Friday, March 22, 2013

The Continuous Re-Write

I have had some interesting discussions (usually online) with other writers about the “best” way to write. Most writers are only too willing to let others know how it “should” be done. I want to say a little bit about how I work, because I think it potentially avoids some problems that arise later.

Quite a few writers suggest that it is best to just write, write and write. Get it all down, get the first draft out, and then go back and worry about the spelling, grammar and other editing issues. Others, including myself, cannot (and would not if they could) write this way. I do not know what is going to happen when I start to write a novel. Sure, I have some vague notion of what the novel is about, what one or two main incidents might be, who one or two of the main characters are. However, very little of this ever remains in the final product. I often get stuck, or things take an unexpected direction. When I am stuck, sometimes it is useful to simply plough ahead anyway; but other times, this will not work, and I need to leave it and let things simmer, ferment and gel in the depths of my mind. When the story takes an unexpected turn, I sometimes have no choice but to go back and rewrite large sections, else there will be serious continuity issues.

However, quite apart from these issues, which might force me to stop writing or to undertake a rewrite, I constantly go back over what I have written, correcting, rewriting, adding material. I would argue that this is why I have much less work to do in terms of editing, correcting and rewriting than do those who write the whole first draft without taking a breath. By the time I reach the end of the novel, I will have been over the earlier chapters dozens of times. It is much easier to pick up errors and inconsistencies in this way, than it is to do the same when the entire first draft is finished: it is done in much shorter sections at a time. Going back and correcting mistakes as I go is much, much easier than trying to do the whole manuscript at once. I am much more likely to detect errors in the plot, and inconsistencies in time and characterization, when I do this as I go, by constantly going back over earlier chapters. It is also so much easier to correct these errors and inconsistencies if they are nipped in the bud at an early stage.

I have often been given manuscripts to assess and/or edit, which I doubt that the author has even bothered to read. I have even seen books already published where this seems to be the case. It is difficult to explain, otherwise, the occurrence of an enormous number of glaring inconsistencies and errors. It seems clear to me that the writer has simply forgotten what they said earlier. This is much less likely to happen if the writer goes back over the material again and again. This is also a useful thing to do when you are stuck. It fills in time that might otherwise be unproductive. It can also, often, be the way to open the path forwards. By doing this, I find that I become so familiar with what has gone before, I become so familiar with what the characters have said and how they tend to behave, that large errors of inconsistency and discontinuity are much less likely to occur in the first place.

This method of writing is why I will always have difficulty when others ask me “what draft is this”. I never have a first draft, or a second draft. By the time the story is completed, much of the book will already be in its fifteenth or even twentieth draft. As a result, the “first draft” is often more polished than the final draft of another writer. This doesn’t mean that the book is good or well-written. And, of course, there are still errors. Of course I still need to proofread and have others proofread. Of course I still need others to read the book and tell me how well it works. But this is all much easier now for me and for them than it would have been.

I can see why others might want to leave the rewriting, editing and correcting until the first draft is complete. At this stage they want to know if they are on the right track, and it is at this stage that they want others to read the manuscript. Why do the polishing if the whole thing is crap anyway? I understand this. But I also think it is much less likely to be crap if I do the rewriting as I go. What often make a manuscript crap are precisely the inconsistencies and errors that abound in a first draft which hasn’t been polished along the way. It is rarely because of the overall plot or storyline, at least in my experience. If a writer is worried about the basic plot and storyline (if they even have one, when they start writing) perhaps they need to discuss this and bounce it around before they start writing.

Not everyone can, or will want to, work this way. Different methods will work for different people. I can only point out what I see as the advantages of this approach. Others who have not considered it might like to try it.

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