I am in the process of rewriting a new novel. I do not like to talk about my work before I feel it is finished, and I won’t talk about the substance of this novel here either. But I do want to explore this process of rewriting, which I have found over the years to be the most difficult as a writer. I rarely lack ideas. I am always writing something, even it is only in my head. I tend to think long and hard before I put pencil to paper, or as I do now, before my fingertips dance over the delicate keys of my black MacBook.
So ideas come easily. Writing a draft of a story or a scene comes easily, for once I start writing I have a good sense of where I am going. Often I surprise myself, or the characters and their situations surprise me, and I am taken somewhere else. But again, that’s fine, and I try to be open to that possibility.
With my first novel, I was not completely satisfied with the result. Some of this was my fault, and some of it wasn’t. I have always loved the headlong, aggressive discussion of philosophical ideas, in philosophical seminars, and at the time of my first novel I was still enraptured by that style of no-holds-barred thinking. Ideas, and the truth-seeking of philosophical thinking, were preeminent in my mind over character and story. What I wrote was a philosophical novel with a mystery at its center, and in retrospect character and story were sometimes sacrificed for the exploration of ideas. The editor (contracted by the publisher) also wanted to change the novel to become primarily a mystery, and only secondarily a philosophical novel. I chafed at his suggestions, yet I read what he said I should change. In a hasty month, which is all the time I had from my publisher, I ‘rewrote’ the novel, half-listening to what had been suggested, angry at being misunderstood, thrilled to have my first novel under contract, ignorant of what it was to rewrite a literary work.
I am still not sure I know what it is to rewrite a novel, but I took it upon myself to try to learn after that unsatisfying process with my first novel. I asked fellow writers about their process of rewriting; I read many books on rewriting, and perhaps the best was The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell; most importantly, as I wrote new work I tried different ways to give myself a new, different perspective on what I was writing. Here are some of the lessons I learned.
First, I learned never to rush the work to publication, even if the publisher is clamoring for it. Take the time to leave the work alone, to do something else, and to come back to it with perhaps a more critical eye. Second, change the physicality of your writing process to gain a new perspective on your work. Write in pencil. Then write on the computer. See how that forces you to consider everything from your sentence structure to the flow of your story. Also, once you have a draft on your computer, print it, and re-enter it again as a new computer file, to force yourself to consider whether each word, each paragraph should be in your story.
Third, read poetry, and study the mechanics of poetry. There is nothing better for hearing the sounds and rhythms of your work, for appreciating a precise metaphor, and for choosing just the right word or phrase, than understanding a bit of poetry. Fourth, give your draft to friendly, willing strangers who love to read. Ask them not to pat you on the back, and make sure you tell them you mean it. Have a variety of people read and comment on your work. And listen, and digest the comments, and listen again to what your first readers have said. Whatever stays in your mind --whatever is a criticism you perhaps already possessed in your subconscious, yet now that comment exists in black and white from your reader-- that is what you should begin to fix.
Fifth, and finally, open yourself up, and don’t be so authoritarian, even if you have singular ideas. Master the art of rewriting, and you will be thrilled with what you can achieve. The work, the story, not you, nor your ego, is what should always matter.