, thanks for sharing it with us. I think we've all been there in the "copying the notes out neatly" situation, brings back my A Level-many -coloured-notes obsession!

Sarah Hilary said...

Tania, I want to hear more about your coloured notes obsession! My father was a teacher and was sent on a course when I was doing my O Levels - taught me the "bubble method" of revising. I prefer longhand notes, though. Something about writing prose about a character helps me to get at the truth. I'm proud of the fact I've gone through two ink pens (disposable!) just writing notes for this rewrite.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

What an extraordinary thing to be doing - fitting an existing character with new clothes and personality, and life! What fun to see how each thing you do changes what's there - thanks for sharing, S - x

Sarah Hilary said...

It is extraordinary, Vanessa, you're right. I had to keep drawing back every aspect of the "new" character to the action already taken - checking that it fitted with that. New perspectives!