How I Write: On Writing and Rewriting
I started thinking about formulating a clear, regimented approach to writing, for the sole reason that all of my early stories were so awful. Truly awful, and with no exceptions.
Part of the reason for this was that at the writing class I joined back in 2006 or 2007 (and still attend), the tutor advocated ‘automatic writing’ in order to produce a first draft. Initially this was quite a problematic concept for me: that you would begin with no plot or plan in mind other than an opening line, and would then move the pen continuously. It will sound odd to those who haven’t considered it before; the greatest testimony of the technique I’ve found is from Flannery O’Connor’s book Mystery and Manners, when she detailed the writing of that great story, Good Country People. In this piece, the protagonist has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman. O’Connor explains that when she began writing, she didn’t know there would be a character with a wooden leg, and when the Bible salesman appeared, she still had no idea that he would eventually steal it.
I started thinking about formulating a clear, regimented approach to writing, for the sole reason that all of my early stories were so awful.
This way of thinking just hadn’t occurred to me before. I threw myself into writing automatically, doing as our tutor advised and trying to engage my inner voice and sensibility through the act of moving the pen, allowing the characters to grow and act before me, and never tying them down to some rigid, pre-planned plot or personality ‘type’.
And yet, the stories were bad. Even after ‘editing’ them. The issue was that whereas I’d stumbled upon an effective writing process, I didn’t really understand how fiction could/should be edited. I would edit stories by unleashing the miserable, Americanised Microsoft Word spelling & grammar check, tweaking sentences here and there, and changing the ending or title if they struck me as being particularly objectionable.
A turning point was a few years ago when The New Yorker published a composite version of the Raymond Carver stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Beginners. This was the first time I’d been able to see exactly how a great editor (Gordon Lish) worked with a text – the extent to which it had been revised and altered was quite shocking. It hit home that I’d been so lazy and short-sighted in my own work; the first draft is really only a beginning. It is something to work from, rather than be tinkered with. And the re-writing of it is far more important than that initial outlay.
The first draft is really only a beginning.
When the full version of that collection, Beginners, was released in 2009, I spent time poring over the two books, comparing in detail the original and un-edited author’s originals (Beginners) with the substantially-edited versions published back in 1981 (WWTA). This was a fascinating experience, and I’d recommend it to any writer who struggles with self-editing (and is dedicated/sad enough to spend hours doing line-by-line comparisons). From this process, I was able to identify what I consider to be the four main types of editorial action:
- Filtering - the trimming/cutting of lines
- Distilling - rewriting of lines already on the page
- Removing - wholesale omissions of lines & strands
- Developing - the addition of brand new lines & strands
This was such an important step for me, because beforehand I only really thought of the editing process as comprising of these first two types – I hadn’t really considered action as drastic as the latter two. And finding and recognizing these within the stories of ‘WWTA’ helped me to come to an understanding of when each should be utilized. If you feel your story is somewhere close to the story you wanted to write, you would use distilling to improve your hastily-written first draft, and maybe filtering to rid yourself of any unnecessary explication or descriptions. But if the first draft has not materialized as something approaching your desired piece, then rather than surrender it to the wheelybin, you could and should use removing and developing to retain the original intentions or existing structure, but to move the story in an altogether different direction. Indeed developing, writing into stories, constituted the bulk of the advice given to me by my mentor, Alan Warner, after he’d read the early version of my collection in the summer of 2013.
I’ll end with a quotation from AL Kennedy’s book On Writing – a perfect expression of the inevitability with which great writers view the exhaustive business of re-working a hard-earned first draft:
“Rewriting is as much a part of writing as being mugged is a part of walking about in an urban environment at night looking happy.”