I’ve written a fair amount on this blog about revising and re-writing of a novel. My main aims are twofold: one, to get rid of any extraneous words (always too many, always too many) and secondly, to crystallise the main themes and try to bring them out as much as possible through the character’s actions. Using the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle can fulfil both these aims if applied stringently.
So this is the crux of what a re-write is for, and the ideal mindset you need to be in is for the writing to not feel like it’s yours. It’s much easier to be critical and ruthless if you can approach it in this way. And the only foolproof method to achieve this is to leave as long as possible between drafts.
I’ve been working on the final draft of my third novel Gaslight for a few weeks now, and the experience has been unlike any of my previous re-writes. It’s the first time I’ve read any of it for at least six months, if not longer. It’s over two years since the first draft was completed, and the 18 months it took to write seems impossible to believe, now. This sense of the surreal is so much higher for me with this book than any other. Reading back, I don’t know where most of it came from, and it’s a tiny bit scary to have that feeling.
I have a shocking memory at the best of times, and the origins of this novel are pretty much lost to me. I remember starting about a month after I moved back from Australia, and mentally I wasn’t in a great place, mostly heartbroken at splitting up with my girlfriend and with the added upheaval of leaving the home I had grown to love and where I wanted to spend the rest of my days. Where the idea came from, I have no clue. After a few sessions I thought it would end up novella length. That was the most rubbish prediction I ever made, but I’m grateful for my naivety, because if I’d known what struggles lay ahead, I would have abandoned it. Because it turned into a 200,000 word behemoth. Writing that feels ridiculous now, and was then too.
The characters took on a life of their own pretty quickly, which was a good thing, as reading back now I can’t even begin to process how fully-formed they feel. And one particular character is very dark indeed. It’s honestly a little frightening. He’s so persuasive. Clever. Manipulative. I’m reading it going, ‘Come on, why can’t any of you see what he’s doing?’ Then I remember it’s my creation, and I’m amazed. The character appears in the very first scene, and he felt friendly, the life and soul of the party. That all changed pretty quick. Considering I had no idea what he was going to do, how it all ended up feels more like a miracle than it ever has. And if I’m having that reaction, then fingers crossed a reader will do as well. So I’m cranking up that tension as much as I can without descending into repetition.
This might sound like self-indulgent bragging but I hope it doesn’t come across like that. I guess my point is that you can surprise yourself, even scare yourself with what you can create. What’s hidden away inside. The most telling question an author is asked is, ‘where do you get your ideas?’ My experience from Gaslight is that it’s somewhere beyond the subconscious, impossible to define, where story and myth can be mined. How to get there is anyone’s guess. But if you attack the blank page with all that’s in your heart there will be a path.