Saturday, November 29, 2008

Writing is All About Rewriting

'I’ve never felt that I have a particular facility at writing interesting prose. I write quite mundane prose. I think where I’m good is between the drafts. I can look at one draft, and I have lots of good ideas for what to do with the next one. '
--the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, in a recent interview with the Paris Review. Earlier, we brought you similar views about the central importance of rewriting from the writers Elmore Leonard and Jerry B. Jenkins.


At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know Ian Fleming raced through his first draft without looking back, then put it aside for awhile before coming back to rewrite and insert material.

I believe Robert Heinlein wasn't big on rewriting.

Wish I were like them. I can find a dozen ways to put the same sentence, and often do when I am in a forum where you can edit.

At 5:17 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

How good to see you back in the comment section after a long absence, Bluster. I must admit I'd never so much as even heard of Heinlein until you mentioned him and I looked him up. He's grouped with Isaac Asimov, whose almost comical productivity (he wrote and/or edited about 500 books) suggests that he didn't have much time to rewrite, but was forced to go with his first draft.

The only caution with rewriting is that we sometimes don't improve on subsequent attempts, so it's important to keep each draft, in case your earlier attempts were better than subsequent efforts.

And then of course there are those writers who have trouble revisiting their efforts. Faulkner famously observed that rewriting is easy; it merely involves going back and killing my little beauties. But most of us don't produce little beauties on the first or second attempt.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

John -- When the characters speak to you, you can't let them go. So I find, at least. I'm "rewriting" a novel I've been working on for more than 18 years.

Now, along the way, I have had nibbles (couple of bites) from publishers, and I signed with my agent based on this novel. But I'm actually pleased it hasn't been published -- yet.

Yes, part of me is a perfectionist, and knows that no work of fiction, especially novel length, can be "perfect." But the story and the characters -- I know I can get them "right." And so I continue on with the current process at "This Side of Paradise."

Side note -- I've written drafts of other novels during these 18-plus years, but there are only two of them I'll ever go back to. Everything is part of the evolution, of what makes us good or "better than good" writers. When the time is right for me, and for my characters, the words will find a welcome home. I can be an overnight success at age 90.

Second side note -- For as busy as Isaac Asmiov was (based on his output), I wrote him a letter in the early 1980s, and he responded rather quickly, and graciously.

Rewriting for me is a joy. It's the best part. It's another chance (or chances) to go back into a world and interact with characters that I'm not ready to let go of ... not quite.

Every writer is indeed different, as this column has noted in one way or another for as long as I've been reading. What works -- works.

To that, I say -- here's to the words, the good words.

At 6:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Asimov was a finely tuned writing machine.

I must say though, that I prefer his earlier, darker science fiction offerings, like the Foundation trilogy, "Nightfall," or "Fantastic Voyage." The latter is a Cold War tale that is also a virtual primer of human physiology, reflecting his ability to write non-fiction with great clarity.

His later fiction seems to reflect too much sunniness. Or maybe he had his eye too firmly fixed on that "500" prize to build in too much tension.

At 6:42 PM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

Looking back at my ramblings, John, they could use a rewrite.

Which makes the point, of course.

At 7:05 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Kind of cool to get a response from Asimov, Geoff. And for writers, perfectionism leads to the familiar conundrum of never quite finishing a piece of writing so much as abandoning it (something I remember well from earlier days). And what's wrong with sunniness, Bluster? I could use some more of that during these interminably gray Cleveland winters.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

John -- one added note .... Some works are meant to be written and abandoned (I've had those) -- by writing and then having the courage to abandon them, we become better writers.

Others -- well, one just "knows" when there's still life in them, when the best is just around the corner (relatively speaking) -- when the last thing you want to do is stop "now."

As for Asimov, bless him, I was 16 years old and publishing a pop culture magazine. I would conduct interviews with writers and actors and the such by phone. They never knew I was 16, because I wanted to be a "journalist," and not defined by age.

I interviewed the writer Robert Silverberg, and then asked Asimov if he would write an intro to my story. Asimov replied that it was kind of me to ask, but he was far too busy at the moment.

I always liked this -- that he was too busy to write the intro, but took the time to send me a quick note just the same. I can only imagine how much mail he received.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow, what a story about your precociousness, Geoff. Thanks for sharing that. With the web and email, it's even easier these days to be 16 and pass yourself off as an adult. And you're so right about how powerful and important it is just to quickly acknowledge such a note. I hope every veteran writer pays attention to that, because the possibility to inspire a novice sometimes doesn't take a lot, just a few seconds of your time.

As for abandoning a piece before you feel it's entirely finished, I was also referring to the familiar dynamics in which an editor is haranguing a writer into just finishing and sending the damn thing. Sometimes, perhaps often, we don't have much choice in the matter.

At 4:45 PM, Blogger Darby M. Dixon III said...

Ishiguro is one of my favorites. Mundane prose to exciting effect.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

"mundane prose to exciting effect" is a wonderfully poetic way to put it. Great to see your name here, Darby. I hope readers will follow your link to check out your distinctive blog about all things fiction, which is like no other blog in NE Ohio.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Asimov did rewrite, actually. He was a very skilled typist, and pretty fast. Heinlein did rewrite, but he didn't like it.

One of Heinlein's best known novels, "Stranger in a Strange Land," was originally about 50 percent longer than originally published. The publisher made him trim it down that much before publishing. That was in the 1960s. About ten years ago, Heinlein's widow found in his papers the original, uncut "Stranger," and it was published in its original form, a much longer and more detailed novel.

Guess what? The uncut "Stranger" is a much better novel. It's amazing how much better it is; not that the shorter version wasn't a great novel, but the uncut version is that much better.

