February 1, 2011

How to revise a novel

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , at 8:26 am by Susan

A  writer friend confessed recently she was enjoying revising her novel so much she really did not want the process to end. I know what she means. There’s something very satisfying about taking that hard-won first draft and making it better.

I thought my second novel (provisionally entitled Given the Choice and set in the London art world) was finished, until a publisher sent me a very long email in which it became clear I hadn’t framed the ending clearly enough. I’d already revised a fair bit in the light of different readers’ comments, but I’d done this hot on the heels of writing.

Going back into the novel after a gap of a few months was a different proposition. In theory, the distance should have given me greater critical insight, but what I found instead was the world of the novel and its characters were no longer alive in my head. Every piece of revision I tried to do sounded more like the novel I am currently working on, rather than this earlier one. If I wasn’t careful, instead of improving the book, I was in danger of disfiguring it.

One of my problems with Given the Choice is that I seem to have created a main character I find utterly absorbing, but whom it is hard to like. (I seem to remember Jane Austen had the same worry over Emma….).  I can see that this is a stumbling block. As readers we need to find the company of a character we are committed to spending time with if not congenial, then at least not repellent.

As I worked on the novel again, I could see several ways in which I might make my protagonist nicer – but was this what I should do? As a writer I’m fascinated by the way I don’t feel we choose the books we are driven to write – but on the contrary, how they seem to choose us. In Given the Choice I was fired by the idea of a successful businesswoman who organizes her life so that all her needs are met. The people around her have a choice about whether or not to comply with her requirements – and some of them refuse to do so. I was worried that if I began softening my protagonist (perhaps by making her realize the consequences of her actions), this would contort the truth of the character I was creating and the way I think life is.

Creative writing courses often teach that a novel must have some kind of climatic point – often a confrontation – which leads to change. This is a helpful structure to have in mind while writing and there’s no doubt it makes for a satisfying story. We all like closure and we all like things to end well.

The problem is I don’t think my central character would change. I see her as one of those people who take the knocks life deals as a signal to redouble their efforts. Lessons learned and a marriage à la Austen wouldn’t feel right to me. On the contrary, what intrigues me about this woman is the way that each time she meets a rebuttal she responds by redirecting her energy onto a fresh target.

So what is my recipe for revising a novel?

First, read the book you have written through carefully, from the beginning to the end. If you must have a pencil to hand (or mouse at the end of your fingers), only permit yourself to change small things like lazy language use or poor word order at this stage. Then, do something completely different (long walks work for me!).

In a new document, write up a resummé of your story (this can be in note form if you prefer). When you have finished, think carefully about any comments readers have given you. Make a note to yourself about how you plan to deal with each one. Do not be tempted to skip any –those that alarm/annoy or otherwise unnerve you will almost certainly prove to be the most helpful. Do not worry that your answers may feel somewhat provisional.

Now reread your book again, from the beginning. This time mark up how you are going to implement the planned changes. Where this requires writing a new section, have a go at drafting this out. Now that you are back inside the world of your book, it is fine to change your mind about your strategy for dealing with each comment. What is important is that it is the book you are writing which is directing your interventions.

Paste any new writing you have done into a separate document for redrafting, editing and final polishing. Then insert this back into the book and check to see that everything fits. (I find it useful to think of patching here. The new material must do its job, but it must do this in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself as a late add-on.).

Finally, give your book back to your readers and cross your fingers that someone, somewhere will want to follow that vision you have tried so hard to pursue.