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Be Kind – Don’t Rewind (or ‘Don’t go back to page 1 every time you edit your draft’)

keep-calm-and-edit-laterOK, so it’s an analogy that dates me. But in olden times, when you took your rental tapes[*] back to the video store[*], the clerk with the nose ring would get annoyed if you didn’t rewind them. That was because the next renter would have to rewind the VHS[*] tape and this could take several minutes and wear out his/her VCR[*]. Sometimes you were charged a five dollar fee if you didn’t rewind. Hence the phrase: Be Kind-Rewind.


([*]: younger readers may have to Google these terms.)


This rule happens to be the reverse when it comes to writing a long piece, however – particularly an early draft of a novel.

So you’ve got thirty gifted—but rough—pages and you’ve submitted them to your critique group. They love your quirky Southern novel with its ensemble cast but there are clarity errors (it’s a first draft). And they bring up stuff that simply doesn’t work. And they have a few suggestions for improvements. Great! With their feedback, you’ve even got a few new ideas of your own. So back you go to page 1, to get it all right before you move on. It makes sense. You need a good foundation[**].

Before you know it, revision becomes rewrite.
But you get it all down and resubmit to your workgroup. Or your friends. If you have any left.

And so it goes.

Six months later you find yourself still working your first thirty pages. You need to get them right. It’s important (and it is—eventually). But for some reason you never reach the end of the first draft. The members of your critique group display forced smiles when you resubmit.

What happens when you rewind you manuscript too often.

What happens when you ‘rewind’ your manuscript too often.

If this sounds familiar, you are in good company.

The risks of over-editing the beginning of an early draft are many:

1. You never get to page thirty-one. Or it takes you forever (and you end up changing the first thirty pages anyway, once you finally complete the drafts, now that you’ve driven the entire journey).

2. Your work suffers from workshop bloat. Each subsequent submission adds a layer of earnest explanation to your fiery prose and loses power with the reader, even trained readers like your stalwart writer friends.

3. Suggestions for improvement are sometimes not as valid as they could be as a result of seeing the work too often.

4. Key elements get left out because you cut them. But they are still locked in the minds of you and your critiquers. I had a pair of earrings in a work-in–progress that are essential to the plot yet they somehow disappeared from a scene and a new reader was confused. Previous readers had no issue–the earrings were still on camera because they had been seen before. They were in the first draft. But now they’re gone, thanks to my over-zealous rewriting.

5. The vibrancy fades. The Thrill is Gone, as BB King so bluntly put it. That’s because it suffocated due to premature over-editing, which sounds like something you might take little blue pills for. Remember that Southern novel? I was referring to a dear friend whose book opened with a terrific, wonderful, quirky scene set in a small town square. But there were a lot of characters and it was a little confusing. (It was a first draft.) But subsequent rapid edits without moving forward completely diminished this scene and it got chopped and buried in a lot of narrative that tried to clarify. The magic was gone, unbeknownst to the author.

“I honestly believe that the first draft—your instinctive, heartfelt product—is the best.” Lee Child said this, and he has sold a few (million) books. Make that tens of millions.

You MUST edit—like mad—eventually.

Under-edited books are the bane of the self-publishing world. IMO Indie authors must work even harder to combat the stigma of sloppy self-pubbers. As number two, we have to try harder.
James M. Cain said anyone who wasn’t prepared to rewrite a book fourteen times had no business writing it in the first place, but he was talking about an entire (i.e. completed) book. If the manuscript isn’t finished, don’t do it.

Don’t do it.

writers_blockSuggestions:

I view submissions like gold and try not to resubmit a section more than twice to my group, and twice only after a period of time has passed.

If you leave off at page thirty, start the next writing session on page twenty-nine (no earlier) and press on, until the draft is finished. If I have group feedback on earlier sections I leave myself a bullet list of notes before the offending section and forge ahead without any immediate revision until I am done and ready for the next draft.

Baby steps. In my other life I am a software engineer. People think I’m crazy when I say this but there are many similarities to writing a novel and writing a computer program. In software engineering there is the concept of ‘iterative development’, which boils down to ‘don’t try to do it all at once’. Write small improvements to the program with each successive iteration, making sure each ‘draft’ works until it all functions efficiently. Try to do it in one or two passes and most mortals will fail–or write a crappy program. I apply the same methodology to my fiction writing after my first drafts—(usually two). Sometimes I do temporal adjustment, getting all the dates and times in sync. Sometimes I just do dialog tags. A draft like that can take mere hours. Sometimes I flesh out a single character’s POV over a specific topic in a single draft and not bother with other themes or characters just yet. I do a lot of drafts but they feel manageable.

