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Revision: Getting Past the Pain Barrier by Rachel Crowther

Article by Rachel Crowther ©.
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I still remember the first story I wrote. It was on a single piece of paper, with widely spaced lines to allow for the somewhat wayward script of five-year-old authors, and it had been mounted by my infant school teacher on a piece of rice paper in greyish turquoise, which I thought the last word in sophistication. Having waited for a suitably ceremonial moment, at the beginning of a holiday in a hired boat on the Thames, I produced it for the delectation of my proud parents, together with the announcement that this was merely the first of many, since I was going to write stories when I grew up – in fact, why wait that long, since I’d already mastered the art?

Proud I’m sure they were, but after a moment of satisfactorily awed contemplation my father couldn’t help pointing out that the dots I’d put at the end of each line were called full stops, and that actually, they didn’t necessarily go at the end of a line, but at the end of a sentence. I stared at the bit of paper, authorial pride quavering, but not quite, not quite punctured. At the end of a sentence? And what, pray, was a sentence? ‘It’s where the thought ends,’ my mother said, but that didn’t make much sense to me either. Those dots, so pleasing to form, so round and definite and impressive, were much better there at the end of each line, making sure the letters didn’t spill over onto the next, like the bollards along the quayside at the boat yard which stopped cars driving over the edge into the river. ‘My sentences all end at the end of a line,’ I said grandly, ‘I like them to,’ and my parents nodded and smiled and said well, that was OK then – quite possibly remembering that they had to spend a week with me in this tiny boat, and that it would be unwise to invoke my displeasure at this early stage.

Mollified, I looked at the piece of paper again. ‘But,’ I said, ‘maybe next time I’ll write different ones.’

Accepting criticism is one of the hardest thing writers have to learn. ‘What do they know about MY story?’ we all want to wail, just as I did on that watery holiday in the early 70’s. But if you’re writing for other people to read (and perhaps even if you’re not), recognising that the first draft you’ve sweated over for months or years isn’t perfect is really important. Dickens may have delivered his chapters week by week for serialisation without a backward glance, but for most of us, finishing the first draft is the mountaineer’s equivalent of reaching base camp. And anyone who’s climbed a mountain of any size will know that the summit has a way of ducking out of view on the way up, deceiving you into thinking you’re nearly at the top several times before you actually get anywhere close to that elusive cairn. Nope, that’s only a ridge: there’s still another long slog ahead…

I have to confess that I like the editing phase. It’s lends variety to the business of writing, and when you’re in the zone it’s extremely satisfying. To take another metaphor, it’s like turning a rough-hewn piece of wood into a finished sculpture – and somehow, even though you’ve done the hewing yourself, it feels almost as though you’ve been gifted that rough draft. No more blank screen to fill, but a novel’s worth of words ready-written for you to play around with: what a joy!

In fact, that quality of detachment is exactly what you need for successful editing. The further you are from the writing, the easier and more effective the revising will be – so when you find yourself wondering whether you really wrote that rather brilliant sentence, or that terrible clunky paragraph, you know you’re in the right frame of mind to start chiselling and refining. The great thing is that it doesn’t matter how good or bad the initial draft is at this stage. The lofty superiority editing-you feels, chopping out great chunks of waffle written by drafting-you, is a guiltless thrill – a win-win, as you flex different writer’s muscles and save yourself from the embarrassment of exposing your less felicitous efforts to the cold light of day.

But even the greatest writers need help with editing. Some of the most famous, indeed, were famously shaped by their editors – and we can all think of examples of well-known writers who would have benefited from heeding the advice of an expert reader in their later books. Admitting that someone else might know better than you about your story is difficult, but learning to take other people’s suggestions seriously without feeling punctured – seeing them as a way forward, not a defeat – is crucial. Whether it’s on a course, in a writing group, through a professional editor, finding someone whose opinion you trust is a tremendous thing – and filtering out the helpful criticism from the unhelpful is important too. Taking to heart everything that anyone has to say about your writing would rapidly drive you mad, since no two opinions will ever be exactly the same.

I think selecting which advice to take and which to reject is probably the hardest part of all: the thing only you can do. The more you hate what someone has to say, the more carefully you need to consider it. Are you reacting so strongly because they’ve got your novel completely wrong, or because you know, deep down, that they’re absolutely right, but you can’t face the work involved in putting their suggestions into effect? Is that protective instinct you feel towards your book helping or hindering? Like children, books have to stand on their own in the world when you’ve finished with them: you can’t always be there, hovering behind them to explain to a dubious public how to receive them. If you find yourself having to explain to an editor why you’ve done what you’ve done, that’s generally a bad sign – especially if they’re working for your agent or your publisher and have a vested interest in the book’s success.

That brings us neatly to the point of all this. Unlike a diary or a letter, a novel is a piece of art: something that’s intended to have a life beyond your imagination and your laptop. If you want it to succeed, you have to think of it in those terms, and shape it into something other people will want to read. To continue the child-reading analogy, editing is not unlike adolescence: the phase when the novel begins to grow away from you, and into its own space. And if you do your job well enough, the finished product will be something you can step back from and be proud of.

(c) Rachel Crowther

About Every Secret Thing:

Can you ever bury the past?
She’d recognised in him something of herself: that sense of not belonging, of secrets fiercely kept . . .
Five friends, newly graduated, travel together to the Lake District. Young and ambitious, they little imagine the events that will overtake them that fateful summer, tearing their fragile group apart.
Twenty years later, they return to the same spot, summoned by a mysterious bequest. It’s not long before old friendships – and old romances – are re-kindled. But soon, too, rivalries begin to emerge and wounds are painfully reopened . . .
How long does it take for past sins to be forgiven? And can the things they destroy ever really be recovered?

Order your copy online here.

Rachel Crowther is a doctor who worked for the NHS for 20 years and is the mother of five children. She dabbled in creative writing between babies and medical exams, until an Arvon course prompted her to take it more seriously. She's also a keen musician and cook.