Before I began the rewrite process for The Rememberers I’d read quite a bit from writers I respect on how the process worked for them, but I did not really understand how much work it would be. Most spent a lot of time on this part of the process, often as much or more time than the original writing of the first draft. I couldn’t see how it would possibly take this much time to go over a manuscript and tweak whatever was needed to polish it up. Fix a few typos, awkward sentences, etc., and you’re done with your masterpiece.
I don’t think so.
I am now on version 8 of The Rememberers and close to calling it done. The process started in April when I first shared the manuscript with my early readers. Actually it started before that as I felt I had to rewrite the first three chapters because I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started. As I may have mentioned before, I started with a title and a first line- no plot, no characters, minimal setting. Fortunately I trusted in the advice I’d read and plowed on writing and these things took on a life of their own. But the opener needed work. So I wrote a few versions, trying to get it up to the quality of the later parts of the book.
Reader feedback helped me go and remove some stuff I’d left in there but never used. For example, I’d left a cellphone on a character’s table in a place where there was little technology. I didn’t end up having a reason for it but had left it there. This kind of stuff annoys readers for good reason and my first reader pointed out several of these loose ends. Why was this important? Anton Chekhov famously said that if you have a gun in the first act of a play, it must go off by the time the third act ends. Everything has significance and if it doesn’t you must remove it.
Then there is the issue of parts you like as a writer that don’t contribute materially to the story and the tension. Well-written distractions. As the late Elmore Leonard said, take out the parts people don’t read. In my case there were a few times when I was explaining a character’s feelings about memory. No problem except I felt for some reason that I needed multiple examples from his past to make a point. Those redundant ones had to go even though they meant something to me. Too much explaining going on.
Active voice. This gets me to the tension thing which was my big lesson in finishing the novel. Tension must build steadily for hundreds of pages and accelerate as you approach the end. This is where rewriting must be merciless. If you spend a lot of effort, conscious or not, building tension, why would you blow it by leaving in language and situations that distract from the build-up? More paring and tightening.
The first rewrite I had to deal with was about one thing, tense. For some reason, I had started the novel in first person present. A very tricky thing to pull off, IMHO. It wasn’t working in the longer context of telling a story. The very nature of story telling is that it is being related as something that happened, not something that is happening. Present tense is something that attracts certain experimental writers like Don DeLillo. Unfortunately I can’t read Mr. DeLillo because I can’t get past the gimmickry required to pull of this writerly trick. I want to write stories I would like to read and I don’t care for cleverness. But I caught myself in the same bind. So I had to go back, part of the way through the first draft and put things into past tense, just to get things lined up. And then, through all 8 drafts I kept finding present tense things I’d missed. What a pain, but a good lesson.
Language. I realized after several read-throughs that there were certain descriptive words I had used repeatedly for effect but that were close to being gimmicky. You can’t use the word ‘luminous’ too frequently for example. It is a powerful word that loses its power very quickly if it appears too often. Like more than once. I ran search and replace and then had to decide where it could be used repetitively for effect or not. Not.
After number 7 I thought I’m close, close to being done. I posted the chapters to Wattpad (link above) so my friends could read them. They were posted in batches of two to three chapters (there are 41) and each time I read them as I posted them and I saw stuff that needed to be changed- typos, tense issues, etc. But I also saw something else. There were sentences and paragraphs that had things about them that bugged me. Slightly awkward or stylized syntax, fragments, etc. So number 8 became about smoothing them out. But I keep each version separate and I intend to look at 8 and make sure I didn’t rewrite the life out of it.
The final thing about this is that it’s my first novel after a few false starts. It won’t be perfect and I already know my writing is a lot better because of it. So I’m not going to obsess too much. I want this thing out there for sale in the next few weeks. But rewriting has been a fascinating process that has changed the way I write. I’m working on a new novel and see so many things I did before that made work later on. But I can’t think too much about that now- I’ll fix it in the rewrite.