Approaches to writing - April

1 April 2012 / Leave a Comment
I’ve been thinking that it would be nice to find out how other out of print writers write. I’m not talking about plot, character development, setting etc – although all of that is interesting too. I want to know how other writers manage their manuscript? How do they take it from draft stage, to something that is polished and will hopefully shine for the reader?

There is no guidebook for the process of writing. If I was studying to be an editor, I would be taught some common steps of what to do when, such as: read the manuscript through once and make note of only the things that jump out at as incorrect. Copyedit the manuscript and send corrections back to the author for approval. Review the corrections and finalise the manuscript to send to the designer. Within each of these steps, there are further checklists to assist editors.

But what about writers? How do they take a systematic approach to their work? How can they manage their time so they don’t get overwhelmed and get lost in all those pages of text?

Every writer seems to write and rewrite differently. Philip Roth writes standing up at a lectern in his living room. He says that he paces half a mile for every page. Raymond Carver said he would often write the first draft of one of his short stories in one sitting, but he loved to revise and would sometimes rewrite that story twenty or thirty times. Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sophia Tolstoya, famously transcribed his almost illegible drafts of War and Peace seven times.

This month, I am hoping to ask some other out of print writers how they approach their manuscript. Searching for Von Honningsbergs is the first novel I’ve ever written. I enjoyed writing my first two drafts, but after that, I found the rewriting really hard. It was something I had never tackled before on such a large scale. I’ve learnt a lot along the way, but I am keen to find out how other writers do it.

To start Approaches to writing, I’m going to answer these questions myself…

R. Wiseman
Searching for Von Honningsbergs
One exhibition, three paintings missing overseas, a frustrated artist and a difficult boss. Will they pull the show together?

What inspired the idea behind your story?
I was reading The Age newspaper and came across an article about a Senior Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria going overseas to locate paintings for an exhibition of Sidney Nolan’s desert series of paintings. The article made me wonder about the stories behind these paintings, how had they ended up overseas? How was this curator going to find them and persuade the owners to lend them for an exhibition in Melbourne? And what is it like to reunite a series of artworks? I sat on the idea for a few months, before I got the chance to start writing.

How long did the first draft take to write and how would you describe this process?
I started my book in a little notebook while on a holiday in North Stradbroke Island. I remember sitting at a little glass coffee table, sipping coffee and hand-writing my first paragraphs about Lawson and his journey, while my husband went on walks around the island in the late afternoon. I think I churned out most of the draft while on that holiday, which wouldn’t have been more than a week long. I wrote it quickly, using xxx’s for areas that needed to be filled in later.

Where do you write and how often and how long do you spend writing?
I usually write at my laptop in our study. We have no blinds on our windows, so in the winter I freeze. Having two young children and a household to run, I have to steal snatches of time whenever I can. I’m lucky to get a two-hour stint writing. When I’m on a roll, I might get the chance to sit down and write maybe four or five evenings in a week. I drink cups of green tea, eat dark chocolate and chew on my fingernails when I’m trying to avoid eating more chocolate.

How do you go about rewriting and editing your book? And how has it changed from the initial draft?
When I returned from North Stradbroke Island, I typed up my story – adding in details and further characters and dramas. I took what was really a skeleton in the notebook and fleshed it out on the computer. Then I think I would have re-read and rewritten again. But I never had a plan, or some type of structure to my rewriting, I usually just worked on a chapter at a time. I have probably reworked the first half of my novel, more than the second half. I don’t know if that is because the first half needed more work, or because I can never be bothered by the time I come to the second half.

When my novel was longlisted for the Vogel Award and then read by Allen & Unwin, but ultimately not picked up, I knew that it needed more work. I also had a paid manuscript assessment done on it – that was very detailed in the areas that needed improvement. So I spent the next couple of years rewriting it. I made Lawson far more neurotic and went on about a blushing problem of his a lot. I re-submitted it to the Vogel Award and to Allen & Unwin and to another publisher in 2009 and it all fell flat. I also had a friend of mine who is an editor for a trade publisher read the first section of the book. She didn’t actually say whether she liked it or not, which made me rather nervous. But she wrote very detailed feedback on the manuscript which was very insightful and she picked up on a lot of the areas that I knew were muddy, but I had hoped I could get away with. The truth is, if the author feels something is muddy, so will the reader. Don’t try to bluff your way through it – fix it!

I finally realised, that all my rewriting had actually made my novel worse, not better. Somehow, I had lost some of the spark that was in the second draft. In the last year, I have undertaken another major rewrite. Lawson now tells his story to a curator, whereas before, he wasn’t really telling his story to anyone, and everyone questioned me, why is he even telling this story? I have also structured the story so that each chapter is based around a work that Lawson painted, it’s a better way of telling the story, it helps me jump from place to place, it also helps me to introduce a bit of light and shade in my writing.

I cut out about 20,000 words from the previous draft that I realised weren’t actually adding to the story but were detracting from it. I have travelled to many of the places that Lawson travels to, so I realised that I was putting in too many of my own anecdotes from travelling. While they were nice little stories that were special to me, like the wheels on the train being changed when entering China from Mongolia, these little asides weren’t doing anything to move my story along. They were just kind of annoying. Also, the Allen & Unwin reader’s feedback made a comment about some of the characters in my book. He or she said that if they weren’t there to do something, then why were they there at all? So I merged some characters, made some others do something, and deleted a fair few more.

When rewriting, I look out for things that aren’t reading well. If something is clumsy or unclear I try a couple of times to fix it. I often find that if I can’t fix it after a couple of tries – there is something fundamentally wrong and it needs deleting. I am also wary of anything that sounds too contrived, anything that is clichéd and areas that have too much description, rather than dialogue or action. I always read back over the previous chapter before starting on the next.

When is a book finished?
For me, my book is finished when I can’t bear to look at it another time. It seems that my book has been finished three times already. When it has been finished I have sent it to publishers for consideration. When my book gets rejected, it means that it is not finished and I start rewriting again. At the moment, it is finished again, and I am sending it off to publishers to consider. But who knows, I might be revisiting Lawson and his journey again some day soon.


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