Friday, 6 February 2009

SUSAN PRICE: Rewriting

When I was a child, our house was littered with drawings, on used, opened-out envelopes, or old wallpaper, and even drawing-pads. My brother drew dinosaurs or battles (and battling dinosaurs), my sister drew swimming seals or people, and my father's drawings were usually of aeroplanes or birds.

They all had one thing in common: there would be repeated attempts at the drawings. My Dad, for instance, would do a sketch of the whole plane, and then, underneath, another drawing of its undercarriage, and another of its wings. He hadn't been happy with the first drawing, so he practiced the bits he felt needed improving. Turn the paper over, and there would be another, larger, better drawing of the whole plane.

These sketches taught me something without my ever realising I'd learned anything at all - 'You won't get things right the first time, so repeat them until you do'.

My own drawings were usually of people. As a child, I drew far more than I wrote; in my early teens, I drew and wrote about equally. After my first book was accepted, when I was sixteen, writing took over from drawing (and I haven't seriously drawn anything for about thirty years now). But the lesson that I never knew I'd learned moved with me from drawing to writing. If I wasn't happy with something I'd written, I rewrote it – and if I still wasn't happy, I rewrote it again, and again, many times if need be, until I thought I couldn't improve it any more.

I didn't think I was doing anything noteworthy. Rewriting was part and parcel of writing. It was just what you did; as much a part of writing as using a pen.

Years passed, and, in the way of impoverished writers, I started teaching Creative Writing. But between you and me, gentle reader, I was puzzled as to what 'Creative Writing' was exactly. And even more puzzled as to what I could teach my students. If I had ever stopped to think about what I did when I wrote a book, I couldn't remember doing it.

I consulted a few 'How to Write' books, to find out what those authors told their students, and it was enlightening. “Oh, I do that! Who'd have thought it?” I resolved only to steal those 'creative writing' tips that I could honestly say I used myself. (So you'll hear only a perfunctory mention in my classes about keeping notebooks, or meditating, or doing ten minutes of 'automatic writing' every morning.) My classes were about setting scenes, writing dialogue, building plots. It never occurred to me to tell anyone to rewrite, because to me rewriting was writing. I didn't think anyone would need to be told that.

Slowly, over weeks, it became apparent to me that the idea of rewriting had never, ever occurred to many – not just a few, but many – of my students. A lot of them seemed to think it was cheating. A real writer, they seemed to think – Thomas Hardy, let's say – just sat down and wrote Tess of the D'Urbervilles straight off, from beginning to end, never blotting a word; and then he packed it off to his publishers who printed it without asking for a single change. That's the kind of genius he was. That's the way a real writer works.

If my students wrote a story, and found themselves dissatisfied with it, they concluded that it was another failure, put it away, and tried to forget about it. The next thing they wrote, that might be perfect.

“Couldn't you,” I suggested nervously, not at all sure I was on firm ground here, “couldn't you rewrite it?”

They were astonished. But they'd finished it! And it wasn't any good. What was the point of wasting more time on it?

“But nothing I've ever written,” I said, “was much good in its first draft. But if I like the idea – if there are bits that are good – I rewrite it, and improve it. I've rewritten some things dozens of times over. I rewrote the whole of GHOST DRUM six or seven times, and I rewrote the ending many more times than that.”

Some of the class were quite excited by this revolutionary idea. Others were as plainly horrified, reminding me of a little girl in Year 4 of a school I once visited. Her story was so good, I told her, that she should rewrite it. The look she gave me would have reduced a lesser writer to a pair of smouldering boots.

But having belatedly realised that rewriting was actually a tool of the writer's trade that I'd never before suspected I was using, I became evangelistic about it. “Rewrite!” I cried to each new intake of students. “You must rewrite!”

And then one of my students stopped me in my tracks by asking, “But how do I know what parts I have to rewrite? How do I know which words I should change?”

Well – er – quite. Obviously, these are the technical complexities Jordan was referring to when she spoke of her ghost writer 'putting it into book words'. When a writer, like wot I am, takes the raw first draft and puts it into book words, what exactly is it I are doing?

I hadn't a clue. Look, I only write the stuff – I don't waste my time thinking about it, any more than a ditch-digger thinks much about ditch-digging. She just heaves another shovel-ful of mud.

But there were my students, waiting for an answer. So I gave thinking about it a try. And boy, did my brain hurt...

To be continued....


Lucy Coats said...

Thank you, Susan. A painful but necessary lesson which we all must learn. And I can't explain how I know how to do it and which bits to do it to. Maybe it's the inbuilt editor?

Anne Rooney said...

Yes, you're so right, it doesn't occur to them! If I tell students (or my daughter) to rewrite anything they throw up their hands in horror and declare that I think it's no good. Not at all - good enough to be worth working on. But it cuts no ice. Though I must admit I'm putting off at least three re-writing tasks at the moment... it seems so much more of a challenge than writing in the first place, as the first draft is only there to be fixed. Fixing, then you have to start getting it right :-)

Anonymous said...

I once (note "once") taught a creative writing class and hit exactly the same wall.
Most of the group felt that the teacher was over-critical! Three of them asked me for private critiques and further help. One is now self-published.
My own work? Constant re-writes, a sort of second nature.

I'm looking forward to finding out about the hurting brain!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Very interesting. I look forward to the second part. I too am amazed that rewriting was not even a blip on your students' radar screens. Personally, I find rewriting easier than doing the initial draft. But I certainly couldn't tell anyone how I know "which words I should change." I just go to the parts that don't seem right and work on them until they do.

Penny said...

Wise post! Unfortunately, ths reminds me that during talks about the writing process on school visits - admittedly to primary schools - I don't give enough public emphasis to rewriting myself. Partly it's the look of horror in children's eyes at the thought of even more writing, partly because there's no school time for rewriting, and also, as you suggest, it's such a huge misunderstood area. Just putting ideas into "book words"? Can't take long, can it?

Nick Green said...

Perhaps students blanche at the word used: 'Rewriting'. It smacks of the teacher telling you to 'Do it again!'. Like a punishment for being rubbish.

Instead, writers need to foster the idea that writing is a multi-stage process. At some point in the process, you make words on the page/screen, but THAT IS NOT THE END of the process. It is, ooh, a third to half of the way through, at best. The later stages of the writing process are working with those words, sometimes using them merely as the scaffolding upon which you build the true version.

So perhaps 'rewriting' isn't the word we should use. It's not rewriting because we haven't yet WRITTEN. We've simply made the first attempt at words on a page. And that is not writing, any more than sketching is painting.

Nicky said...

Ah, I have the opposite problem. I don't rewrite much - like your students it didn't occur to me for ages that it was necessary or even possible: stuff either worked or it didn't. I've been doing some MA teaching and everyone is obsessed with rewriting and I don't know what to say...
(I would still prefer to ditch 20k and start something new than to rewrite)

green_knight said...

I can reccommend Michael J. Kaplan's 'Rewriting' which basically states that all prose is shaped in the rewriting, and gives examples of when, how, and for which reasons one would rewrite. (Sometimes advice is easier to take when it comes in printed form.)

I guess that people with very detailed outlines need to rewrite less - they've already worked out a lot before they 'start writing' - but I find the idea of getting everything - particularly a novel - right first time around somewhat strange. There's just so much of it, and by the end I'll know the setting and the characters much better than in the beginning, so *of course* it will need to be rewritten.