Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Some Thoughts on Writing and Rewriting

(Engraving by Barry Moser)
I'm in the midst of the most productive and enjoyable stretch of writing I've ever had, and it's very exciting. Considering that I spent most of the last year making no progress, and doing nothing at all writing-wise except for a brief hash at a third draft last Winter, it feels great to take some big, positive steps forward. Even better, it's great to find myself in a steady rhythm, working daily and enjoying myself. It's hard work and there are miles to go, but right now I'm moving along.

I'm currently working through the third draft of my novel, provisionally titled The Vampire of Castle Esterhazey. In reading the interviews and essays of other writers, I've ascertained that there are nearly as many ways of revising and rewriting as there are writers. Some rewrite from scratch, paying little or no attention to previous drafts. Some pore over the text with a comb, spending more time tweaking than they ever did writing the earlier draft in the first place. And of course the decisions people make are wildly divergent: some engage in wholesale restructuring, some add characters, some change point of view, some just add judicious filler here and there to flesh out character, setting or atmosphere. I guess it depends on what you feel the text requires, and what you're capable of doing.

Anyway, I'm not sure that an entire rewrite wouldn't be the best approach, but I can't bring myself to do that after working so hard on the earlier drafts. I am doing a substantial amount of new writing, though. I've introduced a couple new ideas, mostly to give my main character, Claude, more motivation and a more active role in his own destiny. Also, I've tried to heighten the tension and feeling of danger at the very beginning of the book, partly through a prologue that introduces the main bad guy, who hadn't show up until nearly half-way through the earlier draft, right at the start. I've also replaced scenes that I thought were clumsy or didn't make sense or had bothered me for various reasons. All these new passages often force me to substantially rewrite other scenes and to carefully search for paradoxes and inconsistencies in plot or language. Kind of a potpourri of approaches, but I do think this draft is a significant improvement.

One of the down sides of all this is losing scenes or passages that you loved, that just don't make sense anymore in the flow of the story, or that you just can't find a place for. I have one waking dream that Claude has where he imagines himself as a wolf, running through the forest, that I like as much as anything I've ever written. But now, I don't know where to put it, and I'm afraid I'll have to ditch it.

Ultimately, though I'm warming to the revising process, the original round of writing and inspiration is the more enjoyable, and the new passages I'm working on come much more readily and smoothly than the parts that I'm revising. Of course, it's great when I can dump a large stretch of the old draft into the new with only minimal change, as that gives me the sense that I am making quick progress.

I've made the mistake of loudly advertising to friends and family my goals and objectives in the past, making me feel foolish when I don't follow through with them. Apparently, I'm not going to stop this habit. I plan on finishing my third draft by the end of the year, and then work on getting some readers for it and submitting it to publishers and/or agents.


P.S. The following quote is the most helpful single piece of advice I've ever come across for anybody engaged in a creative enterprise. It's from an interview with Barry Moser, a wonderful artist and writer (check out his illustrations for Moby Dick).

"The most important advice I can give anyone--and forgive me if this seems glib--is to work. Work. Work. Work. Everyday, at the same time, for as long as you can take it--work, work, work.You can't depend on talent. I've taught for over thirty years and never met an untalented student. Talent is as common as house dust, and--in the long run--about as valuable. But nothing is as valuable as the habit of work, and work has to become a habit.

I advise anyone to listen to music. Listen to Bach's Art of the Fugue and The Goldberg Variations. Listen to them over and over, everyday, day after day until you begin to sense, if not understand, what Bach is up to. Then implement what you intuit from your listening into your own work. I don't care if you don't like classical music, or if you feel that it has nothing to do with what you do. Do it. It is invaluable. Let the music fill your mind. Let it flow over you and into you until you are aware of nothing else. Bach and others of his ilk will teach you form and structure and rhythm and all sorts of things you've never imagined, especially about the unexpected element--if you will only listen.

What else? Experiment and fail. Move on. Always keep in motion and finish the job, even if it's not exactly what you hoped it would be or not as good as it could be. The fact is that it will never be as good as it could be, and that's okay because it's all part of the never-ending, self-perpetuating growth process--and failure is the foundation of that process. I've done over two hundred books and not one of them is perfect. But I'll tell you this: I would rather have the two hundred and fifty-six imperfect books that mark the vectors of my journey through my art form than to have one perfect book that marks nothing but its own perfect self.

More I can't advise, except (as corny and prosaic as it may seem) to put love first in your life: love of your work, and of other people, and of yourself, and of whatever things of the spirit move you. Have fun and maintain a fierce sense of humor. There are few things so serious or important that they can't be laughed at, or even poked a little fun at.

And lastly, a short litany of dos and don'ts:
Avoid the cute, corny and obvious in your work.
Read Ben Shahn's The Shape of Content--a few times.
Don't be afraid to do better work than you already do.
Bathe and brush your teeth before an interview.
Never underestimate the value of luck.
Practice safe sex.
Don't do heavy drugs.
Don't get drunk and drive a car.
Get plenty of sleep.
Eat your greens. "

-Barry Moser


Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read your latest version of the Vampire of Castle Esterhazey. That Barry Moser quote is great...common sense and yet how often do I find myself expending energy just thinking about something I'd like to do, without ever jumping in and working on it!

Thanks Brian,

Nicholas said...


Hope you don't mind, I stole your Barry Moser quote for my music blog. Couldn't resist, a really great one.
Check it here:


Sounds like your doing well with your work, it's good to hear.

I feel I really need to take exactly what Barry Moser is talking about, to heart.