Michael Crichton is reported to have said, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
I don’t know if I’m rewrite seven yet for this current book, but probably at least that if you count all the false starts I had before I even managed to piece the full first draft together.
I finished that first draft in November 2009, just before Mike got back from a month long consultancy in Aceh, Indonesia, and pretty much the minute he got home I thrust the manuscript into his hands. In retrospect, perhaps I should have waited until he was out of the jet lag zone before demanding feedback. Or perhaps I just don’t take feedback well from my nearest and dearest on my first drafts.
After finishing it, Mike told me that he didn’t have a great deal of empathy for the main character (me) because I hadn’t made myself vulnerable enough and taken him on an emotional journey.
“You come across as an interesting person,” he said. “But that is not enough to sustain my interest for a whole book and make me wonder, intrigued, what you’re going to do next. You need more depth. You need to take me on an emotional journey.”
I believe my graceful response to this feedback was, “You want a journey? Well you can just get back on a plane to Indonesia then.”
The book went on hold during the first half of last year as we traveled the world for work and prepared to move. But right after landing in Laos I settled in to my first big rewrite. I finished that in October last year and (after getting some invaluable feedback from friends, writing buddies, and an editor) I have just started my third rewrite. Apart from some prenatal yoga I haven’t done much else with myself this week, actually. It’s been book, book, and more book.
I find rewriting a little bit easier than writing, but it’s still a painful, absorbing, slog to pull apart something you’ve pieced together so carefully and try, again, to put it back together in a way that is tighter, cleaner, and better. It means cutting out passages you may have spent hours on, little details that are close to your heart, or things you think are funny but don’t do enough to move the story forward or develop character. It means sacrificing some passages you quite like.
Today I bring you one of those passages – a scene set during a seven hour drive from Arusha, Tanzania up to Nairobi, Kenya before flying home after a work trip.
“…There is little that is cute about villages in Tanzania. The houses are single rooms. The square ones are made of grimy beige bricks glued together with mud paste; their roofs, single sheets of rusting tin weighed down with rocks. The round huts are crowned by pointed cones of thatch – two or three of them clustered together, encircled by a tangle of acacia branches sporting wicked thorns.
No, these villages might be brave – to stake a claim to home in the face of the insistent bare dustiness that surrounds us – but they are not cute.
Occasionally the doorway or window frame of the tiny houses we passed were painted sky blue, but that bold dash of color only served to accentuate the surrounding shades of grey. It was mid October. The summer rains were due any day and they would be welcome, for in this waiting land everything was parched and crumbling. Some walls had holes in them. Many fences had gaps. Doors sagged, and cloth hung limp in windows that were empty of glass.
The feet of the children were whitened by dust.
The kids we saw were young – eight, maybe, or ten. They raised their hands and waved as we drove past, then went back to minding the goats or gentle-eyed cows that they were watching over.
We bumped along in the van, branding the emptiness behind us with a cloudy signature, and I gazed out the front window and tried to find something to think about that would prevent any dwelling on the fact that I was starting to feel carsick.
What would it be like, I wondered, to grow up here? What stories would you tell when asked of home by strange men living in Papua New Guinea? What sort of home did that stranger find himself in tonight?
As we motored north the sun sank slowly left and a full moon rose from the right. In seven hours we only stopped three times to allow herds of camels or cows to clear the road, once for the border, once for toilets, and once for a masculine pissing match on a one-lane bridge in the middle of nowhere.
It seemed to me that the bridge incident was sparked, as many pissing matches are, by sheer pigheadedness.
I was sitting in the front passenger seat of the van. It’s arguably not the safest seat on a local minivan in Africa, but I weighed seven hours of sweating and motion sickness in the back of the un-air conditioned bus against the high likelihood that I’d be killed or maimed in any accident and decided it was a risk worth taking.
So I had a perfect view of what happened when car met bus in the middle of the bridge at sunset.
Both vehicles powered down the bridge without pausing and then pulled to a fast stop, inches apart. Both drivers stared without moving for at least a full minute.
Three minutes later, however, doing “nothing” had escalated to flashing lights, gesturing at each other to back up, and yelling out the window.
I sat quietly. Very quietly. It’s usually best to avoid jumping into the middle of other people’s pissing matches if possible. Especially when you’re traveling alone in a foreign country and they are abusing each other in a language you do not understand.
The passengers in the back of the bus, however, didn’t share my compunction or my citizenship. When the driver of the other car opened his door and got out, shaking his fist, three men piled out from the back of our minivan. They were as exercised as the drivers and they strode to the front of the van, surrounded the other driver, and banged on the hood of his car.
I started praying that no one had a gun. In LA, this is the point in the story where someone would get shot, and that someone could well be the innocent bystander in the front passenger seat.
No one got shot. What happened instead was that the men from my van shouldered the other driver out of the way – almost toppling him off the bridge in the process – jumped into his car, and reversed it back down the bridge in a cloud of angry dust. Then they leapt back into our matatu we motored on, triumphant, to the chorus of many men in the back excitedly abusing the hapless driver of the smaller car and making lewd comments about the Masai woman in traditional dress who had been sitting submissively in the back seat and who was clearly, they said, not his wife.
This, the men concluded, making a stunning leap from the individual to the national after a 15-minute post-mortem of all the excitement, was what was wrong with Kenya today. Life in Kenya had become so fast-paced and cutthroat that it was producing people who would behave so rudely.
I chose not to point out that from where I was sitting it looked as if we’d both entered the bridge at about the same moment.
So that was the bus trip from Arusha. It was drama, and dry plains that stretched out to the low, flat, horizon. Driving into Nairobi in the dark there were just the hazy headlights of hundreds of trucks in front and behind, their bulks bare outlines in the thick clouds of dust we were weaving through. There were people there too – thousands of them – piling on and off minivans, headed for their fragile homes planted tentatively at the city’s edge. I was sweaty, and thirsty, and very small – just one face among many in a world that wasn’t mine.
And then, suddenly, a bewilderingly short time later, there was champagne. And I was staring out at the quiet tarmac from my seat on the plane to London.
We hadn’t even taken off, but I was already a thousand miles from the slums, trying to catch my breath. This world, with it’s neatly coiffed hostesses, seat-back televisions, and filtered air didn’t feel quite like mine either.
But surely, I thought, what was waiting for me on the other end of this month would fit more completely? My friends? My apartment? My bed?
After all, I was going home.
If you’re a writer, which part of the process do you enjoy more – writing initial drafts, or rewriting them? What do you find most challenging about the rewriting process?