Re-write to get it Right

So, I’ve taken the plunge and entered the Wheeler Centre’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. A good friend of my partner’s sent me the link for it, and after a little consideration, I thought I’d give it a go. Nothing to lose and all that.
However readers of this blog will know (if there are any) that I haven’t written anything of note since its creation and far beyond that. Indeed, the irony is I’ve spent more time blogging about not writing than actually writing itself. Go figure.
So not having anything fresh to put forward for the competition, I was reluctant to enter. But after thinking about it for a while I decided to go with my second novel, that I wrote around 2006/7. This meant of course that I had to do a substantial re-write to get the novel up to date, polished, and ready to be scrutinised.
Re-writing is a peculiar experience. Reading the manuscript again after all these years felt extremely strange; Some of it I could remember, some not. I smiled at some bits, cringed at others. And throughout I had this feeling that the novel had been written by someone else – someone very much like me, but somehow not. A mirror image, perhaps. Although that sounds ridiculous, I think there is an element of truth to it. Any piece of writing reflects in some way the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the writer at that time. I’m obviously a different man to the one of 2006, I’ve shed a few skins since then. If the characters came to me now instead of then, would the novel have turned out differently? Almost certainly. So every novel is a product of its time, and I got a strong sense of this on re-reading.
When it comes to editing there are loads of problems to address. The main one is length. I think every writer is guilty of padding, particularly early on in a novel when the pace of the story is rough in the mind. I have probably done two edits on the manuscript before this re-write and I still managed to knock another 2000 words or so out. I enjoy that part of the process actually; every novel is collapsible to some degree and it’s good to get into the habit of deleting stuff that is irrelevant to the story, no matter how well written. You have to be ruthless in this regard. If I find it boring or extraneous, the reader surely will too.
Continuity errors crop up on a regular basis too. It is amazing how these things can be missed, even on revision. It’s the usual thing – incorrect colours of clothing, a character entering a scene when it is impossible for them to be there, etc. Errors of knowledge came up quite a lot in my manuscript. I had a couple of occasions where a character said or did something which they should have had no knowledge of. For example, towards the end of the novel there are chapters that run at virtually identical times from different viewpoints and a character had knowledge of the protagonists location without any justifiable reason for doing so. I only noticed that this time around and added some extra content so that it made sense.
The novel was set at the same time it was written so I had to remember that in my editing. Although it’s only 9 years ago a lot has changed since, particularly in the world of technology. I had to remind myself that it was plausible to still have a Walkman in those days and that not everybody had a mobile phone. Prices of things had to be correct too. These are only small details but they stand out a mile if they are incorrect. Having to do this gave me added respect for authors who write historical fiction. Making sure everything is historically accurate must be nigh-on impossible, for readers do notice and they are not afraid to point it out.
The main reason for editing in my mind is to take out everything that isn’t to the point of the story, and make sure everything that remains is taut, and hopefully well-written. The most oft-repeated question asked of writers is: ‘So, what’s the book about?’ You should have an answer, and everything in the manuscript should highlight that answer.
With regards to the competition, the shortlist is announced on May 19. The judges may well have already read and discarded my manuscript, most likely in fact. All the same, I’m glad I entered and I learnt more about the craft in the process, which can only be useful.

Saga

Had my first failure at this month’s book club as I failed to read both the books in time. I would consider myself a reasonably quick reader, and usually manage to get through 80-100 books a year, but on this occasion the sheer scale of the chosen novel defeated me.
The cause of this failure was Colleen McCollough’s famous novel The Thorn Birds. This type of old-fashioned, doorstep saga is becoming rarer these days. I don’t think this is because of the usual theories about how people don’t have the attention span or concentration to get through this sort to stuff – look at Game of Thrones for example, wildly popular and truly ambitious in scope. (Just thinking about it, you could argue that the Thrones series is itself a saga, with it’s cast running into hundreds and a more extreme version of family strife contained within its pages). Anyway, I think the historical, quaint saga with long passages of landscape description and quiet, often religious characters just have less resonance with the modern population.
Having said that, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I expected. I love the feeling of getting totally immersed in a book, that it takes over your life in the time it takes to read. And sometimes it’s nice to read a novel that takes its time. I didn’t skip a single word, and quite liked the opportunity to remember how pleasurable the scene-setting type of prose can be. This is McCollough’s comfort zone no doubt, but their are plenty of dark moments in the novel, with a number of deaths of main characters, and she doesn’t flinch away from showing the hardships of living in rural Australia in the early 20th century. I did feel that the novel ran out of steam a little in the last 100 pages, but keeping up an even pace over the course of 700 pages plus is a challenge for any writer. I think overall the novel reminded me, as a writer, that its OK to be expansive sometimes, that the reader will stay with you as long as the prose retains balance and always remembers to push the story along.
Our second choice was the feminist classic The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. I must confess that I find psychological texts quite difficult to process at times and I did struggle to get into this. This book was somewhat infamous on publication due to its course language and confronting material and I have to admit this is what I liked of the bits I read. You could argue that the book as a whole is a well-crafted rant but I don’t think it suffers for that. Its enjoyable to read something where the author’s passion for their subject shines through on every page. As I failed to complete the book due to time constraints it will no doubt fall into the ‘will-get-around-to-reading-someday-but-will-probably-grow-dust-on-the-bookshelf’ category. (Metaphorically speaking as I downloaded the book onto my Kindle!) I would hope that I do go back and finish it though and break that cycle.