As the old adage goes: “writing is rewriting”. It's an iterative process, and no one – no matter how good they are in the eyes of their readers or peers – can write a pitch-perfect novel in one fell swoop. A tweet, maybe, but that's 140 characters versus approximately 500,000 characters of a novel.
As I alluded to in my previous post on outlining, A Single Source of Truth was an extremely iterative process; more than I would have expected, and much more than I ever want again on any project. In hindsight, the main issue was that my goal was unclear to start with and moved around a lot. What started out as an idea for a short film, ended up being a 110-page screenplay, and then 110,000-word novel. The various phases of re-tuning, re-outlining, and re-working kept me going back and forth, tweaking one area only to realise it had a knock-on effect that resulted in necessary changes to other areas, and so on in an almost exponential fashion. It seemed never-ending.
Suffice to say, rewriting was a very large part of getting A Single Source of Truth into publishable shape. Had I intended the story to be a novel from the start, I'm pretty sure it would have been a much smoother ride. However, I also wouldn't have learned so much about the following techniques that I'll certainly make use of on future projects.
How I Rewrite
- Frequent Reviews and Revisions of the Outline
The outline of A Single Source of Truth started life a bullet list of about 40-50 points – essentially one bullet point per chapter. It then expanded into a scriptment that was finally whittled down into a document of a paragraph or two on each chapter. This let me get a high-level view of the purpose of each chapter and let me add some vital details that I might have otherwise forgotten. Whenever I came to write a new chapter, I'd review this document and go “ah yeah, that's what this one was about…” and then start writing it. However, once I got further into the novel, I'd often forget what went on before, so instead of having to re-read the whole book up to the point I was at, I could just look at the outline again. It was the spine of the story.
Spines can bend. Often when reviewing the outline, I would notice things in earlier scenes that might have evolved or changed further ahead. This is only natural because it's only when you're deep in the trenches of writing a chapter can new ideas form. All I did here was course correct and rewrite the outline too, ensuring both versions of the storyline stayed in parallel to one another.
- On the Fly
As I've said before, some people like to do vomit drafts. They write and write and don't look back until they have the first draft. I don't and can't do that, so I'll often rewrite on the fly. If I write a sentence that I think is shit, I'll go back and reword it, shift things around, search for synonyms online, or bash my head against a wall, trying to come up with a better way to say something. The creation of fluid, vivid prose is an art unto itself, some people are excellent at it… I am not, and probably never will be, and so I have to pull it from a kiln and hammer it over and over.
Another thing I do, at the start of a new writing day, is to go back and re-read what I wrote the day before, tidying and rewriting bits that, after a fresh night's sleep, may look and read like total garbage. Re-reading stuff at the beginning of a writing session is actually a good way to get the ball rolling… a bit like doing a warm-up before exercise.
- The Fresh Eyes Read-through
After spending six months key-bashing through a new draft of A Single Source of Truth, I couldn't see the woods for the trees. My brain was automatically masking over gaps and issues because that's what brains do when it doesn't have all the information – makes presumptions. At that point, I would move onto something new, like write a play or another movie script; anything to give myself some distance from the book. Stephen King puts his manuscripts in a drawer for six weeks before looking at them again. That's sage advice, and when I came back to the novel, having not read a single word for at least a month, it was a bit like I was reading it for the first time. The issues, not just grammatical, but structural, almost leapt off the page.
Getting distance from work is important to unlocking a fresh perspective. I do it with everything. I certainly don't write these blog posts in one go and then click the publish button straight away. No way. I give it at least a few days before I come back and re-read them because invariably I find something wrong, giving myself ample time to try and fix them before I subject you with gobbledygook.
- Focused Passes
When I was on the 6th or 7th draft of A Single Source of Truth, I decided to get more specific in my rewriting. It's all well and good reading a chapter and looking for things you can improve, but really, there are just too many variables to consider. The best solution I found for this was to do multiple passes of the same chapter, but focus on one particular area. In doing this, I was able to spot a lot more issues and resolve them instead of pinning my hopes on a “catch-all” read-through approach. The list below gives you some example of focal points and the things I would think about when doing each pass:
- Does it make logical sense?
- Do events from previous chapters tie incorrectly to subsequent ones?
- Do parallel subplots take the correct amount of time to tie into the following scenes?
- Do the time of day and the day of the week align correctly to the sequence of events?
- Are they consistent in the way they talk and act?
- Are their clothes and personal belongings correct for each chapter?
- Does the distance and time it takes to travel between locations add up correctly?
- Are environments described as well as they could be?
- Are any details missing?
- Is there too much detail and would the reader get bored?
- Is any further research required?
- Can sentences be more concise?
- Any spelling mistakes?
- Any spelling mistakes?
- Beta Readers
Beta readers are people you send the book to before anyone else. They'll read it and give you their (hopefully) honest opinion. It's a pretty scary thing to release your work into the wild, especially when no one has even glanced at it, but feedback is absolutely vital for improving work.
For A Single Source of Truth, I handpicked a few people who I think would a) read the whole book and b) have a chance of enjoying it. There was no point giving my crime thriller to someone who reads nothing but mushy romance novels; their opinion would be skewed from the outset. Also, beta readers don't have to be writers themselves or expert story analysts; it's also good to get the opinion of people who just like to read a good book. Initially, my beta readers were the latter, which meant the feedback I'd be getting wasn't perhaps as detailed as I would have liked, but if I just got a couple of positive words, such as ‘I liked it', then at least I knew I was in the right ballpark. Out of four people I gave the book to, three read it, and they all seemed to like it. Phew.
- Professional Help (Not Therapy)
Having someone who really knows their stuff read your work is the most valuable feedback. I could only go so far with passing early drafts of A Single Source of Truth to friends and family. Sure, I could have just accepted those few positive reviews and slapped it on Amazon, but if I'd spent so much time and effort writing it, I wanted to do a proper job. I knew there'd be issues; there are always issues that the writer is blind to. And that's not even the grammatical/proofing stuff which comes even later. Basically, I didn't want someone to buy my book unless I was totally happy with it. And I wasn't.
Stay tuned for next week's article where I'll go in-depth into my experience with a paid editorial assessment of my novel.
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