Tuesday 4 September 2012

Rewriting: more about addition or subtraction?

Which is it?

I was fascinated by a debate recently about whether editing / rewriting was more about adding or taking away. One of my MA students recently said that once he had edited his text it would be slightly over the 12,000 words required and that currently it was slightly under.  Mark Twain famously said that if he had had more time he would have written less. In the debate I followed, some writers were saying that their edited drafts were longer than their originals. Others said the opposite. So I started watching myself very carefully. I was already convinced I did both.

What tends to make drafts longer

It’s usually where I’ve been telling instead of showing. Of course, sometimes it’s okay to tell and an experienced writer has a sense of how to get the balance between the two right. We take short cuts in the 21st century anyway as we don’t need as much detailed description. Say “New York” and even people who have never been there get an image. But the scenes I need to extend are usually the ones where I’ve been lazy. I need to show my reader that my character is uncomfortable by the way he acts and / or thinks. I need to create a film in my reader’s head similar to the one I have in my own.
Sometimes a whole scene is missing. It’s almost as if I’ve forgotten to spell something out to the reader. We are hampered by our intimate knowledge of our characters and stories. An extra scene can sometimes help to ground the reader more.
Sometimes I want to avoid using the word “said” too much. I certainly don’t want to substitute it with another word other than maybe “whispered” or “shouted” and I may have those there already. Yet the speech needs assigning. At that point it’s useful to have the character who speaks perform a relevant action:
 “I’ve no idea.” Barney frowned and looked away.  
What tends to make drafts shorter
Sometimes I discover that it’s just not necessary to say something. I do like to have my young adult characters say one thing and think another. But sometimes it’s obvious that that’s what a character thinks from a previous action.
I tend to use “seemed to”, “was ….ing” and “suddenly” too often. A more direct language is often more effective. “Suddenly he seemed to be sitting on the sofa,” is stronger as “He sat down on the sofa.”
Sometimes a whole scene is not needed at all. This happens especially near the beginning of a novel or a story. So often those opening paragraphs / chapters are there simply to help the writer into the story.
We’re all guilty from time to time of expanded sentences: “It was a great disappointment to him that the museum was closed on Wednesday afternoons.” Why not just “He was disappointed that the museum was closed on Wednesday afternoon.”?
All of these, though, stay if they’re part of the character’s voice. It tends to be fine in conversation anyway.

Just changing

This is usually about finding something better than the accepted cliché.            

The clay-modelling analogy

My second and subsequent drafts d tend to come out a little longer than the first ones, despite there being more examples of reasons to extract text than to add it. I guess those scenes that need to be shown rather than told account for that. In fact, though, I take away almost as much as I add. I reshape a fair bit too.
It is a little like clay-modelling. The first draft gets out the basic shape. Then you add a little clay here, take a little away there and reshape as you go. You know about what needs to be done with your text the same way as you know what needs to be done with the clay. In the end it is intuitive rather than rule-bound.                

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