It’s instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I’m thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don’t know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections on the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are. Raymond Carver
In the last entry (see below) Thriller Guy and Allen Appel discussed Appel’s latest book, The Ford Murders: Delia. Appel explained that he had finished eight drafts of the book and had printed it out for the last time and was going to give it a last run-through to make sure it had printed out correctly. TG and Appel continue their discussion.
TG: Just what is it that you look for when you’re rewriting? Several people wrote in asking this question. That surprised me; I didn’t think several people even read this blog. And for some reason, they don’t comment, but they send me email. I think this is because Blogspot makes it difficult to comment. So, gentle readers, go ahead and write to me any way you want to. Appelworksa@gmail.com
AA: That’s a good question, TG. It made me think about how I learned to write, which is essentially how I learned to rewrite. I have a feeling in Real Writing School they teach this sort of thing, but I had to learn it on my own.
After you finish your Terrible First Draft, you want to read it through and rewrite it so it makes sense. (For those of you who are able to turn out decent first drafts, I would say that while the writing may be acceptable, you are missing a valuable part of the process that only comes with working the material over and over again. Read on to learn why.) This is the heavy lifting of rewriting. If you do any sort of gardening, you know that one often has to do large basic chores first – pruning, digging -- before getting into the fine tuning -- the selection of plants and planting. You have to define the structure, the bones, of the garden in your mind, and then you can start with the cleaning up before getting down to the fine points and decisions. There is a joy to each of the processes of rewriting, the creative and the technical, (I wouldn’t call it fun) but there is satisfaction when things become clearer and the final shape begins to emerge. (This mention of gardens in an entry about writing, Little Ones, is what Big Time Writers call a simile. Can we all say sim.i.le? That’s when you compare one thing to another, usually using the word “like” to make a thought clearer or create an image. Used sparingly, similes are excellent tools; used to excess they begin to annoy and then become as odious as any verbal tick repeated over and over. Here’s an example from Dickens’ David Copperfield: Dora’s cousin is described as… “In the Life Guards, with such long legs that he looked like the afternoon shadow of someone else.” Cool, huh? If you study this sentence you will see that it is the all-important use and placement of the word “afternoon” that brings the image together and makes it sing.)
After five or six drafts where you read your book aloud in your mind, fixing stuff that just sounds clunky and moving pieces around so it all makes sense, you need to start looking for errors that are more technical that you’ve missed along the way. Here are a few of them that plague me.
Commas. Your punctuation must be a good as you can make it. Books go to editors and many editors were once English majors or at least consider themselves experts in the writing trade. When an editor reads a manuscript, good punctuation goes unnoticed, but bad punctuation marks the writer as a rube, a wannabe who is not going to make the cut. If you get the rules wrong, if you get the basics like punctuation wrong, an editor will stop reading and dump the manuscript into the trash. Trust me on this, I don’t care how fabulous your characters and story are, a professional is not going to read it if it has an amateur’s mistakes. And in reading manuscripts for a living, to review and to mentor writers, the most common mistake I come across in other people's manuscripts is not using commas correctly in compound sentences. To keep this already bloated entry from becoming even more gaseous, let me suggest that if one is in any way unsure how to do this they should pick up their well-used copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (you do have a copy, right? Or have internalized all the information and instruction therein?) Here’s the page in question that deals with these rules…
So get your commas straight. But TG will tell you that sometimes a correct comma slows down the action, in which case, screw the rules, take it out.
TG: Enough about commas! What else?
AA: I search out words that are repeated within a paragraph, or that are just too close to one another. There is always a good substitute for one of these words.
I use the word “then” far too often and when it is not appropriate. Lots of writers do this. It comes from writing down the action sequences one sees in one’s head when visualizing the story. “Then he came down the steps and ran into the wall.” No. It should be simply “He came down the steps and ran into the wall.” Sometimes, often, it will feel clunky to take out the “then,” but after having done so a rereading of the sentence later will prove that doing so has made the sentence much stronger.
