Ruthless Revision

I should have known it was mistake.

Being married to a man with an aversion to history, and no historical sense at all, is not perhaps ideal for a writer of historical novels. What’s more, I never, ever, let anyone see anything I’ve written until I feel it’s about ready to go public— ie to be sent off to the publisher, or (these days) launched through Createspace/Kindle.

So what possessed me to print off the first chapter of the rough draft of my latest novel and ask my husband for his opinion on it? After all, the rough draft had been dashed off any-old-how, 1000 words or more a day, just as it came, in a jumble of words. It really is what it says— rough.

IMG_4324I’d printed it out, read it through, covered the print-out with marginal comments and queries, done a lot of background reading to clarify historical details, and heard it read aloud by the device I’ve just discovered in my Scrivener software that does that job for you (in a rather robotic American voice, but it saves me using my voice). I was ready to begin serious work, revising, editing, shaping the rough draft into a novel.

But that crucial first chapter was just a muddle, a tangle of different things that really didn’t work together, veering off in several different directions at once. It clearly wasn’t going to entice anyone to read further. The only trouble was, I couldn’t see how to begin to put it right.

So I did that very foolish thing, printed it off again (without marginal marks) and gave it to my husband to read.

And of course he hated it. ‘It’s well-written, but…’ was how he began, trying to soften the blow. After that came the long list of things wrong with it, many of them points I hadn’t even considered.

I felt cross, argumentative, and— for several hours afterwards— ready to give up altogether.

Then came a new day, a couple of solitary rain-soaked walks, a lot of thought, and gradually the tangles began to loosen. I saw what was wrong much more clearly than before and began to feel my way towards putting it right. I didn’t agree with all my husband’s criticisms, but he had at least prodded me into looking more objectively at what I’d written.

Would I do that again, and show him anything at the rough draft stage? Probably not. But I rather hope that the final version of this first chapter will make even my history-averse husband want to read on.

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4 Responses to Ruthless Revision

  1. Julia Lund says:

    It’s always a risk when you hand your drafts over to another pair of eyes. For me, it’s my sister who’s able to tell me exactly what’s wrong … It’s getting easier to take, after all, she’s usually right (cross face).

    • hcannam says:

      Long ago, when he was a teenager, our son was the one I’d show my finished novel to before sending it to my agent, as he was a very critical reader, but he’s long since left home — besides, that was a complete novel. The real error this time was showing a rough draft to anyone at all! I know now why I’ve never done it before!

  2. I] A very interesting and writerly post. I have to say that I always say to my students.’Never give your mansuscript to your husband/wife, lover relative or close friends! It can be creative suicide.. These relationships are inimical to the creative process/ They are loaded with love,, passion. mistrust, , and power to wound however well-meaning the intent. And the critiques are mostly entirely inappropriate fro this delicate process. Worst is when they come all school-teacherish and condescending when they can’t write a thousand words themselves. Yaaargh!
    My advice would be to leave the first chapter until you have edited and finished the whole novel, making notes along the way for yourself about what might be in the first chapter.
    Then give your MS in a more finished state to a more distant person to read – not lover, not friend, hopefully another writer.Don’t let the lovers et al see it until it is between covers..
    Good luck with this one. It sounds so interesting.

    • hcannam says:

      I don’t quite know what possessed me to show a rough draft to anyone at all! Probably because I was stuck with a first chapter full of things that should have been elsewhere, only I wasn’t sure where and couldn’t make any progress until I knew. But you are absolutely right: it was most inadvisable! On the other hand, I do now know where I’m going, so in a funny way it worked.

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