Why Re-Writing Your Novel Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead)

cody-davis-259003

I just finished another cleaning sweep through the first two books in my fantasy series. I caught a couple of typos, and several phrases I wanted to tweak a bit. I think I cut one sentence this time. I get the impression, from reading about other writers, that I edit differently to everyone else.

Most Of You Chop Things To Bits, I Hear

I’ve talked about this before on my blog, but a couple of years ago I wrote a novel. It’s one of my editor’s favorites, but I haven’t published it yet. I thought, when I wrote it, that I would need to cut it all to pieces and rewrite it from scratch. I even tried to do this, several, several times. Having been around the creative block more than once, I had the perspicacity to save a copy of my original draft.

Months Passed; I Hammered At Re-Writing

And the novel, you know, just kept getting worse. It was as though, with every new tweak and alteration, the heart of the writing skipped farther away from me. Finally, after months of “progress,” and feeling a little bit jaded from my seemingly-fruitless efforts, I pulled up my last-edited file and put it side-by-side with my original draft.

I’ve Learned This Lessen Several Times; It Didn’t Stick At First

I found, as I looked at the original and at my painstakingly-improved draft, that the story I had written down first was stronger, more playful, and contained within it an unbroken chain of impulses that drove the action forward.

My edited draft was like a cup of lifeless nails. There were words describing actions, but no heart within the writing, and no flow inside the plot.

The Impulses Are Key, Here

I’m an actor, and a director, and my job, in that area, is to unblock and link together organic, deeply-human, aesthetic impulses from within human bodies. In a way, I have an advantage over many writers because I’m approaching my prose with an eye to the overall performance aspect. I know how to follow organic impulses, and how to drive the action into the heart of a scene.

It’s Called “Getting Work Out Of People,” In Theatre

Getting work out of people means that I take actors and crack them open, artistically, and make sure they have the framework they need to essentially bleed, emotionally and spiritually speaking, on the stage in visually pleasing ways. There’s a reason acting is cathartic; it is the act of unearthing from within yourself a deep humanity, and offering it freely to the audience.

In Writing, I Get Work Out Of My Characters

When you edit your work, your natural impulse is to hide yourself behind an unbreakable facade of cleverness, emotional depth, and know-it-all maturity. This results in dead writing, in that no organic impulses are left inside the work. And no reader wants to read (see, consume) dead work.

Impulses Are The Life-Blood Of Performance

You may be over there thinking to yourself, “Yes, but Victor, you’re a nobody! You have lousy rankings on Amazon. You have a huge series that nobody reads. Are you an idiot?” You might be thinking that, and I’m not going to defend myself to you, because I’ve been around the block, artistically and business-wise, and I’m digging a foundation for myself. I have a plan. I’m aiming for long-term sustainability.

When You Edit, Make Sure You Aren’t Disrupting The Embedded Impulse-Chain

Editing while preserving the inside of the story, the throbbing chain of impulses that led you to write what you wrote in the first place, is very difficult. I’ve been studying the creation and preservation of impulses for almost fourteen years, and I still have to stop myself from tearing parts of my work to pieces. The desire to protect yourself, and to look invulnerable and perfect to others, is very strong.

Examples

Original Draft:

Bruno was the very first person to see the aliens arrive. They had spatial transponders, and vibrated into being on the sidewalks, and in the center of public parks. He had meant to be at work early that morning, but the cat had spilled his orange juice down his suit, and then the dry cleaners had a line, which Bruno thought was absurd at seven in the morning.

He had to wear his second-best trousers, and the jacket that was a shade too dark. He hoped the client wasn’t going to notice the difference, but today was the Fishars, and he was sure they would.

Bruno was just running down the steps to his first-floor lobby to unlock the case files when, with a crackle that threatened to shake the windows free of their moorings, a long, tall shadow of murky green appeared in the street outside.

Bruno went to the double doors, and pressed his nose to the glass. The shaking grew, and the shadow became solid. A row of brilliant red eyes, arranged in a wide circle around the being’s head, stared straight at Bruno; he dropped the keys, and they made a slight jingle when they hit the floor.

Destructive Editing:

Bruno saw them first. Their green discs in their hands seemed to be a machine that allowed them to appear at will.  They came first into the wide avenues and busy sidewalks of the city, each of them holding one of these ominous devices. Bruno saw them first, and he was immediately sure that the world was over. He saw them first because he had a series of unpleasant accidents through the morning, one of which involved juice and a busy dry cleaners.

His suit didn’t match, though the aliens would not care about that, and he had been in a knot of anxiety about his clients, the Fishars, who were picky about dress. They felt that the snazziness of their attorney merited respect, and Bruno dreaded the looks he would get from Mrs. Fishar in particular.

He was on the steps to the bottom floor when a buzz in the windows made him stop. A premonition in his spine made him look up, and he saw a weird smudge out the window. What could it be? It reminded him of his unpleasant childhood.

He went to the glass doors and looked out. The aliens looked like nothing he had ever seen before. He was sure the being was staring right back at him. He dropped his keys.

Excellent Editing:

Bruno was the first person to see the aliens arrive. They had spatial transponders, and they vibrated into being on the sidewalks, and in the center of empty roads. Bruno had meant to be at work early the morning of the invasion, but his cat had knocked orange juice down his suit, and when he brought the wet clothes to the shop around the corner from work, there was a line, which Bruno thought was absurd at seven o’clock in the morning.

Bruno had changed into his second-best trousers, and a jacket that was a shade too dark. Most of his clients weren’t going to notice the difference, but this afternoon he had the Fishars, and he was sure they would.

Bruno, keys in hand, was just running down the last steps to the ground floor to unlock the day’s case files when, with a crackle that threatened to shake the windows free of their moorings, a long, tall shadow of murky green appeared in the street outside.

Bruno saw the shadow; he went to the lobby doors, and put his hand against the glass. The vibration grew, and the shadow turned solid. Elongated limbs, lean with muscle and glistening green skin, supported a strange figure. The being was tall and thin, like a rod of coarse stone, and a flat head lay atop a narrow neck. A row of brilliant red eyes, arranged in a wide circle around the being’s head, stared straight at Bruno; he dropped his keys, which made a harsh jingle when they hit the floor.

You’re reading a blog by Victor Poole. My books are here. My cat, Rose, has been staring at the neighbor’s dog with her ears laid sideways lately; she looks like a small, furry window guardian.

Advertisements