Another word I use too often is “seemed.” It always, well, seems correct when I’m writing, but on rewriting I find it can be taken out, which makes the sentence stronger. Seem and its variations are weak words. We do not want weak words in our writing.
I go through and replace the word “got” with something better. Got is a low class word. My friend and writing mentor Bill Garrison taught me this many years ago and he’s absolutely right. Sometimes there’s no other word that works as well, but 95% of the time it should be replaced.
Replacing the word “it” with what it is. It doesn’t always have to be done, but often there is some confusion with what “it” is referring to.
Pruning sentences and thoughts like, “He nodded his head in assent.” Take out “in assent.” A head nod means yes, a shake means no. Then take out “his head.” What else would he nod with, his foot? Best…”He nodded.” You’ll be amazed how many of these goofs slip through, written in the heat of the moment. They must be fixed in the cool of the rewriting.
Often dashes are called for rather than commas. Dashes are good; you don’t see enough dashes in writing today. Think of them as super commas. They inject another element into your writing, but like everything else, overuse will begin to annoy and grow into hatred.
Check that you have used one of the five senses to describe something on every page. It’s easy to have characters see and hear something, but break it up with having them touch, taste and smell as well. This adds texture and interest. When a character tastes something, the reader will taste it as well, which puts him solidly into the world of the book he’s reading, which is exactly where you want him to be.
While doing the above technical chores, you want to be slotting in sentences, paragraphs and even pages that foreshadow and make sense of events that occur later on. Of course you’re writing these thoughts down as they percolate to the top of your mind in the little Field notebooks that TG has recommended. (Anyone out there who would like on of these notebooks can contact me with an address and TG will send him/her one, gratis.) This is one of the most valuable side effects of the more mechanical corrections of punctuation, spelling, etc. This demand, the corrections, forces the writer to read and reread his book over and over, which keeps it perpetually in the writer’s mind, and as TG has explained many times, this allows the mind to work on the book at all times, awake or sleep, consciously or not. Which is where the most interesting work takes place, as the unconscious brain makes connections that we have not made while actively working on the writing. TG has also pointed out in earlier entries that the most interesting books, the most interesting plots, character attributes, twists and turns come from this unending reworking. This relates to my comment above, about writers who turn out polished first drafts and don’t need to rewrite over and over again. They are missing the opportunity to allow their brains to work on the book for longer periods of time when new ideas and particularly connections are going to come up, bidden or unbidden. The Hollywood writer/director/producer Lawrence Kasden once said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” Which sounds pretty odious, but at least much of that homework is done while we’re asleep or attending to something else -- bathing, daydreaming, gardening, traveling, whatever.
TG: How long does all of this take? Does it ever end?
AA: It takes as long as it takes, and no, it doesn’t ever really end. I said way up at the beginning of this entry that I had just finished my “last” run through of my current mystery novel. I explained how many times it had been rewritten (many) and how many professional readers had combed through it making corrections (many). My last read-through is always, ostensibly, to make sure that the computer hasn’t screwed up and left in blank pages or widows (look it up if you don’t know what I mean with this word) or any other computer/word processing error. And my latest experience proved to be just like all my other experiences with “final” drafts. After finishing this last run-through I found I had made 280 new changes. Many of these were small additions that made it read better, but probably a hundred of them were technical errors that had escaped the notice of my many professional readers. How can this be? Well, there are 71,361 words in this novel. That makes it a short novel, but every one of those words has to be looked at and it is inevitable that many of them are going to be either outright incorrect or not as good as they can possibly be. If I were to go through it again, I bet I’d find still more mistakes that I and everyone else missed. I’m tempted to do so.
TG: You’re crazy.
AA: You are correct. All writers have to be crazy to even start a novel, much less finish one with all the corrections. Flaubert famously said, and Oscar Wile said it as well, when talking about the mechanical parts of his writing: “I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.” Real writers will understand this insanity. It is just this sort of perfectionism that creates real books that publishers want to publish and people want to read.
TG: Thank you, Mr. Appel.
AA: You’re welcome. And now I have to get back to work. I have a manuscript to go though one last time.