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.
March 23rd, 2011 at 5:46 pm
Another crossover writer from the world of non-fiction! Just found your blog and enjoyed this — I agree with you about revisions making the language simpler, aiming for transparency so the reader is absorbed more than impressed. Nice post.
March 23rd, 2011 at 5:49 pm
Thanks Martha. It’s a strange one. I love beautiful language, but I end up reading it for its own sake. For me, at the moment at least, that’s not where I’m at. I’m an entertainer – and proud of it.
March 28th, 2011 at 4:33 pm
Revising is my favorite part of writing! I spent far MORE time in editing and revisions that I did in writing … and I’m not a fast writer. I love taking a good story, sanding away all the rough spots, and then polishing it until it gleams.
March 28th, 2011 at 4:37 pm
So glad to see that other writers feel the same way I do, Linda. I feel that writing is akin to cutting the basic shape of a sculpture, revision is perfecting it – smoothing it, adding detail, taking it from being a basic representation of something to being art. It’s hard and demanding – but it’s great.
March 30th, 2011 at 1:18 am
Peter, so good to read of another writer who believes in the revision process. My motto is “A good book isn’t written, it is rewritten.” I use that as the title for my editing workshops, too. It is so important to spend time on those little details that can elevate a mundane sentence to one of pure joy.
March 30th, 2011 at 6:56 am
I could not have put it better myself, Maryann. That is a superb way to look at it. The difference between my fifth draft of The Well and my tenth was huge in every respect. Of course, one has to know when to stop….
April 3rd, 2011 at 3:02 pm
What immediately struck me, Peter, as I read your blog for the first time, was how carefully crafted your words and paragraphs were.
When I came to “I want people to be immersed in my stories as if they were watching a TV programme … my current priority is to engage the reader – making the language almost transparent” – I knew that you were a writer after my own heart. I’m really looking forward to reading more.
April 3rd, 2011 at 8:01 pm
Thanks for those comments Alain. It may seem to be counter-intuitive, ‘writing so good you don’t realise it’s been written’ – but that’s definitely my goal.
April 4th, 2011 at 8:31 pm
Amen to all of that Peter! Clearly you and I have been cast by the same non-fiction die. The trick is knowing when to stop amending. After eight full edits, I am now reading my debut novel on Kindle and occasionally thinking “dammit, I could have said that in a different and, perhaps, more entertaining way” D’oh!
April 4th, 2011 at 9:11 pm
I think perhaps another trick is to know when to walk away, Lewis! I remember a teacher of mine saying that something is never finished, but you need to know when you are done.
April 7th, 2011 at 7:44 am
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