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A vital return to reality

There’s a pristine 330-page YA manuscript sitting on my desk and it’s taking all of my willpower to stay away from it.

A photo of a hardcopy of Community

It’s my first novel. It’s taken months to write. Over the past fortnight I’ve spent about ten hours a day going through from start to finish, twice. I laughed, I cried, I culled characters and scenes.

I wrote the first draft of Community over several months, starting during NaNoWriMo and re-reading only what I needed to in order to keep going. I didn’t go back and edit as I went, or rewrite the previous day’s text – which went against all my journalism and editing training – but this was also liberating. That first draft ended up just short of 150,000 words.

There’s a lot on the web about how to edit and rewrite, and everyone seems to go about it differently. I worked as a subeditor and editor for years, and believe no-one will look at what they’ve written themselves with fresh eyes. Ever. However, it is possible to rewrite and edit your own work with a specific focus on structure, content and copy.

The rewriting so far:

  • Using a style sheet to keep an alphabetical list of names – characters, places, etc – I discovered no less than eight first or surnames starting with M, including one of the main characters, out of a total of twenty or so named characters. Similarly, there were a string of S names, including the protagonist’s surname. And a location name changed slightly.

  • One character changed name completely, joining the growing rank of M monikers.

  • One of the characters was travelling to Italy, then France, then Italy, then France...

  • One initially important character faded into obscurity; I had an overload of single-parent, only-child families; and I had several adult characters who were just along for the ride. Combining two families, and two of the characters, removed three characters in total, and two S names. It also strengthened the fading character’s role in the story, as her attitude towards others was explained by her new position.

  • There were discrepancies in character appearance, age, the timeline, school schedules, and work schedules that were important to the narrative.

  • Some conversations between characters that made sense in my head didn’t on the page.

So I changed some names, tidied up timeline discrepancies, inconsistencies, typos, passive voice and other issues. Over two rewrites the word count came down by 16,500 words, and it’ll come back further. And I’m pretty happy so far – the story is more cohesive than I expected (after not rereading as I went), the themes flow through, and the characters are well-rounded.

But I’m at the point where I’m losing my objectivity, and perhaps some motivation. Or my grasp on reality.

I spent hours trying to find the perfect song for one scene, and subsequently developed a slight obsession with Aussie indie band Boy and Bear to the point where the Moonfire and Harlequin Dream albums have been on constant rotation and I keep breaking into bad singing (me, not the band), and start musing about song narratives and construction.

I’ve rewritten scenes, then gone back to the original. I’m second-guessing some elements of the story. The first thing I want to do in the morning is get into the book, and I’ve been working on it until midnight without realising it.

So after two thorough rewrites, I’m putting the manuscript away for a while – taking a break, working on other projects, catching up on housework, leaving the cat in sole possession of my desk chair, and removing myself from the world I’ve built so I can look back on it with renewed freshness.

Then I’ll tackle the hard copy.

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