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WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part Nine: Revising 2

In Part Nine we're going to look at how you turn a second draft ("for your reader") into something closer to a third draft ("for the person you need to persuade"). Each post in my Write Your First Novel is a series of short prompts and exercises which are designed to lead, step by small step, towards the first draft of a novel. It doesn't assume you already know the technical vocabulary that writers use, and the full series to date is collected together here.

One more thing before we start. Everything on This Itch of Writing is free; I don't monetise it through advertising or clicks or affiliations or anything else, but simply put it out under a Creative Commons Licence (and if you'd like to re-use any anything on This Itch of Writing, please check that link for how the Licence works). But, for the first time I'm going to ask that if you find the series useful, you pay it forward by donating to the UK National Emergencies Trust Corona Virus Appeal, to Unicef, or to your local foodbank or other charity working to help cope with this unprecedented crisis.

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Today's Check-in

The gap since Part Eight is, if I'm honest, just one of those writing-life things, so I'm sorry about that. But it also has its uses, and not only because when it comes to revising, on the whole, the longer since you saw the piece - or the more distance you get from it in other ways - the better. You can also turn a gap between writing sessions to your advantage by checking in with your more overall feelings about the project, from a rather different perspective from how it feels and looks when you're up close and personal with it. If you're feeling excited about it, how much is that about this project, and how much about the act of writing? If you're feeling daunted or embarrassed, how much of that is to do with the project itself, and how much about the fact that you're committed to a longer writing project?

This isn't to embark on a great big therapy session, it's just about getting to know your writing self a bit. We all have aspects of life and self in which we easily find energy and confidence both to follow our instincts and to cope with negative feedback. And there are always others in which you easily feel foolish or daunted, where your inner critic (which is other people's inner critic, internalised) judges either what you're doing, or the fact that it's you who is doing it, and finds you or it wanting. It's a big topic: for now, just notice what's going on. At some other time, you might want to get curious about how these things fit together and maybe do some journalling, or you might not. For now, it's time we got on.

Today's Writing

So, from the previous weeks' writing you should have 

  • A revised, "second draft" version of a scene about your Alex trying to get something or somewhere, written from your equivalent of Alex's point-of-view and in Alex's first person. 
  • An experimental first-draft version of the same events, also told in first person, but from the point-of-view of your Bobbie. 
  • Notes about what happened before this scene to cause this scene, and about what might happen after it, which this scene caused.
  • Assorted other notes about characters and places, perhaps notes from ideas you had while doing the washing up, perhaps thoughts about things you've been reading with your new writer's eyes.

1) Look at the two versions of the scene. What in the Bobbie version might you bring in to the Alex version, which would still be natural for Alex to notice, feel or think? Make a list, or ring or highlight those bits. Also have a look back through your other notes in case there's anything tasty and vivid which deserves a job in the scene.

By the way, it does sometimes happen that you realise the whole thing is better told through Bobbie - in which case reverse the exercise, and see what Alex's perspective might add to a Bobbie version.  

2) If we think of this as Scene Two, you then have some thoughts about what Scene One might contain, and the same for Scene Three's possibilities. Are there any things in those notes which make a difference to what is in this Scene Two? It might just be that it would be better if Alex didn't have a horse to worry about or did have a child with them; it might be that Bobbie would be more useful or interesting as an ambulance driver than as a police officer.

Or it might be that actually this Scene Two needs to start or finish in a slightly different place or time. If you are indeed beginning to think that this is actually Bobbie's scene, you might want to look at your thoughts on One and Three, and see if anything needs adjusting or re-thinking based on those.

3) You now have three choices, depending on what feels comfortable for you as a writer, or what you want to explore which is perhaps more challenging. I would say, though, that it's not a given that more challenging is better: if you always try balancing on two gym balls at once, even if you don't land in hospital, you may never actually learn to balance on a gym ball at all. And you can always have a second go, at a different version, if you want to. I would also advise doing this on a new version of the file, so you can go back to factory settings, either because it's all gone wrong and you want to start again, or just to compare them later.

Either: 3.i) Take your Scene Two and revise it again, still in Alex (or Bobbie's) first person and point-of-view, bearing in mind what you now know of the other's perspective, and also what came before and what will happen after this scene.  It needn't mean trying to wedge memories of One into this one - if this were a novel, the reader would have just read One. And it needn't mean "foreshadowing" - the whole "little did I know" malarky - though it could. This about your knowledge of Alex's experience before this scene letting it inflect how he acts and thinks and feels in this scene. And it's about how your understanding of what this scene pointing towards inflects how you write and shape the arc of this scene as it leads there.

Or: 3.ii) Take your Scene Two, chose either Alex or Bobbie's version, and revise it, re-writing it in third person. At the simplest level that just means switching "I" to "he/she" and tidying up the verb endings. Of course the other point-of-view version, and what you know of One and Three, may well suggest changes, and you may find you want to do other small shifts and tweaks, in which case feel free. (By the way - for the exercises I've been using plural third person, "they", so as not to prejudge the sex or gender of your Alex and Bobbie characters; "they" for a single person is a very old and very useful usage, but it can make for pronoun trouble in your storytelling, so unless you're very used to it I suggest sticking to singular third person, at least for now.)

The point of starting with first person is that most beginner-writers find it easier to inhabit a character's point-of-view in first, than they do in third. And as we said before, point-of-view is one of your strongest tools for getting the reader to feel the story vividly, and in the way you want them to. But now you know what that closeness feels like, there's no reason to limit yourself to that first-person voice and perspective.

Or: 3.iii) This is the full-fat, full-caffeine version of this exercise. Drawing on both Alex and Bobbie's versions of Scene Two, write a revised version, in third person, drawing in what you know of One and Three, but starting in one point-of-view, moving into the other point-of-view at some point, and then staying there to the end. Think about the best place to switch, and how to do it, and do your best; some people find it easy, others take a bit longer, but it's a hugely useful tool to have in your toolkit.

You may have to block your ears to all the people who say you shouldn't change point-of-view  mid-scene, which is nonsense: they're just people who don't know how to do it properly. And anyway, this is all about experimenting with our tools: working out where to change point-of-view in a scene is a good way of thinking about what point-of-view actually does for the reader's experience.

To be absolutely honest, once you're a bit more experienced the kind of revising you did in Revising 1, and this kind of work, would tend to be part of the same process: there is another kind of revising again, which we'll come to later. But I hope you've realised that there may be a lot of different kinds of what I sometimes call not "revising", but "re-envisaging": seeing something afresh, and seeing how it could be better. But for now, that's it. Give your new version of scene the once over to tidy it up, and set it aside for now. And have a good weekend! 

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Emma’s memoir, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, (currently on Amazon at 99p on Kindle and only just over half-price in hardback) was published in 2019; the Daily Mail described her account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family as ‘a fascinating journey…a masterclass’. Her debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, is probably the only novel ever nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year Awards; her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was a Sunday Times bestseller as well as earning her a PhD. This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction which publisher Scott Pack describes as ‘essential reading’. She has taught for the Open University, is a regular guest lecturer and workshop leader, and mentors and tutors individual writers. For more about Emma, click through to her main website.

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