Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Sunday, 4 April 2010

A Short Blog About (Re)Writing

No, I haven't forgotten about the WHC stuff, don't worry. I'll be sticking the next load up at some point, honestly. I'm just a tad busy right now. But not so busy as not to tell you about it.

A couple of my fellow writers, Gary McMahon and Conrad Williams, are blogging about their works-in-progress, and the rather wonderful Cate Gardner (who will soon have her first collection out, guys, so keep your eyes open for it) does so on a regular basis. So might as well jump on the bandwagon...

Somebody once said that writing is rewriting. He or she was right, at least when it comes to novels. You might remember The Song Of The Sibyl, first draft of which was completed back in February. Rewriting is now underway. Here's how it works- at least for this author.

Hunter S. Thompson once said that good writing is all about taking notes. A certain number of notes, musings, bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, have to be jotted down before the story you're telling comes to life and you know how to write the first lines. Next, generally- once the first chapter or two has been roughed out- comes the outline, the plan, i.e. your attempt to con yourself into believing that you have an idea, however vague, of what the hell you're doing and more to the point, where the hell all this is going.

Once that's done, most of the work tends to be showing up- you just write the next right thing and carry on, crossing off the points on the outline one by one. And along the way, you're taking more notes. About stuff that's to happen later on- all the really interesting stuff that's not in the outline, because you didn't know anything about it till you got your characters acting and reacting and talking to each other. Some writers claim not to like writing but to love having written. Never understood that. The actual process of writing, of feeling all these unknown elements flow through you and create something new and (hopefully) vital and interesting, is a blast. Like exercise, maybe- at first you have to force yourself to do it, but once you're underway it's just great and you get used to it, hate doing without it.

Other notes are about things you need to check up on. You know, boring stuff like research. I used to hate that. Now it's interesting. Generally, do the bare minimum before you start, or don't do any at all and wing it. Apart from anything else, once you've finished you'll have a much better idea of what actually needs to be researched. The first draft is the raw material, the framework. The second draft is where salvation lies; the second draft is where you fix things. And you'll find lots of things to fix.

As well as research, there are additional characters who pop up and then vanish, whose little stories need finishing. There are passages where you're telling people what's happened, rather than showing it. There are recurring themes, little subplots that spring into being and have been imperfectly realised, because you can't focus on everything at once in first draft- you have to keep forging ahead and lay the basic framework of the novel- and again, they have to be made complete.

This one's a case in point. Basically, it's got pretty massive, major things happening. Another apocalypse, in a nutshell. And there's chaos, and madness, and suffering and death. All that stuff. It's pretty big and epic. And it's all seen through the eyes of one character, who has a lot of psychological problems to begin with and who also, as the novel progresses, sees ghosts, has visions and generally has quite a few episodes where the reality of what she's experiencing is, well, open to question. All that and, of course, there are other characters in the story, each with their own agendas, their own missions, obsessions, wants.

So on the one hand there's one story, but on the other it's made up of a multitude of others, each of which has to be got just right. This means more and more notes- notes about what needs doing, and how. At first a blizzard of random scribblings, they then get typed up and start getting sorted into order, under different headings. And then, finally, each separate section needs to be looked at and the changes broken down into a series of concrete, specific steps.

There are now 42 pages of notes on The Song Of The Sibyl, and the things that need to be done. It's grown steadily over the last week, not shrunk. But now the first of the changes are being put into place. Please god, let them start to shrink now.

Once that's done, here's still the task of visiting a lot of the locations used in the novel and getting things... just right. Oh, and then, finally, the task of going through the manuscript- which was 171,151 words in first draft, is now a couple of thousand words longer and will be god alone knows how long when all of this is done- and cutting, cutting, cutting. The most famous of White & Strunk's rules- 'omit needless words'. You don't realise how many words you can do without until you get to this point. Alan Garner, of course, is the king of that.

All this has to be done, bear in mind, while still holding down a day job.

So if you run into me and I look a bit tired, dazed and like I might not be quite all there (in the sense of living wholly in the same world as you) hopefully, by now, you should have some idea why.

So much for this being a short blog...

Have a happy Easter, everybody.


Cate Gardner said...

42 pages of notes!!! And I thought I had too many thoughts scribbled onto post-it notes re my rewrite.

Oh, and your main character sounds fascinating.

Unknown said...

Superb post, mate. Very well put.

I wish you the best with it.

Mark West said...

Very interesting - I recognise a lot of those work patterns myself, though I'd developed to a stage where I was making the notes and not writing the story!

Good luck with the monster though - how much are you planning to cut?