Friday, 5 February 2010

When I was re-writing...

The other day I was looking at my first draft of When I Was Joe, the first chapters I wrote as an assignment for my evening class. I got a nasty shock. Who were these people? They didn’t feel like Ty, Nicki and Doug. They were cardboard imposters, stealing the lives of people I’d come to know very well. I really didn’t like it.
Book blogger Yunaleska was asking me this week about rewriting - how much I’d done for Joe. It’s a hard question to answer, because some of the rewriting is the very subtle stuff - the little tweaks you make when you know which way the plot has turned, or more about a character’s quirks. It might be just a word, but it can shift your understanding as much as an entire chapter. In my original version Nicki was much more of a cliche, I didn't really know her that well. Once I did, I went back and removed the silver eye shadow, the dangly earrings. By the time I found the picture, above, of Nadine Coyle of Girls Aloud I knew that's what Nicki looked like - before her extreme makeover.
Some changes are major structural shifts. Some are self-imposed. Others come after discussion with agents, experts and editors.
The first major change to Joe was the ending. I wrote the last third of the book, and then had an idea which I preferred so I immediately rewrote all those chapters. The outcome was the same, but the reason was different. Some of the people on my writing course preferred the first version, but I was absolutely sure I’d done the right thing.
Then I had some good advice from an eminent literary agent, who read the first chapter. Originally I had a much slower start, kicking off with Joe’s first day at his new school. I wanted to leave the reader in the dark about almost everything. I liked the idea - I still like it - I thought it was creepy and eerie and raised lots of questions. She pointed out that a crime thriller needed an attention-grabbing dramatic starting point. I found it very easy to provide this - the rewrite took about three days - but I slightly resented it. The book felt less mine. It did the trick though, the new beginning hooked several agents.
When I signed with Jenny Savill she suggested a few changes – mainly building up the character of Arron, so the reader knew more about him. Then I had a page of notes from my friend Tony, the criminal barrister. Most of the police procedure was wrong and had to be rewritten. My heart sank when I looked at the pages he’d identified, but actually in every case those rewrites made the book better, making Ty less passive and more intelligent.
Once I started working with my editor, Maurice Lyon at Frances Lincoln, there were other changes to be made. The ending was a bit rushed (the whole current last chapter didn’t exist, apart from the email at the end which was tacked onto the chapter before). I was very happy to add another chapter - I realised it was only worries about the humungous length of the book which had stopped me.
And there was a bit in the middle which Maurice thought was a bit boring - I bridled at that, but once I went through it I realised that actually…well…nothing much happened. And there were things that I’d like to happen that weren’t in the book at all. So I wrote what is now Chapter 11 (the schools athletics meeting), and I liked it much better.
So, on the one hand most of When I Was Joe was there in the first draft. On the other hand I’ve rewritten the end, the beginning and the middle. And all the time twiddling, tweaking and getting to know the characters better. Removing an earring here, adding a Kanye West track there.
In my first draft I tended to overstate things, because you're finding out yourself. Later on I realised that I could take out almost every sentence beginning 'I feel..'
I have to admit that the one sad thing about getting your book published is that you can’t rewrite it any more. I still wake up in the middle of the night and think of things I'd like to change.


  1. Thanks for blogging about this. It's something that isn't always talked about by authors. I've heard you never stop wanting to change your book, which is normal and a good thing :)

  2. Who said a book is never finished, it is just abandoned. I think we all feel the same!

  3. Re-writing is really important because sometimes the characters just don't feel real enough. Or the plot isn't enticing enough or the writing isn't tight enough.

    But boy is rewriting sometimes a pain in the...

  4. Thanks for this. I was wondering if writers still wanted to change bits of a book after it was published. I suspected this might be the case!

  5. You give a really great insight into the writing process, Keren. Sometimes it scares me how much I've got to learn.

  6. I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself for picking you as a muse!

    I love how informative and honest you are. You could do talks/workshops on this kind of thing.

    Obviously I want a cut if you do! If you are already doing it then I'll happily just accept a discounted place!

    Rapunzel x

  7. Rapunzel, I think you will have to be my manager!

  8. Wow, that was really interesting. All those people bringing fresh eyes to your book. I can see that it would be difficult at first to let others have an influence on your masterpiece.

  9. I think it was incredibly helpful that I'd worked so long on newspapers where writers who won't accept editing are viewed with complete contempt. And I've been on the editing side of the table long enough to know that an editor can often see what needs to be done far better than the poor old writer, who can't see the trees for the leaves, let alone the wood for the trees.

    I'm glad people found this helpful - I'll do the same for Almost True, shall I, when you've had a chance to read it.

  10. Very interesting. And so true that there's no rigid division between one version and another, just a long succession of revised first drafts.

  11. "a crime thriller needed an attention-grabbing dramatic starting point"

    Such a valid point. I know it is. So why, why, why do I always start with boring tedium?

    Great post, Keren. Fascinating to hear the way Joe progressed.

  12. It feels like I've spent half of my life rewriting...