The Rewrite

July 11, 2019

New beginnings

This week I’ve begun rewriting my manuscript. Although I’m six months into writing this novel, and though I wrote a zero draft in around 40 days (described further here), I am still not spectacularly close to the finish line.

The latest issue (one of many faced so far) is that when I began that draft, I knew nothing of how a novel was structured. In retrospect it seems strange, given the volume of fiction I’ve devoured in my voracious life, that I’ve paid so little attention to things as basic as how and where chapters are divided.1 In my own draft, I simply created a new file each time I hit 10,000 words, which, as it happens, does not naturally lead to a brilliant structure. Nor even a brilliant anti-structure. It was just bric-a-brac, full of repetitions and missing critical scenes.

Not that none of it was worthwhile. I liked much of what I had written, but in the end, after fiddling for a few months, I had to admit to myself that my 112,000 words did not amount to a novel. I therefore moved everything I had written into a subfolder, and started a new document on Monday.

In the preceding three weeks, I had forced myself to write a plan. This was not a blow-by-blow outline, but just a rough ordering of the major events, a cast list, and a developmental synopsis. Synopses are typically submitted to agents and publishers with manuscripts, as an overview of the arc of the novel as a whole when only the opening chapters were sent. Part of the pitch, in other words. A “developmental synopsis” is a private one for keeping track of the structure of the novel.

While painful to produce, this has been immensely helpful. And quite probably I could not have made one without first having done the zero draft. Now, I feel like I know where I’m going, at least enough to carry on. My goal is to have a first draft of the manuscript finished by the end of August.

Wish me luck.

Reading as eating

Over the past few months I’ve had many conversations which must have been as frustrating for my friends as they were for me. Many people, regardless of whether they have written anything of any length, imagine that they know something about how one ought to set about such a task.2

This type of ex nihilo advice has led me to the realisation that the relationship between reading and writing is something like the relationship between eating and cooking. One can stuff oneself endlessly, becoming an admirably ecumenical gourmand in the process, without having the slightest clue how to cook a meal.3 The problem is that, because storytelling is actually more indispensable to modern life than food preparation is, people are spellbound by the illusion that they know something about it.

It’s not that the public knows nothing about storytelling; they actually do know something. But a little learning is a dangerous thing. Those who have never tried to cook at all are generally well-aware that they cannot cook. So immersed in narratives are we that we imagine—indeed, I imagined—that writing a long work of fiction would be something like relating an anecdote.

It’s not.

The difference between a spoken yarn and a novel is more drastic than the difference between boiling an egg and preparing a seven-course meal. After all, even a long an anecdote takes at most half the minutes required to hard-boil an egg. And even an extraordinarily elaborate meal would typically only take a day or two to prepare (though of course years of practice). So the range of time spent in food preparation is something like six minutes to two days. But a novel is rarely finished in less than a year, might easily take three, and not a few have taken six or ten.

Perhaps a better analogy would be between jogging for three minutes at whatever pace you happen to be capable of, and training for and successfully running a record-breaking marathon. One takes minutes and is relatively painless, the other months or years, and pain is all but inevitable.

Anyway, at this point I’m three days and 6,729 words into the rewrite. If it sounds like I’m complaining, let’s chalk it up to the inevitable pain, but nonetheless I’ll leave it there, until I write again…

  1. Then again, until I began thinking about publishing, I had also never paid any attention to the publisher of any book I read, nor thought at all about genre.
  2. There are merciful exceptions, i.e., friends who never make any suggestions but simply offer their ears and support. If you are one of these, I am forever in your debt.
  3. There is the added complication that sometimes it is best not to know how the sausage is made. Revealing certain things about the writing process seems to destroy people’s image of how fiction is conceived. For example, I contend that not a few opening lines were among the last things in a novel to be written, rather than occurring to an author with a thunderclap at the novel’s conception.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.