It’s a common enough question and I’m asked it frequently: “how long did it take you to write The Well?”
The answer I give is accurate: a year. I started on January 1 2010 and published December 27 as I recall, at least on Kindle.
But the real answer is that I wrote it in about six months – the rest of the time I was revising it. Yep, you read that right. I spent at least as much time revising it as I did writing it. 10 full revisions. And that doesn’t count the final revision, working with my editor/proofreader/researcher.
Why so long? Why so many iterations?
I think many writers don’t enjoy the revision process. Perhaps some object to it and feel that their work is already done and just needs a bit of a polish. (Goodness, I remember clearly posting on Facebook that I’d “Just written the final two words: The End” just before I naively cracked open the champagne. My work had just begun.)
Perhaps part of this is that I’m new to writing fiction. I’ve written for over twenty years, but always non-fiction (though, since most of my writing was copy for brochures, websites and so on you could argue that the ‘marketing spin’ is in itself fiction).
Also, I could have been conscious that, as a copywriter, the client is not the consumer of your work – as a novelist, the client is the consumer. Great feedback from clients about my copywriting doesn’t mean that consumers felt the same way. My novel would be just that – any praise, or criticism, would be mine to bear. I was passionate about getting it right. I wouldn’t have subtracted one minute from the process – it was all worthwhile.
It was in the revision process that the characters gained real depth. Their motivations moved from singular to complex. The plot was tightened. The pace quickened. The stakes raised.
If anything, the language became simpler: I don’t especially want to be a showy writer. I want people to be immersed in my stories as if they were watching a TV programme; when a reader stops to admire clever prose, he or she has fallen off the rollercoaster. It’s not that I don’t admire smart writing (or not want to write it myself) but my current priority is to engage the reader – making the language almost transparent.
There were some major changes, sure – but really, not that many. Perhaps half a dozen that required some extensive work. The rest was all relentless polish.
Sometimes, it hurt. When you’re reading something for the tenth time, it’s hard to know if your judgement is accurate when you hope the reader will be shocked, scared or upset.
But actually, I enjoy the process of revision at least as much as I enjoy the process of writing. It’s like cutting a diamond. There are lots of ways to do it, it takes care – but the results can be so worthwhile.
It does require the learning of a particular skill, what some writers refer to as ‘killing your own babies’. You can imagine, you’ve written something that you believe is excellent – but the problem is, you’d decided to change something else and this otherwise worthwhile sentence, paragraph, page or chapter now no longer has a purpose. All of that work and passion was for nothing. It’s tempting to reject the notion of change to keep that excellent prose – but dragging it to the bin can open up even greater possibilities.
That’s the agony and the ecstasy of revision – it cuts deep inside you when you trash something you’ve laboured over, but when the change shines even brighter than the original the feeling of elation is unbeatable.