It is a truth universally acknowledged (by writers, writing groups, writing tutors, anyone who has ever tried to put their thoughts onto the page (or screen)) that Writing is Rewriting.
The first draft
Sitting on the beach in St Ives eating chips an image of a girl came into my mind. The girl was seeking shelter under an upturned boat on a cold and starry night. I began writing to find out who she was. Her name was Louie Albright and her story became a novel called The Master Juggler.
Louie scratched the bite on her forearm with a dirty fingernail, leaving tracks of thin yellow against the angry red swelling. She knew she shouldn’t scratch, but on evenings like this when the cold seemed to be a dog gnawing at her bones, the pain was a good distraction.
Thin and scraggly, she felt like a ripped thread clinging from the corner of a tapestry. Her hair, slick with grease, tangled and knotted, was a dull uneasy colour. She could remember a time when it had been the colour of wild strawberries in the sun. She’d tried combing it with her fingers and tying it back with string, but after three weeks living on the coast, sea salt and sand felt ingrained in her scalp; the string had long since been snatched away by the wind. Her face was pale and freckled, but the air turned it pink, her eyes were as grey as the waves churning under the heavy sky.
The bite began to bleed and she quickly pulled the sleeve of her jumper back down, patting it over the wound. She pushed her hair out of her face but kept a few strands to suck. It tasted of smoke and fish and sea salt. She had been hanging around the fishermen all day in the hope of a few scraps. They had given her some stale bread and sips of rum. The rum had kept her warm until now, but as lamps burned in the windows of the homes around the harbour, the wind crept in through the holes in her skirt and jumper.
She’d chosen an upturned boat on the beach for shelter tonight. Beneath her, the sand was cold but not damp so she hoped the sea would not come up this far. The boat was propped up with a lump of rotten driftwood and she sat hunched up to watch the day drift off into night. The moon was high and clear, this was the beginning of the Lunar Year; days would be long, nights bright. The stars emerged slowly, filling the velvety dark with studs of light. Finally Louie stretched out her legs and shuffled down onto her back. She savagely kicked the wood away and the boat clunked onto the sand covering her in a muffled darkness. The wind whined but was no longer able to feed on her. Shivers raced through her body and she hugged her arms around her chest and closed her eyes. Sleep would come reluctantly in fits and starts. She just had to wait…
The first draft of Master Juggler was completed in 2008. It was about a young girl who meets a juggler and storyteller and they run aware together to be free of persecution. I submitted the opening chapters to agents and publishers; the agents and publishers began requesting to read the whole novel, and it aroused some interest in the Chicken House/Times Competition in 2010. But it was never quite good enough. Feedback was always the same: good writing but lack of pace, lack of tension, no motivation, no momentum to keep reading.
I rewrote the first chapters again and again, adding description, cutting out scenes, introducing different viewpoints and completely ignored the fact that the problem did not lie in the first chapters, the problem was in the heart of the book itself, or perhaps, the lack of heart - it needed a stronger story.
Since completing my Creative Studies degree in 2004, my friend and I had continued to critique each other’s writing in the same way we had done at University - by workshopping sections of writing. This was the same method used on my Masters in Writing for Children at Winchester University and one that most creative writing groups and classes use. Workshopping tends to encourage in-depth analysis of pieces of writing – a lone scene, or stand-alone chapter perhaps – which, although important for refining and honing writing skills, can lead to a disconnect between writing to write, and writing to tell a story. To structure and sustain narrative it’s important to step back and consider what the piece is trying to do, and whether it’s doing it.
A friend recommended that I read First Draft to Finished Novel: a writer’s guide to cohesive story building by Karen S. Weisner. Although wary at first, I discovered that the worksheets suggested by Karen Weisner enabled me to step away from the intricacies of writing and look at the story arc. My subplots, back story and characters were complicating the story in order to justify their existence. I chose to start rewriting on a blank page with fresh words rather than working on what was already there and that freed me from the weight of all that had come before.
LouieCharacters need to be shaped by the experiences that they go through, to do less is to render them flat – events bounce off them without scratching the surface of their skin.When I first pictured Louie she was young, only about nine years old. She was feisty and fiery, spitting out curses and fiercely independent. However, my writing didn’t reflect this. She was often passive and too much of an observer.
In the next drafts she grew up. She was thirteen, that age suiting the story better, offering more tension between the cusp of childhood and entering into young adulthood. She was stubborn but had seen more of the world to subdue her and make her sad, and this made her distant, unconnected from the reader. Despite the third person limited view point, she was hard to know. In an attempt to create tension and intrigue, I deliberately withheld information about her by making her evasive and her inner thoughts cryptic. Those whom I shared the story with now felt that she was hollow.
During a tutorial with one of my students we discussed creating tension. She had kept key bits of information hidden from the reader and in doing so her characters never asked questions they should have, or answered questions put to them. It made important moments of the story annoying and frustrating. The student told she me that she had done it so that the reader would need to keep reading. I advised her that withholding information does not necessarily generate tension and suspense; empathy and fear for a character does. As I spoke I realised that I had been doing exactly the same thing. It’s so easy to preach without practising.
The second draftThe title Master Juggler actually referred to a minor character. I started the next full rewrite with a new one: WordWeaver which referred to a more important character. This draft fleshed out the characters and the world, but there were still many questions unanswered and now Louie’s character was even more passive, a blurry image on the edges of a story that was no longer really hers. To decide if it really was her story I wanted to tell, I spent some time getting to know her again. I answered questions about her, tried to draw her, made her feel real to me.
The dissertation draft
Time for another rewrite and another title. Story Seeker encapsulated Louie’s desire for stories, real and imagined and it referred to her, not another character.
I worked on Story Seeker for my dissertation; I feel it's stronger but still not quite right. Louie is more connected, has strong personality traits, but she is too ready to follow the path she is on.
And so, it's back to the keyboard...
Rewriting can feel dispiriting at times, but I believe that every rewrite has been beneficial. I am learning about writing, about myself as a writer, and am I getting closer every time to the story that I want to tell.