The Second Reading

On Thursday of last week, I went to the cinema to watch a National Theatre Live screening of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I was disappointed to find it was a recording of the show I’d seen in 2015, particularly I’d specifically asked about this and was assured that it was a new live performance.

Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during...
Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during filming of Sherlock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nonetheless, I’d consciously chosen to see the play again. In this case, I felt I would understand the story a little better the second time around as there’s an additional barrier of decoding the Elizabethan English. Having an actor apply inflection and pace to the words helps enormously.

This is an unusual move for me, as I normally don’t revisit works I’ve already read or seen. Yet it happened recently, when I saw the latest film version of Stephen King’s It with some friends, then I was invited again by a different person. As I’d seen it so recently, I knew very much where the story was going, but there were elements I picked up the second time and not the first.

The last time I read a novel again must have been more than 10 years ago. It was Starter for Ten by David Nicholls. At the time, I was at the end of my first degree, so the theme of university life appealed to me enough to tackle it again, though I don’t recall gaining much extra from the second occasion.

The one circumstance where I do reread old work is when it’s my own. I use this as a yardstick to measure how much I’ve learnt in the intervening time.

I recently rediscovered a 200-word story I’d written in 2012 with the intention of adapting it for a competition. While the concept is sound, I can now see where my sentences are too flabby and where I might focus on different details. I could even trim the story to just 100 words without losing any of the sense.

Of course, I might read back over this entry in five years’ time and see the same problems.

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When you don’t like your own work.

Last week, I discussed what to do when you don’t like someone else’s work, be it a novel or a live event, and a big thank-you for all the responses I received. However, I had an experience last week where I didn’t like part of my own work.

I was invited to write a piece inspired by the D’Arcy Thompson Museum at the University of Dundee, which would then be performed in the museum a few weeks later. Sir D’Arcy was a naturalist who disagreed with some aspects of Charles Darwin’s work, and the museum houses his surviving specimens.

I’m quite used to turning round work very quickly: I write it, leave it alone for a few days or a few weeks – depending on the deadline – then give it an edit. If I’ve time, I might be able to repeat this process, refining further each time.

With the Sir D’Arcy piece, I struggled to come up with the idea in the first place even after two long visits to the collection. Finally, I wrote a short poetic monologue inspired by a seven-foot narwhal tusk on the wall. The piece imagines what might have happened when the tusk was delivered to Sir D’Arcy and his students, and uses this to demonstrate that some of his ideas and views are now accepted by today’s scientists.

I was happy with the first section of the piece, but was less happy with the second, which I felt broke the Show, don’t tell rule. I felt it was too factual as the story was not shown through the actions of a character, as in the first section. The actual reading went well, but if I had more time, I could have improved it; in the process of writing this entry, I’ve thought of a possible way.

However, unless I’m invited back for a second performance – and that is a hint to the organisers – I have to accept that I put out what I consider to be substandard work.

How To Edit Like Jeffrey Archer.

Firstly, let’s move some issues out of the way. There are many people who don’t like Jeffrey Archer, either as a person or as a novelist. But he is a very popular author, with at least 250 million books sold worldwide, and his advice regarding editing is faultless.

He’s stated in the past that he likes to redraft his work up to 14 times, and he usually does so in longhand. I wondered what would happen if I subjected my own words to the Archer treatment. To do this, I needed a passage that had never been edited, and I found one in notes from an old writing class. I’ll label that passage Revision Zero. The prompt was a photograph of a baby in a sidecar.

I wanted that bike, that particular one, the shiny black Yamaha, with the sidecar. You rarely see sidecars these days, so there was only one place that could help me with that, but it was worth the trip. Six months ago, I was driving in the countryside and I had my son with me. As we were finally picking up speed, I swerved to avoid a pothole and the nearside wheel hit a deep ditch. We both went flying into a field and only missed the fence by a few inches. We were lucky we didn’t suffer bad injuries, but it was the first accident I’d had in thirty years of driving. So with this new bike, the identical one, I go up and down that road with him again as often as I can, being careful at that part. I’m trying my hardest to block it out. The more I do it, the more I drive that route, the more it never happened.

