How to write a book. Rules for writers 8: all writing is rewriting
I love giving Creative Writing workshops. I love the mix of enthusiasm and optimism that surrounds all of those who walk through the door on the first morning. There is usually a whiff of fear in the air, too, or at least apprehension.
Am I good enough?
Is what I’ve written as terrible as I think it is?
Am I a complete fraud, turning up today, thinking I can write?
Over the course of the weekend, we address these questions – and all of the others that inevitably arise.
As our Workshop unfolds, we share many valuable experiences. And we share them in confidence and with confidence: what happens in the Workshop stays in the Workshop.
We learn how powerful it is to read our work out loud for the first time, for example.
How something happens in that space between the spoken text and the listener: an indefinable ‘something’ that helps to illuminate all that is authentic in what we have written. It is a ‘something’, too, that never fails to signal those false notes that may have crept in under our writer’s radar.
We sound them out; we learn to listen for them; we kill them.
And there is the sense of shared relief as well, when we discuss, without cynicism, that as well as all the ‘rules’ that make for good writing, there is also a sprinkling of magic that we ignore at our peril.
Particularly for the first-time writer, there is a temptation to underestimate how essential that magic is.
We are so thrilled by what we have written that we show our work-in-progress to others, to see their delighted response, to be rewarded with their approval.
But what if our readers’ response is not what we expect or hope it to be? Disapproval, or even indifference at an early stage is a frost that damages the most fragile bud of writerly confidence.
Not to mention the potential damage to friendships and family relationships…
The other side of this particularly delicate coin is the damage that such premature sharing can do to the magic of the creative process.
I have no explanation for this: but I know with certainty that the more a writer talks about a work-in-progress, the more the magic dissipates. I have heard aspiring writers enthuse about what they plan and intend for their characters, about the intricacies of plot and setting, about the most amazing ending they have already written.
And that’s it; that’s the end of it. The book never happens. Because a writer can, literally, talk herself out of her story.
This is as good a moment as any to address the fact that – despite the title of ‘Rule Number 8’ – we all know that there are no rules.
There is only that which works and that which doesn’t.
But within that very large space that exists between the working and the not-working, there is the fact that
All Writing is Rewriting.
It is the job of every first draft to be terrible. First drafts, by their nature, mean pulling your story down out of the ether where it exists in some strange and unrecognisable form.
It is a struggle to capture it, to nurture it, to allow it to develop its own shape as the writer moves through the organic process that is the core of creative writing.
How many drafts do you do?
This is the old reliable Workshop question. And there is only one reliable answer.
Every book differs, as every poem, play, memoir, essay, work of non-fiction differs. The only aspect that remains the same is the need to draft and redraft the initial work until it begins to resemble most closely the idea of it that is embedded in the writer’s creative imagination.
In my experience, there are many and significant changes from Draft 1 to Draft 7, for example.
I often get stuck around Draft 7. If I do, I will change something fundamental: such as moving from third to first person narrative. Or I might kill off a character. That can unlock a lot of interesting possibilities.
From Draft 10 to Draft 13 – if I need that many for this particular piece of work – there might be smaller changes, such as removing or enriching dialogue, or giving a minor character a more extensive role. Or exploring an alternative avenue – one I might not have seen in my earlier drafts.
Whatever it is that I decide to do, I keep rewriting.
Right up until the moment that the copy-editor wrenches the manuscript from my reluctant hands. It is no accident that publishers insert a clause in a writer’s contract that will charge them filthy lucre for too many changes made at a late stage.
They know us well.
They too, understand that all writing is rewriting – but that at some stage, even that has to stop.
Let me know how you get on – your feedback is welcome.
- Catherine Dunne’s Rules for Writers
Photograph: Noel Hillis