Rewriting vs. Revising (with an addendum on the virtues of Thought)

I’m in the rewriting stage of my novel The Crow Murders — not the revision stage. The difference is one of degree, the degree to which I intend to make structural changes. I define a structural change as a change that affects the book’s overall structure. So, combining two characters into one (something I’ve never done, but a common example) would, unless they are very minor characters, be a structural change. (More commonly, I have reassigned a character’s “work” in the book to another character.) Another example of a structural change would be to add or eliminate a chapter or a number of scenes. What I’m mostly doing with The Crow Murders is shortening, lengthening, adding, removing, and reordering scenes for the purposes of generating suspense.

So I’m rewriting, not revising what I already have or otherwise fine-tuning it. I have a fairly detailed process for this, which is funny because I have no real process for writing my first draft. First, I create a structural analysis of the book. So I write on a file card (I actually use a program called SuperNotecard for this purpose) a quick sentence to describe each chapter, and each scene, with a tally of what major characters appear in the scene, what important objects appear there, what happens, and how long the scene is. After I’m done this, I have in front of me a map of the book. I then make major editing decisions on the basis of this card set.

The point of this activity is to manufacture objectivity. If you’re a writer, you’ve heard the advice about leaving your manuscript in a drawer for a year or a month or whatever, to gain some distance and objectivity. I don’t have time for that bullshit. Objectivity can be manufactured or learnt. I have no patience for quasi-mystical attitudes towards writing, or related rituals. Even though this advice, to put the manuscript in the drawer, is good advice in one respect, it is bad advice in many other respects. What you gain you gain by forgetting about the manuscript, and the story, and this forgetting can be the wellspring of other problems. If you have a hard time being objective about your writing (and who doesn’t?) then the solution is not to ride jetskis for three months while it collects dust. The solution is to learn to become more objective about your writing.

When I’m done making decisions on the basis of the notecards, I will begin retyping the manuscript. Yes. Retyping. I start a new file and retype the entire book, rewriting as I go. This is slow and difficult. Nevertheless, I would recommend it if you are like me in this sense: when I try rewrite on a computer, I often slip out of rewriting mode and into revision mode. There are already words on the screen, and since I’m just changing words, I start revising. I hold back from rewriting. I try to make what’s there better, instead of throwing it away. I find when I retype in a new file, I make more changes to the original draft (which I print and put on the desk in front of me). Sometimes, I’ll just retype verbatim. But mostly I add, remove, reword, and otherwise rewrite. The next sentence or paragraph is not already on the screen in front of me, so it is easier for me to invent and create, since I don’t feel shackled to the words I already wrote.

If you haven’t tried retyping, try it once. And if you’re putting your manuscript in a drawer, to collect dust, take it out. Just look at it and think about it, the way any rational person would.

Writers try to solve a lot of problems with waiting, problems which are better solved by thought. “I don’t know what to write next!” Think about it. Figure it out. “I don’t know how to make this book better!” Um, might I suggest that you think about it? I don’t mean idle thoughts while you stroll in a flowered field. I mean, sit down (or walk around that field) and put some serious hours of thought into the problem. Consider various options. Weigh the pros and cons. Try things out, experiment with options. Action and thought trump the drawer every time.

Recent Reading & Viewing: Sylvia Legris, Alan Moore, Brian Joseph Davis, Julia Kristeva, David Cronenberg, Bruce McDonald, John Paizs

circuitry of veins and iridium seeds by Sylvia Legris

Sylvia Legris contacted me over the holidays to accept some poems, being the new Managing Editor of Grain. This brought to mind the fact that I own all of her books, but have read none. So I read her first two books. Both books are strong but iridium seeds is a vast improvement on circuitry of veins, and sees Legris branching further out from otherwise fairly conventional work. I haven’t read her Griffin-winning book Nerve Squall yet but it is next on the list. These two books meditate on the loss of a mother (but in a rather unconventional and sometimes irreverant way) and female body issues. I am partial to the poetic suite “hungergraphs” in circuitry of veins, which has a real narrative drive, it almost reads like a fractured short story. The thing that reading these two books in quick succession brings to mind is the fact that very few poets these days seem to develop. A lot of people put out first books and follow them with second books that are identical. Or even tenth books that are identical. The thing that impresses me most about these books is that you get the sense Legris has actually read some other books in the time between writing each of her own books, and moreover has read broadly, not just more books by people writing like her. I don’t get that sense from a lot of writers, and I wish I did. Curious to read Nerve Squall, due to how far apart it was published from iridium seeds I expect it to be almost the work of a different poet.