For each redraft, I copied out the passage from start to finish into my notebook (pictured), making corrections as I went along.

My handwritten drafts
My handwritten drafts

This was an unusual and quite time-consuming method for me, as I generally make only first drafts in the notepad then copy my work into a computer. Often I simply type the first draft. Let’s see how this passage has changed by Revision 3.

You rarely see motorcycles with sidecars these days, so when I needed a new machine, only one place could help me out. I ordered a model as close as possible to my old one: a black two-litre Yamaha. 3 months previously, I’d been riding in the countryside with my son beside me. When we reached the speed limit, we hit a pothole. It sent us flying into a field, & we came away with a few injuries. The worst part was having the first blot on a 20-year record of safe driving. No matter how much I explain this to my wife, she won’t let my son near the new bike. Instead, I pack the sidecar with the equivalent of his weight & travel along that same road as often as possible. Every time I do, I make sure I’m travelling at the same speed but swerve to avoid the pothole just as I should’ve done on the day of the accident. I’m trying my hardest to reduce its impact statistically & mentally. If I make this journey safely another 99 times, it means I’ve only had an accident on 1% of them; 999 journeys & that decreases to 0.1% & so on. Eventually, I want to be able to ride up that road without thinking of the accident. The more I do this, the more it never happened.

Revision Zero was written in May, and all subsequent revisions were made in August, during which time I hadn’t thought about the piece.

Already there are improvements. I’ve expanded on his inner conflict between his want to be a perfect driver and the accident that overshadows this.

The introduction of his wife creates a second conflict, this time over whether his son is allowed to ride with him. That conflict isn’t explored quite so much, but its outcome is clear. Perhaps the character is too caught up in his inner conflict to care much about the external one? He might even be in denial about it, which seems consistent with his mindset.

Now let’s explore Revision 6.

You rarely see motorcycles with sidecars these days, but I wanted exactly the same model as my wrecked one. Only one company could help me out, and even then, I had to make do with an approximate match. Three months previously, I’d been riding in the countryside with my son beside me. When we reached the speed limit, we hit a pothole. It sent us flying into a field. We were lucky to escape with few injuries, but the bike was a write-off. What hurts more was the stain on my clean 20-year driving record, which meant my wife wouldn’t let my son near the new machine. Instead, I pack the sidecar with the equivalent of his weight & travel that same road as often as possible. Every time I do, I make sure I’m going exactly the same speed, but I swerve to avoid the pothole just as I should’ve done on the day of the accident. I’m trying my hardest to reduce its impact by statistically & mentally. When I make this journey 99 times, it means I’ll only have crashed on 1% of these trips. When I make 999, that reduces to 0.1%, & so forth. Eventually, I want to be able to ride up that road without thinking about the accident whatsoever. The more I do this, the more it never happened.

I was initially aiming for 14 revisions. By the time I reached that point, however, I began to feel I would be revising for its own sake when the point of the exercise was to make only necessary improvements.

I finished Revision 6 a few days ago. Plot-wise, it doesn’t differ terribly from Revision 3, but the sentence structures do. Looking at it today, I would only change the ampersands into proper words and make minor alterations to some of the sentences.

And that’s one of the key techniques for revision: leave it a few days. Many writers are keen to submit their work as soon as it’s rewritten, but it’s a good idea to leave it for a day or two and revisit it. Archer might revise his work 14 times, but not at one sitting.

The rewriting process will help to tighten up any first draft, and you’ll probably find errors you didn’t realise were there. A good way of checking the punctuation and grammar is to read the paragraphs in reverse order so you don’t follow the story. The very best way of picking up all kinds of mistakes is to ask someone else to read it. A professional proofreader is best, but even a friend’s insight can be invaluable, and less expensive.

After all, a publisher or an agent needs to be hooked from page 1, and if the first thing they notice is careless writing, that piece will go straight to the rejection pile. On the other hand, a little revision now might set you on the road to selling 250 million of your own books.