When returning to a text one must learn to be unsentimental. In the early expansive phase you’re trying to woo the muse with metaphorical wine, chocolates and flowers — to stimulate creative flow, to get something down on the page, anything … But now you must become the ice-hearted serial killer, methodically going through the text and murdering your darlings, one by one. All those adorable adjectives and amiable adverbs are so many kittens in the sack. Tie a rock to it and throw it in the lake. We may have written our first draft with what John Cowper Powys called ‘the ink-blood of home’ – driven by an overwhelming hiraeth for all that we are trying to evoke or resurrect – but now it’s time to ‘edit in cold blood’.
Putting the manuscript aside for a few weeks or months can help to give you sufficient critical distance. Coming back to it, reading back through it with a strong cup of coffee, one can hopefully see it afresh: the weaknesses, the errors, the warts and all. All permissible in the dirty first draft: we write that in the dark, groping our way forward. The next, we write with the lights on. Going through it again with a solid set of editorial principles (see suggestions below) is like having a really good Spring (or Autumn) Clean. Beneath the clutter – an inevitable part of the scaffolding of an earlier version – there is a decent story, an effective scene, a salvageable bit of dialogue, a good character in the wrong place or hidden beneath a stereotype. Go deeper. Be ruthless. Time for the bad cop. Interrogate your text.
Print off. Read as a reader. Then read as a reviewer. Be your own worst critic and don’t give some other bastard the satisfaction of ripping you apart (it is easier to criticise than to create, to have an original vision and to manifest it in the world). Deconstruct your lovingly-built cathedral. Build it better.
What is the purpose of this scene? Does it serve the narrative? How?
Is there conflict? Tension? Suspense?
What is the primary line of desire here (e.g. main character)? Secondary? Tertiary? Your protagonist’s short-term ‘goal’ will focalize this chapter, while they slowly work towards the mid- and long-term goals.
What changes in this scene or chapter? Is there a status shift? A shift in our perception of a character?
Is there exposition? Can it be dramatized (with action/dialogue), disguised (through an expositional device) or ditched (to create ‘space’ for the reader)?
Focus: is your language generalistic? Can you make it more precise? Your analogies more accurate? The universal is best expressed through the particular.
Defamiliarisation: take your sentences out of context and look at them one-by-one. Try rewriting them in different ways. Don’t assume anything has to stay. Everything has to earn its place, its right to exist in your narrative – otherwise, out it goes.
Opening line. Start deep, start strong. Hit the ground running. Arrive late, leave early. Upset someone.
Last line. Where do you want to leave the reader? Does the last line ‘tie together’ the whole chapter in some way, or set up a ‘hook’ for the next?
Stay on theme. Give each chapter a working title, even if you don’t use it. This will help you sustain the mood or tone. Imagine each chapter having a single song – its soundtrack. Ensure the atmosphere of the song, its rhythm, prevails throughout.
Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 25 September 2017