Writing and rewriting our drafts

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.

The road from Arusha to Nairobi

“…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.

Nothing.

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.

Wasn’t I?…”

A swimming hole near Arusha, Tanzania

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?

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22 responses to “Writing and rewriting our drafts

  1. Most challenging part of the writing process? Hah! Finding the time!!

    I also have a tendancy to a) write myself into a corner with dialogue (i.e. I find it quite hard to sculpt dialogue in an efficient fashion towards an end-goal; it tends to take on a life of it’s own, and then ends up somewhere terribly impractical for moving me towards where I need it to take me; I can spend quite a bit of time working and reworking stretches of dialogue); and b) overcomplicating things- too many moving parts which struggle to mesh and start to bog things down after a while.

    I’m working on it.

    Re which bits do I like: I love drafting. Have almost no experience of rewriting. Which might give you some idea of my leaning… But then, having said that, as I grow older, and learn more about how to write, I am increasingly looking forward to having a draft actually completed so I can give the whole rewrite thing a go.

    Also still waiting to get some feedback to you on your first draft. As of November last year I’d read through and made mental notes on about 3/4 of the draft. Then life, er, changed pace a little and I’ve done very little since. Sorry about that! :oP

    • No prob at all… send along any thoughts you do have, now’s the time. No need to rush to finish it, cuz, yeah, I totally respect the life changing pace thing and yours certainly has!!! Also, any current work of yours in progress? No pressure in that comment… I haven’t had near as much time for writing post marriage, and that’s not a bad thing in many ways. It means I’ve been investing in the here and now with Mike.

      • Yes, I do have something on the boil. Well, on the simmer. No, actually, if I’m honest, it’s sitting in the pot slowly cooling off the heat and waiting for me to turn the gas back on so I can warm it back up again…

        I am 30,000 words into a manuscript, but in part because I’ve been inching my way through it over the last 6 (moderately busy) months, I come against a dilemma. Fiction naturally re-invents itself in the writing process. However the healthy way (maybe?) for this to happen is in completing a draft, then assessing it, learning what didn’t work, then going in for the rewrite. That way at least you’ve got something down on paper to work with. My problem is that I’m hitting that stage of seeing everything wrong with it while I’m partway through the manuscript, because it’s taking so long. So I’m seeing where I need to go back to the beginning and completely change certain things (discovering that 2 different characters are in fact 1 character; discovering that the story needs to be written with 3 different voices; realising that where I thought I had 1 major characters and a host of minor ones, I now have 3 main characters, and I have to work out what to do with the chorus…) before I can go on, which means that the overall story itself isn’t getting written down- and if I don’t find my stride soon, I know I’ll lose it.

        *sigh*

        What to do…?

        • (The answer to that rhetorical question is, of course, to quit my day job and become a full-time writer. Unfortunately, that would require the loss of the salary that I need to live, and support my wife and child…)

          • Yeah, in answer to this problem I have few suggestions – it’s a bugger of a problem. I will say, however, that I eased of writing dramatically during the first year and a half we were married (when we we were in the same country, anyway). I figured writing would be there down the track, the first year of marriage wouldn’t be.

        • Hmmm… have you thought about ditching it at this stage and beginning again from the very begging tight now before finishing the full first draft, or are you worried you’ll lose momentum with the rest of the story if you do that? Alternatively you could keep going, but just make those changes mid-draft – combine those two characters from here on out, etc.

          • morealtitude

            Yeah, some combination of the above.

            The style is very choppy to begin with- quite modular, with lots of switching viewpoints, so many of the modules will work with the different overarching structure and can just drop in. There’s a couple of story arcs that need to go entirely. But that means that rather than rewrite, I can just replace a couple of those arcs and keep other bits functioning.

            I am actually toying with the idea of jumping out of sequence and just writing the scenes that I have locked in my head now, so that I don’t lose them, then going back to fill in the gaps. Not sure if it’s a good idea. I have a hunch that maybe I should give it a try. The worst that can happen is that I write them out and then never go back to fill in the blanks. In which case I’ll have no manuscript. Which is generally what my writing career looks like on a day-to-day basis anyway… 😛

          • Yeah, try it. It’s worth a go. I generally don’t do that, but occasionally find it really helpful. And then it’s nice when you catch up to a part where you have a pre-written scene and you make all this progress with a single cut and paste 🙂

  2. I can TOTALLY relate to this. And I love how you post one of those sections that got cut. I may have to copy that idea! It’s always difficult to say goodbye to pieces that we love.

