Every How To Write book will tell you that once you’ve finished your magnum opus you should put it in a drawer for at least three months before starting to revise it so you can look at it with fresh eyes. It’s excellent advice though I have yet to meet anyone who hast typed ‘The End’ and then not gone promptly back to page 1 to start tinkering with the precious work of art. It’s what I’ve always done myself and yes, you lose a certain amount of distance by revising immediately – that’s why you get others to read it to point out plot holes and dull bits – but you gain in immediacy and freshness.
I’m now in the really weird position of revising something that’s effectively been in a drawer for 13 years as I’ve started editing Something Stupid so I can publish it as an e-book. I wrote it in 1998 and checked the proofs in 1999. When it first came out I must have picked it up and read a few pages, or more, every week, revelling in seeing my own words in print and feeling pretty pleased with myself about it too, but I don’t think I’ve even so much as glanced at it in five years.
One of the things that just leapt out at me was how much my style has changed in 14 years. I’ve got to cut the book down as it’s long for an e-book but I’m beginning to think I won’t have much of a problem. Those adjectives and adverbs! In my own defence I should say that I acquired the adjective habit trying to write for Mills and Boon and it’s a difficult one to shake off. One of the reasons they’re so easy to read (and hard to write) is that every action, every emotion, every view has to be spelt out clearly which means lots of adjectives and adverbs. I thought at the time that I’d largely cured myself, but sadly no. They’re everywhere. I read a story ages ago, I think by O Henry, about a struggling and mediocre writer who was given a magical device to improve his writing. He waved it over his manuscript and every adjective disappeared and he had the most superb piece of literature in front of him. I need one of those.
The book is also peppered with screamers, exclamation marks, which surprises me as I didn’t think I’d ever over-used them. Amazing how you can fool yourself. Anyway now I’ve gone right in the opposite direction. With the current work in progress if I’m stalled and doing a little light revising – also known as not getting on with it – I actually have to insert the odd exclamation mark here and there for emphasis.
There’s also the thorny problem of whether I should update the book or not. Do I put in mobile phones and computerize everything which involves re-writing several scenes or do I simply put a note at the beginning saying that it takes place in 1999?
One thing I’m really enjoying though is being able to take out some of the phrases the copy editor inflicted on the manuscript. Back in 1999 I was much too much in awe of the whole publishing process to say that I do not accept that “emoted” can ever be a synonym for “said” in any circumstances whatsoever. My friends were all too tactful to comment on such excressences (fortunately there weren’t many) which is a great shame as for years I haven’t had the opportunity to deny that “she emoted” is part of my normal writing language.
It isn’t. It was the first edit I made.