November is always a tense month for me, as the 30th marks the annual deadline for me to deliver a manuscript to my editor at Pan Macmillan.
In spite of the fact that I have all year to get ahead, I always end up in a frenzy of last minute writing, and this year is no exception. In fact, it’s worse this year – although I say that every year, I know. But I have made life difficult for myself by having no less than five different time ‘zones’, and although the story is very clear in my head, I’m not sure it works on the page yet.
I’ve been through several drafts, the latest of which is 100,000 words long. The moment of truth came yesterday when I sat down to reread it all and to work out what needs to be moved, deleted, tightened or expanded. In many ways, this self-editing stage is the most important part of writing. I don’t know who first said that ‘writing is rewriting’ but it’s certainly true for me.
For the first time I tried noting what happened in every major scene on a cork board and I was fired up with colour-coded Post-it notes(pink for the present, green for the Elizabethan past) and stickers, but it wasn’t quite as helpful as I’d thought it would be. But it did at least get me thinking about the story again and it’s obvious even from a distance that I need to break up all those scenes in the present in the penultimate row.
When I’d exhausted the potential of the Post-its, I tried writing the story out in longhand, including lots of little bossy notes to myself, and this was actually very helpful, if terrifying – I have lots still to do!
My next step is to think much more carefully about the structure of the story, and to make sure that I have key points in the right place. I’ve taught whole courses on story structure, so in theory I know exactly what needs to be done. In practice, it’s so much easier to tell someone else what they’ve got wrong than to see your own mistakes. The best book I’ve found to think about structure is Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! Although he’s talking about screenwriting, I love the way he thinks about stories, and I’m always inspired by what he has to say, so I’m going to try and identify – or insert where necessary – key turning points in my plot.
And then all I have to do is rewrite all 100,000 words of it. By the end of November.