A Tale of Two Rewrites (Or, In Praise of Adventure Romps)

The book rewrite has been officially done for forty-eight hours now, but my brain still feels like it’s stuck in first gear – once I get a couple of reviews out of the way, I’m going to spend at least one day doing as little as possible, as I am tired. But then, it’s not quite surprising, as I’ve worked harder on this rewrite than anything I’ve ever done before in my life. As someone who up until about nine months ago (hmm, what else happenned nine months ago?) found it pretty difficult to motivate himself to do regular, concentrated and dedicated writing work except in special circumstances, it’s something of a surprise to realise that I’ve basically done two months of solid rewriting, followed by a one-month break, followed by another (even harder) month of rewriting. Lots of work, lots of dedication, and actually feeling like this is something I have to do, something I’d actually find myself doing rather than simply lolling around and relaxing, something where I’d frequently lose track of time and find myself working into the small hours (or, more commonly, something I’d do in the early morning thanks to my habitual early rising). It’s the first time that I’ve felt like the hypothetical idea of writing a book under a deadline of a year wouldn’t terrify the hell out of me – yes it would be scary and intimidating, but right now it at least feels like something I could actually do. Which is a very nice feeling.

It’s also brought into focus an awful lot of what I like about writing – what I want to do, and what I don’t want to do. And one of the main reasons is that, essentially, I ended up doing two rewrites rather than one. The plan was that I’d rewrite the book, get some independant feedback on it, and then sort out any final tweaks, and that would be that. Firstly, the actual rewriting process took a lot longer than I expected – I knew it’d be hard, but doing the level of structural alteration to the book I was trying to get away with was very involved, and took a lot of careful attention. It’s the whole “keeping an eye on all the balls in the air” factor – you’ve got to keep the characters, story, plot and world still working, while essentially rebuilding and rearranging massive sections of the book. But, I’d come up with some fantastic solutions that I was really happy with, and it felt like I really was transforming the book, shifting it up a gear, and making it into something which was significantly better than it had been before. Which, frankly, it was. So then, a month’s break, and then hopefully everything would be fine.

Trouble is, of course, it isn’t always easy to get people you know to read and give feedback on what you’ve written, especially when what you’ve written is a scarily gigantic novel that now weighs in at 188,000 words. And I wasn’t as succesful in getting numerous alternate opinions as I’d hoped. But I did get two – one from someone who’s actually been gigantically helpful throughout the process, and one from someone who was reading it for the first time. The first one came in, and it was pretty good- pointing out some pluses and minuses and some things I needed to straighten out, but otherwise making me feel like yes, I was heading in roughly the right direction. And then the second one came in a couple of weeks later… and it really wasn’t good. Criticism and bad feedback is, to be honest, a hazard of the job – if you don’t like the idea of being criticised or told what’s wrong with your work, don’t even think of trying to get published – and if this one had been, say, one of four or five bits of feedback I’d gotten, the impact would have been blunted. It was mainly the timing – it came in on a bad night anyhow, and it was at a point when, in an ideal world, I really could have done with some happy-go-lucky encouragement. Instead, it was the kind of thing where someone provides you with a very small list of the bits they liked, and then goes into extensive detail for the next two pages about what they didn’t. And it wasn’t so much the fact that they didn’t like it, but that they didn’t get it – that it wasn’t enjoyable for them, and with my self-confidence being rather fragile at the moment, I experienced a major confidence wobble. I really thought I’d fucked up. The one thing I wanted to do was get it as good as possible, and suddenly I was feeling like I needed to go back to the drawing board, like I was in a serious mess, like the project I’d thrown so much into wasn’t actually worthwhile after all…

(It should be said, this is after (a) the previous version of The Hypernova Gambit got me an agent, and an agent who really, really likes the book, and (b) it has actually gotten me ‘interest’ from an Editor Who Shall Remain Nameless. And whatever happenned, I knew that the version that was current at that point was still significantly better than the version which accomplished both (a) and (b). A rule I have discovered as a result of this – it is so much easier to believe to the negative stuff than it is to believe the positive…)

