I have to confess this month hasn’t been a good writing month for me. I’ve started a new novel and I’m about 30,000 words in. A few agents have seen it already, and their comments have all been along the lines of ‘stick with it’, ‘well written’, and one actually said, ‘the opening is brilliant’. So what am I doing with my book now? For some reason I’ve become massively anxious about it. The manuscript is lurking in a folder on my laptop, unopened. All sorts of thoughts are going through my head. OK, the opening is good, but the rest will be rubbish, so why bother? What if I spend all this time writing it, and no one else likes it? What if I can’t get to the end of it? What if…???
Once I’ve talked myself into this situation, I find it very hard to get back out again. It’s so much easier to find any other job that needs doing rather than sit down and write, and I go to bed thinking, it’s OK, I’ll do it tomorrow… Before I know it, a week has gone by without a single word being typed onto the page.
How to be brave and persevere with writing
Funnily enough, when I wrote my first book I didn’t suffer from this angst. Writing was exciting and I just wanted to get to the end of the story. Now, having written a few books and edited several more, I understand just how little I knew about the art of writing a good book when I first started out. After receiving some advice from an editor and from an established author, I rewrote that first book several times. I had been so bent on getting the story told, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the characterisation, for example. My characters were two-dimensional and all motivation for their actions was missing. I had to give them a background in order to bring them alive. There were a few technical things wrong with the writing, too – the point of view was chopping and changing so much, it would make a reader dizzy! I went right back into the story and had a good think about how to change it, puzzling over rewriting each scene and each piece of dialogue so that my changes worked for the better. It was a struggle, but I enjoyed it. I had an enormous sense of satisfaction at the end, as though I’d completed a difficult crossword puzzle. And the book was SO much better!
Now I welcome advice on a first draft and I enjoy rewriting. I know there are some authors who don’t enjoy this part of the process, but I love to work on a manuscript and try and make it the best it can be.
Here are some of the sorts of things I’ve had to rewrite in other books:
- the story started too early. I was giving the reader lots of dull backstory which could easily have been dropped in later. I had a think about it and rewrote this so the book started with a much more gripping scene, and at a turning-point in the heroine’s life
- there were one or two ‘filler’ scenes in the book that served no purpose. The hero and heroine took a nice walk around the park admiring the beautiful scenery. Nothing was happening. I rewrote to make the dialogue ‘deeper’, revealing important things about their characters. I also introduced a third character into one scene, which immediately upped the conflict.
- the heroine had had a lot of terrible things happen. It’s good to give your characters a hard time, but when I read the manuscript back I realised how much time this character spent crying! This rewrite was actually quite hard. Anyone else would actually have cried a lot in her situation, but it does make for a dull read! I had to toughen the heroine up a little without making her appear cold and unfeeling.
- romance novels obviously deal with the developing relationship between the hero and heroine. I once concentrated on this relationship so much, I was well into the book before I realised the heroine had no other friends. This made her appear a bit strange, and so I went back and gave her a great friend, a character I grew to love in her own right.
I sent a draft of my last full-length novel, Felicity at the Cross Hotel, to an agent, and got this encouraging reply: ‘There is SO much that is wonderful here (Fliss, the setting, the idea!!)’
I was really excited by this, as you can imagine, BUT – and there is always a ‘but’! – the agent wanted a rewrite. There was a minor part of the plot she didn’t like, which was easily fixed. Next, there was the thorny issue of ‘show, don’t tell’. I once wrote a blog post with some real examples of ‘showing, not telling’, showcasing where it’s been done very well by other writers. (You can read the post here.) It’s a bit harder to spot where you’ve gone wrong in your own writing. This agent had me reading through my manuscript again, literally highlighting every instance of where I’m ‘telling’ the reader something. Then I went back and rewrote most (not all) of these scenes in order make the writing come alive.
Another point the agent made was that I’d told the story mainly from the heroine’s POV. She thought the hero was a strong character with quite a story to tell, and that it would be better to show more of his thoughts. I loved my hero by this stage, and I saw immediately what she meant. It took me quite a while, but I completely rewrote the book so that the reader now sees half the story from Patrick’s point of view. It made the book a much more interesting read and increased the romantic tension dramatically.
(And if you’d like to check out how my rewrites for this book worked out, Felicity at the Cross Hotel is a discounted Kindle book at the moment and only 99p/99c on Amazon US and Amazon UK until the end of August :) )
Besides enjoying the rewriting process, I also enjoy my work as an editor, particularly developmental editing. I know from experience how daunting it can be if you’re faced with a rewrite, and so I love it when one of my writers listens to one of my suggestions, reworks the manuscript, and sends it back all fresh and new. That gives me as much satisfaction as if it had been one of my own stories!
And so this brings me back to my present manuscript. There is nothing I can do with it at the moment, and I can’t do anything with it because it’s not finished. I can’t rewrite it and make it better, because it only consists of a handful of chapters and an idea. Putting this post together has actually been a boost and given me the confidence to pick up where I left off. What I need to do is stop feeling anxious about my writing and remember all the other poor first drafts I worked on. A poor first draft is nothing to be afraid of. Writing is rewriting!
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What do you do when you’re stuck on something – be it writing or anything else you have a block on? How do you get round it?
And if you’re a writer, do you enjoy the rewriting process? Or do you love getting the first draft down?
If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!