The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Vols. I & II by Alan Moore

Alan Moore is Odin’s gift to the world of comics, a literate and stunningly imaginative writer who stands out even among the best writers of the genre, let alone the hacks who fill out the ranks. Pilfering characters from the world of public domain literature to put together a superhero team of Mina Harker, Allan Quartermain, Jekyll/Hyde, The Invisible Man, and Captain Nemo is just downright brilliant. Then having them fight against first Moriarty and second the aliens from The War of the Worlds is genius. Guest appearances by Doctor Moreau and others in a sort of boy’s adventure story. What this series made me really appreciate was how awesome H. G. Wells was. This guy wrote The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, AND The Time Machine. He thought up Morlocks. I would be happy just to think up the word “Morlocks.”

I, Tania by Brian Joseph Davis

I loved Portable Altamont and thought this book was also quite fun, although as a novel it’s fairly sparse, not a lot to sink one’s teeth into. A comical look at the Symbionese Liberation Army, with all the silly song parodies and fun nonsense you’d expect after reading Portable Altamont. The book is slim and pretty and fits nicely into the pocket of your army fatigues. The passage where Katie Couric interviews the Tania/Hearst character reminded me of the ending of How to Make Love to a Negro by Dany Lafferierre, although in the Lafferierre book the scene is more substantial and has a more complicated relationship to the text as a whole.

Powers of Darkness by Julia Kristeva

I am reading, reading, reading these days, have to get through all this theory before I turn in my thesis. Although I find parts of this book impenetrable, not knowing Celine’s work, and disliking Kristeva’s writing style (or, maybe, the translation) . . . but only in parts. In other parts, the writing sparkles. It’s a very uneven book in this regard. I am fascinated and struck by this notion of an “abject” — a class of things not properly “subjects” or “objects” but somewhere in-between, blurring the boundaries between subject and object and therefore threatening their borders and producing revulsion in the subject.

Eastern Promises (dir. David Cronenberg)

I missed this film in the theatres and am sad to have done so. A stunning film with great performances, not as cold and machinic as Cronenberg’s other work. I am ambivalent towards Cronenberg although I ultimately thinks he’s great. My only real complaints about this film are that I think Naomi Watts was underutilized (if you’ve seen Mulholland Dr. then you know she is capable of much more compelling characters than the rather bland woman she plays here) and also I could see the end coming a mile away. Mortensen is fantastic and the supporting cast is great, especially Vincent Cassel.

Highway 61 (dir. Bruce McDonald)

Re-watched this, I still love this film, great Canadian weirdness married to affecting realism. As road trip movies go, this is one of the best. Mr Skin (aka Satan) is one of my favourite characters in Canadian cinema, if only because of how his presence buoys this movie up above the saccharin waters it might otherwise get dragged under. And you can’t be a Canadian if you don’t harbour a soft spot for Don McKellar.

Top of the Food Chain (dir. John Paizs)

It’s no Crime Wave (my favourite film), but I’ll take it. A great spoof of Hollywood horror that pushes the formulaic vapidity of the genre to its absolute, hyperreal extreme, for one of the most underrated comedies this country has ever produced.

Otherwise….

Been working on The Crow Murders (my thesis) and trying to prepare to enter the job market, which is looking dismal at the moment. Also working on The Politics of Knives, a poetry collection I should complete soon (mostly it collects already published chapbooks, so not a ton of work to be done, I am just writing the title poem and the rest is minor editing work). After I complete this poetry collection then I will be sitting on a total of five poetry collections, including the one coming out this year with BookThug, so with four to flog to publishers I feel good taking a break from poetry to focus on fiction, specifically the short story collection The Lightning of Possible Storms that (as previous posts will confirm) I have been working on for far too long.