creativity / writing

Blundering Around in the Fog (aka Revision)

I’ve been asked to be writer-in-residence in a school next autumn. My assignment: to work with the students on revising their writing. I was told: ‘Students tend to dislike it.’ I’ve been given one of those impossible tasks you read about in fairy tales: I have to magically transform the writing equivalent of stewed spinach into pistachio ice cream.

stewed spinach



Oh well: I do write fantasy, after all.
Revision. It sounds dreary and almost insists you procrastinate, or bunk off entirely. But writers are seldom work-shy. Finishing a story ā€“ let alone a book ā€“ takes stamina and a big dollop of graft.
We do start as day-dreamers, of course. The problem is having to climb out of that hot bath of dreaminess and trudge uphill (shivering in a damp towel) hunting for pesky WORDS.
So you have to be a dreamer to be a writer, but you also have to be up for a bit of elbow grease. It also helps to be stubborn to the point of perversity. Refusing to be beaten in the face of common sense is a useful character flaw in a writer.
I’m currently writing my tenth book for publication. Looking back, I have to admit none of them was easy to write. Castle of Shadows, my debut, needed rewriting four times. Just before it was about to go to copy edit stage, I threw away half the book, rewrote it for the fifth time, and finally found the book I’d known was there somewhere. I’m still proud of the fact that I had the courage to throw away a pretty ok book (the publishers were happy) and dig deep to find a better one. It was a hard rewrite, but I didn’t do it on my own: I had good readers who helped by pointing out the boring bits. (Fact: most writers can’t see which bits of their stories are boring until someone tells them.)
I’d like to say that rewriting gets easier each time, but that would be a lie. If anything, it gets harder. Why? Because, if we’re not careful, writers start to work automatically. We find ourselves using the same images, the same words and phrases, the same character types, themes, motifs. If we don’t watch out we could end up writing the same book over and over.
‘Rewriting’ is problem-solving. I’m talking about the craft of writing: the structure that underpins your imagination and lets it soar. These technical skills are gained through (guess what?) hard work: by reading good books, by practice, by having people read your stories and listening to what they say about them.
RE-vision is even harder: each time you rewrite a story it gets more difficult keep your imagination fresh, to become your character and live in their world. I think, as I grow deeper into my skin as a writer, that with every book I write, the most vital . . . and the hardest thing . . . is to wipe away the fog of familiarity, and SEE.

eye mag glass
So: all you writers out there. How do you stay fresh when you revise? Which part of rewriting do you love or hate, and why?

2 thoughts on “Blundering Around in the Fog (aka Revision)

  1. Great post, Ellen – and those students are lucky to be getting you! Sometimes, when I’m feeling that a story is set in concrete, I go back to my earliest notes and remind myself how I used to not know anything about those characters or that plot. I had to find things out. And like with people, you never really know it all – there’s always more to find out. And that next thing you find out just might be the thing that sets the story free again.

  2. So true, Joan! It’s breaking up that concrete and setting your imagination free again. And you need time and head-space for that, which makes writing to deadlines hard sometimes: we can do the book words fine. Going back in mental time to earliest notes is a good idea. And it is exciting that your characters can always surprise you at any stage, as long as you let them, of course. Thanks!

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