summer holidays

Rewriting and Taking a Leap of Faith

I’m just back from holidays and about to start working on the first rewrite of The Shoestring Proposal (working title – sequel to The Shoestring Club which will be published in February 2012 - so for 2013, gulp!). After this rewrite it will go to my lovely agent, Peta for her notes. And once we are both happy with it, the rewritten draft will wing its way to my editor in Pan Macmillan. So step one: I’ve printed out the manuscript, made some early notes and this morning I’ll start reading through the pages and make even more notes. It's slow going, but it works for me.

I know it needs a lot of attention, I know one of the characters in particular isn’t quite right yet and I’m not sure about one of the story strands. I also need to do some fact checking. Rewriting is a vital part of the writing process and demands a clear head and a brave heart.

Yesterday I read JoJo Moyes’s blog (with thanks to Melissa Hill for the heads up on Twitter). This is what she said about rewriting one of her books:

So, four days ago I took the decision to cut 70,000 words out of my finished book, and rewrite them. Yup, I’ll say that again. Seventy thousand words. Or, to put it another way, a shortish novel. I didn’t do it lightly; even now, a few days on, it feels a bit like an amputation. The most I have ever cut at one time is around 5,000 words (a chapter). When I talked about it to friends this weekend I found myself saying the words with a slightly-too-giddy laugh “I’ve just deleted 70,000 words of my latest! I know! hahaha!” and using the kind of voice that suggests an imminent lurch towards a gin bottle. But I had handed the manuscript over to my agent in June, and a month’s distance – and a barely perceptible edge to her words which told me that while she loved it, she didn’t love it as much as the last two – meant that something had to give. In today’s unforgiving publishing landscape, you can’t afford to put out a book that you – or your agent – doesn’t believe is not just good, but the best darn thing you have ever written. And here is the galling thing. I think I knew. The book – The Girl You Left Behind – is a dual timeframe epic about love, betrayal and nazi-looted art. Half of it is set in German-occupied France in 1916 – a subject I thought I would struggle with. But no, that part of the book flew; it was the modern plot-line that refused to take off.

And from 20,000 words on, a little voice at the back of my head kept whispering that it wasn’t quite working. I tinkered. I rewrote. I told myself that it was a huge subject, a complex plot. I reassured myself that I had often felt ambivalent about finished work. As writer Debi Alper tweeted me afterwards: “It’s hard to draw the line between clever gut and inner critic.” By the time I handed it over, I knew I had done a good job. But that little voice was still there, muffled but insistent. And then I sat down and checked the proofs of my finished book, Me Before You, which will be published in January, and I made a horrible realisation. The Girl You Left Behind was just not as good. So here I am, 2000 words in to a 70000 word rewrite. I have no idea how I will get it done in time. I suspect a return to the 6am writing stints will follow (bleurgh). It will be stressful and, as a freelance, it will cost me money. The good news is this (and believe me, I need some good news): even 2000 words in, the new plot feels right. (I’m going to assume that’s my clever gut talking. And not an ulcer.) But it has taught me a valuable lesson. Firstly, that buying yourself a month away from your work in progress is a really useful thing. And, secondly, that if a little nagging voice is repeatedly telling you something is wrong, then, guess what? It probably is. And the sooner you can accept that, take a step back and re-work it, the less likely you are to be working out how to rewrite an entire novel during your summer holidays.

70,000 words! Brave, brave woman. But sometimes courage is what it takes; courage and conviction and, above all, the will to work hard and to stick with it until you get every scene, every word right. As I’ve said time and time again, writing is all about rewriting. It’s part of the craft of writing; it’s part of every writer’s life. And it’s also what separates the published from the unpublished.

So here I am – at stage one. I’ll let you know how I get on and what changes and decisions I make along the way as it may be useful to you. Documenting it will certainly be useful to me and help to keep me motivated. And as my head is still drowsy from my holidays, I need to focus. Focus, Sarah. Back to the book! (And there is the small matter of Amy Green 5 also – which I’ll be starting next week – ah yes, the joy of juggling!)

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX