by Zoë Sharp
Do you remember those Larson Far Side cartoons you could get – and probably still can, for that matter? The ones with the kid at the back of the classroom, holding up his hand and saying to the teacher, “Please sir, may I be excused? My brain is full.”
That’s me at the moment.
Or, more likely, that my brain is completely empty. It has all leached out of my ears like something from a Tarantino-directed episode of C.S.I.
I’ve been tackling rewrites.
I have a kind of love/hate relationship with rewrites. In some ways I love them because I know that what comes out of the other end of this process will be much better than the raw material that went in. Everything benefits from editing. I’m sure you will agree that there are currently a lot of books out there on the shelves that would have benefited from quite a bit more of it than they eventually received.
And in other ways, I hate rewrites because I’d much rather get something right the first time than have to go back and fiddle with it later. I rewrite while I’m still writing. I go back and sweat and worry and adjust and realign as I’m working on my first draft, with the aim that by the time I’ve finished, it shouldn’t need totally rewriting in order to make a reasonable book.
(Please note I said “shouldn’t,” rather than “doesn’t”, though.)
But, inevitably, when someone reads the book with a detailed and critical eye, they’re going to bring up points you missed, discover plot-holes you could lose a family car into, and ask questions you either forgot to answer, or have no clue what the answer should be even if you’d remembered.
I know there is no set method for writing a novel, no ultimate textbook. The best you can hope for is anecdotal evidence of things that might have worked for somebody else, somewhere else, at some other time.
So, here’s some more, for what they might be worth!
When I received my rewrites for the next Charlie Fox novel, they arrived in the from of a two-page report of general points about the story. This, I’m told by my editor, is surprisingly short – some of the ones she does can run for page after page. She tells me the book is in remarkably good shape, with no structural problems – it’s just a case of expanding on certain elements and improving others.
I come away from the meeting feeling a teensy bit smug.
The rest of the comments, typos or other alterations arrive as a Track Changes document in Word. Confession time – I don’t write in Microsoft Word. I have it on my computer, and I know roughly how it works, but I’m still using Lotus Word Pro, and have been ever since I dragged myself into the latter half of the twentieth century and finally junked my old DOS-based word processing package.
And despite her encouraging remarks, when I open up the document I find she’s made 141 actual comments in the text, as well as numerous small corrections or alterations.
The smug feeling evaporates rapidly.
My first move is dictated by my workload in other directions. Shortly after getting the rewrites back, we leave for a week-long 1250-mile work trip that takes us from the East Midlands way up into the north of Scotland. Although I can manage to work on the laptop in the car, I’m finding that I suffer from car-sickness much more easily than I used to, and I’m now restricted to motorways only. (And when I’m in the passenger seat only!) Unfortunately, there are not many motorways in the far north of Scotland. (Did see a beautiful eagle, though, which if I’d had my eyes on a computer screen I would have missed, so every cloud…)
I take my summary of the book with me, which runs to 34 pages, broken down into chapters, with the time-break between each chapter clearly marked. I read through the comments whenever I have a spare moment on the trip, writing down the changes I need to make as notes alongside each chapter in the summary.
One of these changes involves inserting a definite timeline for events of the plot. I work this out carefully using the time-breaks I’ve recorded on the summary, and get Andy – whose mathematical abilities far outstrip my own – to check it. I have not forgotten that, left to my own devices, I managed to have a nine-day week in THIRD STRIKE. Fortunately, that error was caught in time by an eagle-eyed copyeditor.
By the time we get home, the summary is three-quarters covered in pencilled scrawl, and I think I’ve addressed all the points my editor has raised, even if it’s only to double-check my facts when it comes to kidnap negotiation techniques and assure her that they’re correct!
Now things get probably more awkward than they need to be. I sit at home with a flatscreen hooked up to my laptop, with the Track Changes document open in Word on one screen, and My Original open in Word Pro on the other. I toggle between the two, making alterations on the MO doc, and deleting the comments on the TC doc as I’ve dealt with them. I know, I know, there are probably hundreds of easier ways of doing this, but I need a certain amount of separation or my head implodes.
As a first pass, I correct minor errors and typos. That gets rid of all the red bits of underlining and about twenty comments. Then I start on the more serious changes, ticking them off the summary and deleting them from the TC doc as I go.
Where I’m thinking about making a change, but I’m not completely convinced about it, I leave myself a mark in the text I can search on later. For ease this is usually just an asterisk or a dollar sign. For instance, my editor suggested that a couple of the peripheral characters might be too unsympathetic and I should think about softening them up a little. As I came across areas of the narrative where there was the opportunity to do this, I left myself marks I could come back to. In the end, I decided to modify one character, but leave the other as moody as I’d originally envisaged him. I only put the rewrites in today, so time will tell if she feels this works or not!
As with any method (I assume) there’s still a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing up and down the typescript, but I’ve found this more or less works for me.
Of course, if anyone has any better suggestions, I’m all ears…
This week’s Word of the Week is scrivener’s palsy, which, quite simply, is the olde worlde name for writer’s cramp.
I’m all over the place today (another long work trip – but lots of writing time in the car!) so please excuse me if I’m a little erratic at answering comments, but I’ll get there…