14 thoughts on “Writing is rewriting: how to be brave and persevere”
How timely. Really interesting and I clicked on the ‘show, don’t tell’ blog, which I found very helpful. I’ve already started my Matilda story at a dramatic point in her life, and have ideas on how I can drop in the other things that shaped her before that. But they’re just ideas so far!!Having a day away from my desk today, in the kitchen, baking for Holmfirth Country Market. Good luck with your latest novel, I’m sure you’ll pick up soon. All the best, Gaynor
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Thanks, Gaynor! Writing this post has helped. Sometimes just writing anything frees up the block, and having to concentrate on this post and get the words typed up seems to have done the trick :)
A day baking sounds fabulous! I hope you’re able to mull over your story while you bake. My ideas always flow much better when I’m away from my desk, and baking sounds the perfect way. Good luck with putting Matilda’s story together. She sounds like someone who deserves her own book. Look forward to seeing you later in the year!
Helena, enjoy the rest of the summer. Explore your lovely country. Go on an adventure. Autumn and winter will be here soon enough and there will be plenty of time to get back to your writing.
Don’t worry about your writing for now. Enjoy life. Enjoy your accomplishments!! You know you will finish the book, it just might not be today.
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Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Susan! I will be going out on adventures this weekend, as it’s a Bank Holiday Monday here in England this Monday, and everyone is on holiday! Autumn is definitely on the way, so I’ll enjoy the rest of the summer while I can. Hope you have a lovely weekend, too. Thanks for dropping in, and thanks again for your great comment!
The only thing that comforts me is knowing NOBODY but me will see the dreadful first draft. And if it’s horrible, I can just delete the whole thing so I won’t have to see it either! LOL. I identify with you about the joy of writing the first book and being innocent about what it should really have in it to make a good story. The more we learn, the more we beat ourselves up to make it perfect. When we went into the flower business we didn’t know a thing about running a business. Those days were more fun in a way. Later we became more savvy about what had to be done and what could go wrong, so we worried about everything and the worry takes the excitement and joy out of the job. Hopefully, as writers, we never lose our enthusiasm and wonder with creating a story. Go ahead and write. Remember, you can’t edit a blank page.
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Hi JQ, that’s really interesting what you say about your experiences in the flower business. It would be great to recreate that early enthusiasm and joy. Author Marie Laval said something similar in a comment on Facebook. I’ve decided to pick the book back up and just write for myself and for the fun of writing. I’m actually feeling much more positive now. Thanks for sharing your experience – and thanks for your useful comment!
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Hi Helena, I think compliments are the kiss of death. And I think you hinted at the reason for this in your post. You, or me, or whomever received the compliment, is suddenly wondering what the person who gave the compliment actually liked about what we had written, and every time we write a line, we wonder if she or he will like that one too. The result is that we are trying to please someone else. I think we have to remember that our own thoughts about what is good or bad in our writing is what got us into the business in the first place. We have to have confidence that what we think is well written is, in fact, well written. This does not mean that we don’t labor and rewrite endlessly. But there is a moment when what you have written and rewritten just seems to be working. A little voice says, it’s ready for the world. No matter what.
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Hi Ken, I think you have hit the nail on the head. I should NEVER have shown it to anyone before it was finished! Ironically, I wanted to know if it was worth continuing. Now I do know…but I’ve lost all confidence in my writing, in case the rest doesn’t live up to the beginning. You’re so right about forgetting all about pleasing someone else. It was much better when I wrote to please myself.Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your wise words!
How I feel for you, Helena, and empathise! I have that dreaded feeling about my novels at about the same stage (as with the current one). I also start thinking about all the other things I want to write. I know from two of my previous novels (that I nearly gave up on) that we usually work through it. I much prefer the second edit stage when the story is complete, but I have terrible trouble getting to the end in the first place! Good luck with yours.
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Hi Rosemary, that’s exactly how I feel about getting to the end! Thanks so much for your comment. It’s good to know other writers feel the same way (although I do hope you sail through writing your current one!) It is a ‘dreaded feeling’ sometimes. Nothing to be done but crack on with it, until we reach the so satisfying ‘The End’ :) I find the more of a struggle it is, the more immensely satisfying it is to finish the book. Very best of luck with your own wip, and thanks for dropping in!
Hey, Helena. What a great post. So thoughtful. I think all authors have been where you are. Kudos for getting 30 K words in one month! What a great start. I really identified about the extra scene. On my first book I was working with a MIU editor, and she pointed out that this great scene between the mother and her daughter was lovely, but really didn’t move the story along. She was right, but oh, it was a really good scene, but , of course,I cut it. I don’t always do what editors suggest, because of what Ken said. Sometimes, the words say just what we want, even if someone else doesn’t think so. I know you’ll get past this and finish another great book. I shared. :)
Hi Marsha, my editor at MIU – Nancy Bell – was great, too. I learned so much from her. I also had to cut scenes I loved. Now when I’m writing I’m very conscious of asking myself ‘Does this scene move the plot/characterisation forward?’ I have less to cut these days – but as you can tell from my post, I’m more anxious about my writing! Thanks so much for your kind words, and also for sharing. I appreciate it!
I do sympathise. with my first book I had no idea what I was doing and no worries about anyone else reading it. I really enjoyed writing that first draft! Of course, there was loads wrong with it and rewrites took nearly two and a half years! I learned so much from that, although I hated every minute and cried a lot. Now it’s the first draft I hate and the rewriting I love. I have too many voices in my head as I write – the imagined chorus of disapproval from future readers and reviewers who I’m terrified will hate it. It’s hard, this writing lark, isn’t it?
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It really is hard, Sharon! By coincidence I’ve just finished reading an interview with Andrew Miller, who won the Costa Prize in 2011. He says if he doesn’t on several occasions feel ‘completely blocked, stumped, lost, upset and the rest of it’ when he’s writing, then he knows the book isn’t anything worth finishing. When I started writing this post I thought it was just me. I’ve been amazed and heartened by how many other writers have said the same. The comments here and on FB have genuinely helped me ignore all those other voices and enjoy writing for its own sake again. Best of luck with your own writing, and thanks for your super comment!
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