Be prepared to fail. Be prepared to write an entire novel that isn’t worth a second draft. I’ve done it, more than once, I’m sorry to say. But so have many successful authors. I once wrote a horror novel (I thought I wanted to write a horror novel and thought I could) but it simply didn’t work. It’s sitting somewhere on my hard drive collecting digital dust. But I don’t regret it (too much) and I didn’t spend a year on the first thirty pages. Henning Mankell said you have to write a lot of crap if you want to write something good. The Rolling Stones used to spend months in the studio just to come up with one three-minute gem. Be prepared to fail.

You’re not the first author to have the OCD early editing problem. The temptation to go back and revise is huge. It’s natural.

Back on p1 - again.

Back on P1 – again.

Page 31.

I finished my first draft first and P31 was a breeze.

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” said Terry Pratchett. They made him a knight so I guess he knows what he’s talking about. There’s no need to get your story right for everyone until you tell it to yourself. That can take a draft. Or even two.


In the age of word processors it’s too easy to over-revise, and risk not finishing, or wind up with some brown sludge that doesn’t do anything for anyone. Shakespeare and Hemingway did not have the physical capability to rewrite that you and I do. I’m going to bet they probably didn’t keep going back to page one as often as we did because they didn’t have the technology. Seems like they didn’t need it.

¡viven los escritores!

** – not always – see my post first draft jitters and driving at night

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Of Human Bondage – Looking for love in all the wrong places (Book Review)

Looking for love in all the wrong places – in Edwardian England

Leslie Howard, Bette Davis - Of Human Bondage (1934 Film Adaptation)

Leslie Howard, Bette Davis – Of Human Bondage (1934 Film Adaptation)

W. Somerset Maugham’s saga of one young man’s search for love in Edwardian England is considered by many to be his masterpiece and one of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th Century. Of Human Bondage takes the reader from Philip Carey’s youth under the cold supervision of an emotionally stunted uncle, a vicar in a small English town that is wonderfully rendered, to his travels throughout the Europe of pre-World War 1 and ultimately Carey’s adulthood. Carey embarks on a series of failed and often disastrous relationships. Maugham’s restrained, precise style may seem slow to deliver at times but throughout the novel he drills down mercilessly to a core of human emotion often left unexamined in novels of this period. We see Carey at his worst much of the time: petty, weak, despairing in his obsessive longing for one particular woman, to a point where he becomes servile and pathetic (he willingly funds the tryst between her and a ‘friend’— entirely by his own design). At another low point Carey longs for the death of a relative so that he can inherit enough money to continue his studies. (The relative does take an excruciatingly long time to die though!) But even so, the reader ends up siding with Carey, even though his choices often make one want to scream. We keep turning the many pages because Philip Carey, with his club foot symbolizing our frailties made humiliatingly public, is an awful lot like us. To keep the reader this engaged is the sign of a great writer.

Despite the page count, Maugham covers a lot of ground in Of Human Bondage, much of it through territory one might have considered taboo for 1915: premarital sex, venereal disease, abortion, homosexuality (yes, it’s there, albeit well-veiled). The side-trips into the working class health care system of England at that time (Maugham trained as a doctor prior to becoming a writer) are simply fascinating. The characters, in particular Carey’s lovers and would-be lovers, are expertly depicted and completely devoid of sentimentality that might have reduced this novel to melodrama otherwise.  And throughout, the prose is controlled yet powerful as it deftly delivers the odd detail that make even the most contemptible character poignant: the garish out-of-place dress of a woman desperately trying to mask her age, the dirty brown hem of another woman’s skirt, the deplorable eating habits of one potential paramour as she wipes a plate with a scrap of bread, Mildred’s skeletal frame as she strives to keep attracting the opposite sex despite her ominous condition.

Ultimately it’s Philip Carey who is the most well drawn.  Far from heroic in the conventional sense, our opinion of him continues to reach new lows, yet Maugham subtly shows us a man trying to conceal his limp as he steadfastly searches for any kind of work while sleeping on the streets.

This book is not without its shortcomings: as said before, it’s simply too long—by a good fifty thousand words. There are diversions that could have easily been cut. Discussions on art between Carey and his friends in Paris read like essays; Carey’s time in Germany and Paris feel like detours that would have benefitted from major edits. And there are simply too many women in Carey’s life until he gets to Mildred, his femme fatale, the core of Carey’s emotional struggle as he reaches adulthood. Do we really need such a large cast of others, no matter how well portrayed? All of this tends to give the book an episodic feel in places.

But Of Human Bondage is a masterpiece nonetheless. Not only is the tension palpable and gripping as Philip Carey makes one disastrous decision after another, but the reader is taken to a place lost in the willing fog of our own painful memory.