I'm not a fan of obsessive revision or re-writing. I think it often does more harm than good. There's a point at which you have to stop, one way or another; to continue on can too easily become obsessively perfectionist. I think there's a balance being revision and over-revision. There's an old Italian saying about how it takes two people to make a masterpiece: one to paint, and the other one to stop him when it's done. Writers are among the worst about knowing when to stop revising. Sometimes it's too easy to keep rewriting.

I do rewrite, but I've learned when to stop, when it's helping the work anymore; I know when I'm not getting anywhere, and need to set it aside; maybe to look at again later; maybe to just abandon and try again from scratch. If a poem, for example, isn't coming together, it's far better for me to abandon it and start over, from the same inspiration, the same moment.

The part about this that always surprises me is how many writers get really upset when I say something like this. LOL As though my way of working upset their reality. You'd be surprised how unpopular a method it is. I think a lot of writers believe that writing is an intellectual puzzle-box that, if they can just get it right, will fall into place. I also think a lot of writers believe that they're supposed to work hard, hard, hard, and it's supposed to be harder work than sometimes it is. That if you don't suffer for your art, it's somehow not worth anything.

People express surprise at how much of my own writing is not as rewritten as their own, and how much is close to first drafts, especially many poems. Practice tunes your ear into listening better to those inner voices, perhaps. I listen for poems to come forward. More than once I've had a poem come up and it felt like taking dictation. My practice is to be ready for the poem to come forward, not to try to force it, or write something every day. Some writers seem to think that's heresy; I just think they need realize that there own methods are not the only methods.

BTW, I disagree that Asimov's later novels were somehow lesser. Arguably his greatest novel was "The Gods Themselves," which was rather late. The majority of his 500-plus books were non-fiction, which he was very good at writing. And he was a genuinely cool guy, so Geoff's letter experience doesn't surprise me.

At 9:16 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Lots of gold in here, Art. I'll perhaps mine it some more tomorrow. For now, I'll say that I'm glad you sounded off on this, because I knew your perspective as a knowledgeable sci-fi fan would come in handy here. I recall how you and Bluster went back and forth through many rounds of ping pong some months ago on sci-fi, educating me in the process.

You're right about how many people need someone else to help them see when they should stop revising and rewriting. That's the value of a good editor, and having worked with a handful that were masterful, I can tell you they're wonderful to work with. And I hadn't thought of this till you pointed it out, but you're right on that with age and experience, one tends to need to rewrite a little less, since you tend to do a better job at getting close the first time or two.

I think I should stipulate, however, that you're coming at this primarily as a poet and fiction guy, and I'm speaking as a nonfictioneer, so that would account for most of our different orientation when it comes to rewriting.

Finally, it is funny how much discomfort some especially prolific writers can cause their less prolific brethren. Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, two of our more prolific novelists, both write incredibly well along with writing an awful lot. Age, experience and practice have a lot to do with that, as do having something to say. But mostly, they just write every day, for decade after decade, and after awhile, it really adds up.

At 4:51 PM, Blogger Diane Vogel Ferri said...

Oh how I wish I had Ishiguro's problems - I usually like my first draft way too much.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

A second set of eyes (if not an actual editor) might be just what you need, Diane. At least some of the time.

At 12:50 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

You make some good points. I completely agree about the value of a good editor. I was part of a writer's group fro some time who met a couple of times a month. I learned a lot from that group, including how to critique well. I think a good peer critique can serve in similar ways to good editing. And from that, you can hone your own skills, and I think your first drafts do get better. It's about learning to become a better writer; you're not starting from zero each time, anymore. Maybe I'm just a lazy writer, but it does seem to me that a good foundation goes a long way towards stepping up the quality from the very first draft.

Actually, I don't write fiction. I have notes somewhere towards an SF novel, and few stories, things I toyed with many years ago. But it's never come together as yet. Maybe I'm just lazy, again. Who knows, maybe someday.

So mostly I write poetry and essays; although I like the trend to call it "creative nonfiction," which allows one to use the tools of creativity more openly in non-fiction writing. More and more the walls between poetry and prose have for me begun to dissolve, and I find myself writing poetic substances that don't like poems. There's an area in writing that doesn't fall into any of the usual categories; I find myself there a lot more often than not, lately.

I agree with the general concept that writing is rewriting. The part I have a problem with is the obsessive aspect that far too many writers get into, no matter what kind of writing they partake of. I guess I've just seen too often how obsession can kill quality; and not just in writing.

At 1:40 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, peer critiques can be very powerful and effective. But as I think you know, they can also vary really widely in their effectiveness depending on the quality of the group and especially on the people skills and sensitivity of the individuals. There's a way to be both affirming/uplifting while also honest about a piece of writing's weaknesses, but the truth is that not everyone seems to be equipped with those skills. In some groups, strong and mature elders can help guide others around the occasional difficult person. But I've also seen groups that never manage to overcome those dynamics, and break up because of them.

As for the creative nonfiction movement--I call it literary journalism or literary nonfiction, but it amounts to the same thing--that momentum will certainly continue to build. It's been on the upswing at least since Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, which is now over 40 years ago.

I hope you do eventually tackle that fiction. The suppleness of your prose style would make for some awesome fiction. But hell, we'll take whatever we can get. And in the end, I'm a big believer in the notion that we only write what we must or what drives us to distraction and has to come out somehow. If it's not burning a hole in your mind and soul at least a little, it's perhaps just as well (or better) to leave it alone and spend the time on that which is. And of course, you're also a visual artist, a skill I certainly don't possess, so you have more ways of expressing ideas than most. That's no small thing.


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