  3. well, maybe we could just look at the pictures?

    The part I like most about writing so far is fantasizing about writing without actually facing the painful reality involved in comparing an actual production to that fantasy 🙂

    • Well, yes. I can see how that would be a very enjoyable stage :). I say run with it (well, until your inner writer screams loud and long enough to force you to roll your eyes and start serious drafting just to shut them up).

  4. I don’t enjoy writing. I write because I am compelled to by a force that I can’t yet fully explain. This calling means a lot to me. It’s work that I want to do, and I would be lost, and have been at times, without it. For me (in these past few weeks since I received some necessary and very valuable feedback in my “smackdown”) rewrites feel like an equal part of the same process as writing, except that when the material is gut wrenching for me, I may need more breaks from the painful immersion of finding what doesn’t communicate in the work, and changing it into words that do.

    This being said, my greatest challenge in the rewriting process lies more in recognizing and dealing with the differences between being misread, skimmed over, misunderstood (and discerning whether that signals a real problem with the creative story/article), or simply being ignored.

    If you don’t mind, I’d be interested in knowing if you excised the above passage from your book, or did an editor suggest it? And also, apart from the “smackdown” sort of reaction you had (which I completely understand) to Mike’s feedback, what did the points he made mean to you — did you try to incorporate their essence into your rewrites? If so how did you approach that process?

    • This is embarrassing. I don’t know what I thought “excise” meant, but I meant ‘take out’. Sorry.

      • I think excise does mean take out, unless we’re both wrong on that point (and if we are, let me know).

        • Thanks! Sometimes a word starts to look odd to me even though it was the first to come to mind.When I looked up ‘excise’ online I only found one definition (a tax) in two different places. I just looked it up again and finally found the other definition. We’re right!

    • Hi there… I took that one out. It was in the very first draft, quite some time ago now, and I could see when I was reshuffling that chapter that although it had been somewhat fun to write, and had the home theme in it (which was a strong theme in that draft) it just didn’t move things forward quickly enough. It’s pretty rare to get editorial feedback on the level of “take this passage out, move this around” although when I do get that sort of input from friends and family I find it quite valuable to help me think things through. I may not always follow their advice, but I usually like getting it (well, after I’ve cooled down when it’s Mike dishing the advice out). As for Mike, yeah, I wrote down everything he said (and what I put in this post was just the tip of the iceberg, and I let it sit for a while (a couple of months, actually) and I went back and pored over it very carefully trying to figure out where I agreed and where I didn’t before I even started on draft two. And it was helpful!! I didn’t agree with all of it, but it sure made me think. And it helped make the second draft better. For this third draft I’ve relied more on an editor’s feedback (who I hired to help point me to strengths and weaknesses) and feedback from a handful of friends who’ve been good enough to read and comment for me. Family (and even most friends) are sometime too close to provide unbiased feedback though, so that’s also something else to keep in mind, particularly with memoir.

      • Thanks for your answer. I liked the bones of the bit you showed us here. The incident and the way people behaved, and the things that were said afterward struck me deeply. I think with more, I don’t know, details(?) included, this would be a wonderful and powerful short story.

  5. I’m learning more and more about the rewriting process as I tackle my first story idea and flush it out. Its interesting to see the new angles for the story with the rewrite and after feedback.

    • It is, isn’t it? Especially after you do the hard work and you can look back and see how good editorial feedback has really helped make the piece stronger. All appearances to the contrary sometimes with Mike, I’m such a fan of good editorial feedback.

  6. So introspective and honest–thank you for the thoughtful post! Personally, I like rewriting best. Most of the time I write out of the groove, when pulling words from my head requires a crow bar. The times when the words pour from me, I am more sure of the product. But the text that I force out feels more awkward and less effective. I often feel hazy when writing this way. I love rewriting because I read back through the section of writing I huffed and puffed through and I find jewels (not many, but a few), sections of text worthwhile and perhaps even thought-provoking.

    While rewriting challenges you to be honest with yourself, I think it also the time when you confront who you really are as a writer–you cannot hide from what you have put on the page.

    • I know what you mean with writing out of the groove! I had to nail my bottom to the chair and set myself a page count to complete my first novel. Much of it was written outside the groove! And you’re right, it’s the coolest thing when you rework those sections and go, “wow, these are not as bad as I had thought they might be!”

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