Sunday, 11 August 2013

Top Tips for Revising Your Novel 3: Listen/Don’t Listen to the Voices

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given on writing came towards the end of a creative consultant’s 18-page assessment of my novel in progress Unspeakable Things. It was under the heading ‘Suggestions for the Revision Process’, and it read:

“Distinguish between the loud, bullying voice that sneers, ‘You’ve got no talent! You’re making a fool of yourself!’ (this is the voice all artists must strangle into silence) and the quiet, persistent voice that says, ‘Chapter 10 still isn’t right, you know,’ which is the one you must always listen to.”
I had never read such a profound, knowing description of the split personality of the writer. We all hear that bullying voice, and it make us cringe, plunge into despair, freeze into inaction or even give up altogether. At the same time, when we have spent a lot of time and effort on a piece of writing, a strange arrogance can take us over and make us wilfully ignore the quieter, doubting voice that niggles away, telling us we need to make changes.

This advice came to mind this week, when I was on holiday with the extended family in Wales. I had taken the previous week off work to finish the revision of my novel so that I could prepare it for entrance to Mslexia’s Women’s Novel Competition – Mslexia Women's Novel Competition 2013 – deadline September 23rd. Having a look through the entrance criteria, I found that the novels are initially judged by the first 5,000 words only. Meaning that the first 5,000 words need to be the most compelling, striking, impressive, publishable words in the whole novel. Having finished a revision that, after over a year’s work, I was pleased with, I was suddenly plunged into doubt. The bullying voice was as loud as ever. I had no talent. I was making a fool of myself. My first 5,000 words were no good. Yet even as I agonised, the other voice muttered that I just needed to do another, stringent revision on my first 5,000 words to get them up to scratch. But no, I argued. Those 5,000 words were inextricably linked to the rest of the novel. To try to change them after all that work would only undermine the whole thing. I should leave them alone and then if my novel didn’t get shortlisted, I could feel aggrieved at the unfairness of being judged by your first 5,000 words when all your really good writing is near the end.

 I didn’t write at all on holiday, and to be fair, I probably needed to get a bit of distance between myself and the mood-swinging, doubt-filled writing process. Then during a walk on a Welsh cliff, my 19-year-old son, who had recently read my first chapter, remarked that he couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and wondered what was going to happen to them. I was filled with sudden hope. One of the reasons I have stuck with this project for so long (I started the screenplay it grew out of when I was pregnant with the very same son!) is because I feel so compelled by the characters. Dare I hope that this actually came over in the writing? Would the competition judges feel similarly haunted by my creations? I pictured one of them getting up in the middle of the night and stumbling downstairs in her dressing gown, to take my first 5,000 words off the ‘rejected’ pile and give them another go.

 My son and I began to chat about the first chapter. He gave me his view on which bits worked, and I admitted to parts I wasn’t sure about. We concluded that it wasn’t clear enough at the outset that Sarah is the heroine. Two of the other characters have quickie sex in a hotel room at a wedding during the first chapter, so she has a lot to compete with! I began to think the chapter through in my head, and I was amazed to find how completely it was stored there, despite the fact that I had gone away to forget about it. I was able to re-order and tweak it as I walked along, enjoying the view. 

Today I have had another crack at those first 5,000 words. I stifled the first, bullying voice, but I listened to the second voice, the one that says, You haven’t finished. This still needs work.

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