So for about 24 hours, I was a bit of a wreck. I knew there was a lot that needed to be done as a result of this – there was lots that had been pointed out that I couldn’t simply ignore, major character-related stuff that I needed to try and find a fix for. Various messy thoughts were going through my head, and things did feel tricky and difficult – but my agent was, to be honest, fantastic, and after a couple of conversations with him I did metaphorically back away from the ledge. And I had to do something very difficult – I had to have confidence in what I’d already done. Because whatever happens, the book I’ve written is not going to be categorically loved by everyone who reads it. Fact. And making gigantic changes to the book because of someone who really didn’t like it would, to be honest, be a little pointless. I knew when I was writing this, even back when I was just sitting down to see if I was capable of writing a novel, that I was going to write something that would exist in its own odd little niche, and which would be something people would probably have a strong reaction to – they’d either love it or completely dislike it. And after doing something like that, rearranging the furniture to suit someone who doesn’t like the room would be a little peculiar. It’s an understandable reaction to want people to like it, to want to persuade them, to go “Look! It does work!” I’m often guilty of judging myself and what I do on the opinions of others, and the last thing any writer wants (however much they like honest criticism) is to find out that someone really didn’t seem to get anything from a piece that they’ve written – particularly when it’s something like The Hypernova Gambit, which has a near-incalculable number of man-hours put in on it. But I had to be careful. Especially since I didn’t want to suddenly start taking it in a different direction from what the Editor Who Shall Remain Nameless had already suggested.

A couple of days later, things were more in focus. And the way I looked at it was like navigation – I’d taken a bearing on a distant landmark, and no matter what happenned I needed to keep heading for that landmark. There was room to do a few detours, and maybe take a slightly harder route than I’d originally anticipated, but damn me if I wasn’t going to keep heading for that landmark whatever happenned. So instead of thinking of everything that had been said in that piece of feedback, I boiled it down to stuff that I actually wanted to fix, and stuff that would simply be listed as “someone else’s opinion, which I am free to disagree with.” That was the way I chose to deal with it – and it did mean a gigantic amount of work, mainly because there was stuff relating to the main character that simply wasn’t there. It’s like when you’re telling a joke, and you get to the end and everyone is looking at you slightly perplexed, but then you realise that you missed out the bit about the Cowboy’s horse being blue, or that there were five men rather than four, or that the Seamstress was holding a melon. You missed out the bit that actually makes it work – and it’s easy to do when you’re close to a story, but it’s still a major, king-sized problem. And I needed to fix it, so what I essentially did was a compressed, ultra-hard-work rewrite, paying specific attention to the main character – filling in some major details early on in the story, and then proceeding through and checking that all her scenes still work.

And it wasn’t until I hit the final third of the book that I started realising that there was significant stuff missing; now that I’d gotten the earlier sections working so much better there were serious changes that needed to happen. One of the changes I’m most proud of is that the main character actually feels like a person now – or, at least, I’ve actually pushed her up to the level I always wanted her to be, and that there were plenty of sections in the book (particularly towards the end of the book) where a scene wasn’t working, and by simply looking at it in terms of character, I was able to actually work out what was wrong and how to fix it. Considering how much of my writing until now has felt like a bizarre kind of random alchemy, I can’t tell you how amazing that felt – I’d felt it before, when the business of writing reviews started turning into something I actually understood rather than simply muddling through as best I could – and to feel it happening here was kind of exciting, in all sorts of ways.

I guess what I had the most difficulty dealing with – and which came back to haunt me slightly in the last couple of days (post-project, I’m always a little habitually miserable anyhow) is just the sense that the book had been dismissed as completely insignificant. That it was just a lot of stuff happening for eight hundred pages, that it didn’t actually mean anything. That I might have wasted my time for the last few years doing something that really didn’t work. (Okay, some of this is my own nervousness and insecurities playing up, but it’s amazing what effect this kind of thing can have). And the conclusion I’ve reached is… that I don’t care. I am gigantically proud of everything I’ve acheived withThe Hypernova Gambit, especially its latest incarnation – it’s as close to the book I wanted to write as I’ve gotten yet, and I can cope with the idea of leaving it now. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, but the one thing I’m certain of is that it isn’t just a lot of running around – that if anyone wants to take it that way, they are perfectly welcome, but they’re missing out on what it is, and what I’m trying to do – which is basically craft the kind of huge, enthusiastic energetic romp that I’ve always loved. That’s always what I’ve aimed to do – to try and tap into the entertainment of sci-fi, to do the equivalent of a big, bold and brassy SF summer blockbuster, but to do it in book form, and to do it with characters that work. I didn’t get it right last time. But for the last three weeks or so, I’ve been burning neurons in order to get it right, and my main character really does now feel like a real person in a way she never did before. I am immensely proud of what i’ve acheived in the last few months, and whatever happens, anyone else is free to think what they like but it ain’t going to change the fact that I am proud of what I did. And it isn’t going to change the fact that the kind of SF I love is big, bold, brassy adventure – I have great respect for intellectual SF, but the books that I adore tend to be big, expansive, sprawling and unpredictable stuff, full of action and humour and strangeness (At the top of my head, there’s ONLY FORWARD by Michael Marshall Smith, and EXCESSION by Iain M. Banks). That’s the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to write – and frankly, I had such a good time overall writing The Hypernova Gambit that i want to do it again. I know instinctively that if it does ever get published, that it may well be the sort of thing that isn’t counted as “intellectual SF” – but then, I didn’t write it as that. It’s meant to be big, OTT, pop sci-fi. It’s sci-fi in spangly hot pants, it’s sci-fi as a really good rock album. That was what I was aiming for, and even if I haven’t got there exactly yet, that’s where I’m heading.

