Exactly six years ago, I made the first draft of a poem called Sir Madam. The gender identity of the main character is undefined, and the narrative takes a condensed look at this person’s life, culminating in an incident that happens on a train.
This is the only one of my pieces I’ve been genuinely scared to perform, fearing I’d hit the wrong wording, tone or point of view. However, it’s become a piece that I’ve performed at slams and other gigs, and it does receive a positive reaction.
Until a few weeks ago, the text seemed set in stone, but the title started bothering me. Not only has terminology has moved on in the last six years, I now felt the character needed to be given a name, and that name is Shannon, so the title has also been revised.
I also took the opportunity to rearrange and redraft the rest of the text. Although I’ve been writing poetry for nearly a decade now, I still made a rookie mistake on Sunday when I started redrafting just before a gig, held online by Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists. I thought once I’d shuffled around a few lines, that would be it, but it still didn’t look how I wanted it.
As my turn rapidly approached, I decided to read out something else. Besides, the tone of Shannon might have brought down the light mood of the room. But I will return to the piece and I will redraft it to my liking once more.
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.
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.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see a special screening of Local Hero. It’s an excellent film, and if you have the opportunity, you should see it.
The director Bill Forsyth was brought in at the end to hold a question-and-answer session with the audience. He mentioned at the beginning that he hadn’t seen the film in years, and an audience member asked why this was. He answered that he wasn’t ashamed of his work, simply that he wasn’t interested in looking back, and questioned whether – for example – a writer would be interested in rereading their old stories.
Contrary to the director’s opinion, my answer is a definite yes. I openly admit that being a writer wasn’t a childhood dream, and I therefore don’t have notepad upon notepad of embarrassing teenage musings. Rather, I wrote my first fiction in late 2010, just before I turned 27, and looking back enables me to keep a weather eye on how I’ve improved.
Even if I come across an old piece that I find jarring, I know I only need to rewrite it, or in extreme cases, deconstruct it, to bring it up to my current standards.
A prime example of such a jarring piece is one of the first poems I wrote, called The Cooler, a short verse about a character’s self-imprisonment. Looking at it now, it needs to be longer to fully convey the situation, as it’s currently unclear, and the clumsy language needs to be trimmed, eg, “It stays cold all night like a fridge.” Now I’ve looked back at it, I can think about these issues and improve the work.
In my next entry, I intend to cover the issue of rewriting in a more in-depth fashion.
I mentioned I’ve been writing fiction for less than four years, but I was a blogger long before that, discussing the issues on my mind at that moment, much as I do here. That writing is a little embarrassing, but it’s only by looking back that I can see how much I’ve moved on. Here’s a typical entry from almost exactly ten years ago.
There are many writers who started later in life, and I found out recently that John Grisham is one of them. He didn’t write his first novel until he was in his 30s, and didn’t give up his work as a lawyer until his second was published.