20 May 2011

Tree, Meet Chainsaw.

I've been meaning to write this post for weeks, ever since the Oxford Literary Festival way back at the beginning of April. I have a really good excuse for not doing it: I've been too busy working on putting it all into practice!

Marking up this manuscript was the most writing fun I've had in years.
Retyping the whole thing is running a very close second,
and may edge out the marking-up process any day now.

I really, really hate writing first drafts. So it's not at all surprising that writing this one took two years. I broke every conventional-wisdom writing rule in the process, too. I didn't write fast (obviously). I frequently stopped forward progress through the draft to go back and make major changes earlier in the novel. I didn't get critique at any point in the first-draft writing process. At one point I decided the WIP was really two books, not one, and having re-organized things to account for that, I spent a good three months doing absolutely anything I could think of (including massively long blog posts on Egypt and Glee) to keep from having to write the ending of Book 1. I am incredibly proud of the result, which if I do say so myself, is one of the most disjointed, self-indulgent 95,000-word monstrosities I've ever produced.

The process of turning it into a coherent, teen-friendly, 75,000-word (I hope) novel began with the Oxford Literary Festival, which for me opened at 10:00 on a Saturday in early April with a panel of "Creative Writing Fellows at Oxford Brookes University on Voice," featuring Patience Agbabi, Kate Clanchy, and Philip Pullman.

You had to feel sorry for Patience Agbabi and Kate Clanchy, simply for the fact that they had to be at the same book-signing table with Philip Pullman while not actually being Philip Pullman. (I ended up buying Kate Clancy's novel in part because I was standing right next to her while waiting to have Four Tales signed for my nephew. Only in part, though--I'd really liked what she had to say on the panel, and I'm looking forward to reading the book.) But on the panel, they all three gave evidence of being excellent teachers of the craft of writing--which is really, as they all made clear, the craft of re-writing. As Kate Clanchy put it, "You re-write to get back to what you meant."

In 10 years of hearing him speak and reading his essays, I've come to accept that Philip Pullman and I differ about as much as is possible in our writing processes. He is outspokenly anti-outline; I wouldn't write more than a first scene without one. He finds writing to music gets in the way of his own sense of the rhythm and music in his writing. I have trouble concentrating without background music, which I put on to distract the non-helpful, interfering voices in my head.

On this particular panel, however, Pullman came up with one of the best metaphors for writing and re-writing I've ever encountered: "the process of writing is like growing a tree. Re-writing is carpentry: cutting down the tree and building something out of it." He went on to compare the parts of a WIP that aren't working as "dead wood," and give the writer permission to read back in the manuscript to the last place where it felt alive, cut away the dead wood, and work from there.

Can I just take a minute here and talk about how freakin' liberating it is to go through your manuscript and draw huge black Xs over entire pages? Through entire chapters, even? No struggling to give the scene a purpose; no tearing my hair out trying to make something work that doesn't. Just cut it away and go from there.

(I highly recommend the Oxford Literary Festival as a day out, by the way. About half of the main tent was taken up by a pop-up Blackwell's Books store, but the rest of the retail space was given over to liquor companies. A nice young lady holding samples of scotch greeted the crowd exiting the panel for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, which sent us all into fits of even more hysterical laughter than we were already in, and a lovely person from Hendrick's Gin offered bite-sized gin & tonics to those of us waiting in line to have books signed by Louise Rennison and Michael Rosen. It did make it a little hard to stay awake for the Simon Winchester lecture, but it was totally worth it. Sadly, it did not lower my inhibitions enough to let me tell Michael Rosen that I kind of want to be him when I grow up and in the meantime could I please get a picture taken with him.)

Anyway. Back to the topic at hand. I've made one other huge discovery in the re-writing process for this book: instead of going back through an existing draft and making the changes in my notes, I'm re-typing the whole thing, start-to-finish. This is proving to have so many advantages over my earlier method that I can't believe I ever did it any other way. It seems to me, now, that making changes to an existing manuscript is rather like patching a hole in a piece of clothing; there's no way to make the new fabric match precisely, or hide the stitching. Re-typing, on the other hand, feels like using some existing fabric, and some new, to make something entirely different, and better. I'm so pleased with it I'm hoping against hope that this turns out to be a new Universal Writing Truth--universal for me, anyway--and not something that only works for this one draft of this one novel.

After a long, often-excruciating first-draft process, it's so nice to have this part be fun. I had this horrible worry, all the way through the first draft, that I was going to end up with something so unwieldy that I'd never be able to make it into anything. For two years I had to keep shouting down and drowning out the critical internal editor rolling her eyes and muttering, "oh, this is such crap, you are so bad at this." Now I can finally let the inner editor loose, and force her to help me build, instead of tearing everything down.


  1. Do you differentiate between background music delivery method? speakers vs headphones?
    I find earphones work to block outside noise and the music on the earphones work to block the voices in my head.

  2. I'm a speakers girl. I'll use earphones if I have to--if I'm working at the library, or if the mix at Starbucks is really distractingly awful--but mostly I'm just trying to increase the amount of ambient noise.