I recently read a novel by a major SF author who shall remain nameless. And it’s beautifully crafted, and packed full of fantastically well-thought out conceptual stuff, and some really gorgeous imagery… and it’s absolutely boring. It bored me to tears. There’s a certain blend of SF that just feels to me so stuffy, and formal, and lacking in the lurid joy that SF can have – I know some people enjoy that kind of thing, but I just feel that sometimes there’s a habit for the majority of SF to acheive a certain level of stuffiness, when frankly there’s room for the big, the bold, the brassy, and the unsubtle. I don’t want to write quiet, character-based conceptual SF – I want to write big, sprawling, loud SF with lots of sex, lots of explosions and lots of weirdness, with strange concepts and odd and unusual setting, and a joy in its own absurdity, and the kind of concepts that have people thinking “huh?!?” I want to write big rambunctious romps. I want to write sweeping, OTT sagas that also have the best characterisation I can muster, and which can carry people along with the sheer joy of invention and craziness, that can show exactly how much fun SF can be. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I know what I want to do, and I’m going to keep doing it, and deep down I really don’t care what other people think of me. It’s stuff that I feel at an instinctual, conceptual level. I know that I’ve tapped something in The Hypernova Gambit – and whether I get published with this book (in its new, fully remixed state) or whether I have to wait a couple of books down the line, I’m going to keep trying. I’m going to keep fighting. I’m going to keep writing. Because I love it – I love getting to the end of something like this and feeling like I’ve crafted something that’s utterly, definably “me”, something which is, in its own way, bizarre, sprawling, and unique. And because I can’t think of a better way of spending my time than thinking up crazy stuff and trying to entertain people. And if I can get myself into a situation where I’m being paid to think up crazy stuff and entertain people, then so much the better…

I’ve felt bad about myself for a while. I’ve had a difficult time. But I’m not going to stop here. I’m going to keep going. And one day, I’m going to make it. It’s not an “if”. It’s a “when”…

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Rewrites (Or, In Praise of Adventure Romps)

  1. I still feel bad about pissing on your bonfire like that … but you concluded, quite correctly, that my opinion was just that: an opinion, and mine. You took what was useful and put the rest to one side, and didn’t lose faith in the huge, amazing thing you’ve made. BTW, I just read a published space-opera romp that I rated considerably below The Hypernova Gambit, and this one got rave reviews (email me for details ….)
    And now you know that when you sell the book and have to do the sequel in a year, you can. Hopefully, unlike me, you won’t have to do it whilst holding down a day-job at the same time …

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    • Honestly, not a problem. I’ve got to be philosophical about stuff (especially over the last year or so), and I have come to the conclusion that as long as you get where you need to be, the route you take isn’t too important. Yes, it was difficult, but it got me where I needed to be. And whatever happens, the book kicks serious arse now. And whatever will happen, will happen.
      And thanks for those other comments as well. Is appreciated.
      Am intrigued about the space-opera romp. May have to e-mail you about that…
      And having no day-job would be nice in theory – but I’m pretty sure that unless I’m lucky, I’ll still have to continue on with the proofreading (but at the least, it is a hell of a lot easier to manouevre around time-wise). But, I’ve been working consistently for the last four months, and I still got everything done. And I appreciate a challenge…

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