This is all a new experience for me, editing and rewriting a whole novel. It’s one thing to check over a couple of pages of an article and feel pretty confident about your final result; it’s another thing altogether to try to have an objective opinion on something you’ve put so much sweat into.
I’m a couple of chapters past the halfway point of my second draft, and while sometimes that means nothing more than fixing typos and reformatting (I wrote it all single space, double space separating paragraphs only to find that publishers want double space, and indents for paragraphs), at other times I find chunks that are just too clumsy and need to be retooled.
But even that’s easy — change a word here, change a word there, and it’s done. It’s content that I wonder about. Naturally I think everything that I’ve written is pertinent to the story. It either gives you important background information about the circumstances or the characters, or advances the plot.
When your first exposure to art professionally is having worked in theatre, one of your primary concerns is always motivation. You’ve heard the joke about the method actor standing in front of a door spending an hour trying to figure out his motivation for going through, and the director finally yells “to get into the other room?” Well, sometimes I wonder whether or not I’ve turned into that actor.
Am I straying from the point when I go into details about a character’s past in attempting to explain his or her actions in the present? Do people care why he or she does what they do? I feel that it’s important information because I like these people and want to know as much about them as possible, and so I gave them histories so I could understand them.
But is that information that can be left offstage? Like the actor who creates a whole history for a the character he’s going to play, but it’s never mentioned in the script, I have written oodles about the activities of the past for some of the characters that may or may not be warranted for inclusion in the story as a whole.
In theatre we used to call it the actor’s subtext, the information that he or she created to run under the spoken words as an underlying meaning that the audience will never be aware of save through the actor’s performance. As an author do I need to spell out that subtext for my audience because they’re not going to create it, or should I leave the character’s background to the reader’s imagination?
Is it better to allow the reader to create a story to fit his or her perception of why the character does things, or to go the naturalist route and examine each one of them like a sample under a microscope? I’ve tried to find a middle ground between the two extremes of minimalist, flat, undeveloped characters and huge tracts of page after page of boring history. But does a compromise ever really work?
Let me rephrase that, because of course a compromise can work, but can I make this compromise work without it sounding forced and awkward? Right now I think things run nicely. I move backward and forward through time using a variety of approaches. If you’re going to rely on the past to tell the story of the present you have to be able to find a way of merging the two without it always being the same style of trips down memory lane by the characters.
One of the things I’ve tried to do whenever I delve into the past is make it the present whenever possible. Was that confusing enough for you? In other words, tell flashbacks as if they are happening, not as if they are remembered. It makes them a little bit less tedious if you can have some third party narration in telling instead of having it all be a memory recounted by the character.
Remember, you’re the creator of this world, so you can do what you want with linear time with one proviso — never confuse the reader as to when something is happening. If the action is taking place before the activities of the novel, you’d better make damn sure it’s obvious. I have read too many books where it hasn’t been and have been forced to keep flipping pages back and forth in an effort to decipher what exactly the writer is doing, and when the characters are now.
Now that can work if it’s deliberate, for instance a story where time is falling apart and all the moments in a life start occurring all at the same time. Past, present, and future colliding in a collage of insanity is alright when it is a deliberate stylistic effect, but when occurs through sloppy writing, it only winds up being a confusing mess.
Where it gets confusing for the writer, or at least for this writer, is how to best express the tenses in terms of word endings and modifications. I find it really difficult when I have a character that is talking about instances in the past in reference to things that are happening in the present and how it all will affect the future. Or if a character is in the past talking about he future aren’t they in fact talking about the present? Do you even need to worry about that?
As I’m working my way through chapter after chapter I’m dealing with issues like this, and others, which I can only do so much with. But the more I’m doing the more I realize how much I need an outsider to tell me what works and what doesn’t work.
I’ve managed to get each chapter that I’ve worked on to a place where I think it reads well and blends in with what came before and what comes after. However, I’m not naïve enough to think that if it gets into the hands of a professional editor in a publishing house that they won’t have things they want changed, and it’s getting to a point where I don’t know if there are any more changes that I can make without a professional pair of eyes.
It comes down to what constitutes a final draft for submission when they ask for chapters? Do publishers naturally assume that their editors are going to have to make changes and that rewrites are the norm? Or do they expect the author to have something that’s written that’s ready to go to press?
Obviously I’m going to have the best manuscript possible to hand in to anyone who wants it, but I have no idea if what I think is good enough is what they consider good enough. There will have to come a time when I stop re-writing and just be happy with what I have. Which means I’ll have to stop reading it. I think it’s just human nature to believe that you can always improve on anything you’ve done, no matter what.
With any luck somebody will accept it and he or she can tell me what to do with it. As an actor I was always good at following direction, so maybe I’m still waiting for my director’s approval on the characters I’ve created.