You know that feeling you get when you read a fantastic book and it gives you shivers? When every page you turn makes you want to read more and more, and every sentence is so bloody good you want to read it twice and when you get to the end you're devastated the book is over? I have been pondering about this lately, having recently read three books that took my breath away, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway and THE RITUAL by Adam Nevill and CRUDDY by Lynda Barry, and having dug up more information on all authors and having read this interview with Adam Nevill and having put WHAT IT IS by Lynda Barry (a book on her creative method) and Hemingway's ON WRITING on hold at the library, and all this pondering led me to write this post.
What was it so special about these books that got me?
The consistency of the voices. And where does this consistency comes from? From rewriting until you bleed out of your eyes, it seems. In his interview Adam said that "there are ten versions of The Ritual on my computer. In fact there are some chapters that I cut out. Although I really liked the chapters, my inner reader said: this doesn’t feel right. ... You have to trust your inner reader, write a draft and then leave it. When you go back to it, ensure you look at it with fresh eyes. If you’re only able to write a couple of evenings a week, because of work and other commitments, every time you return to it, you often find that the voice has changed. A lot of the re-writing is about making the voice consistent throughout."
That struck me as true. I never thought of it this way. The purpose of rewriting is to get to consistency.
How many times have you read a book with a promising beginning that started dragging in the middle? On how many books have you given up because of that? Perhaps they could use more drafts to smooth over those places where the voice changed for some reason, where maybe the writer had to take a break and come back to the story and the voice wasn't the same anymore.
Perhaps this is why Stephen King says that to write a book well you have to keep it alive and write it fast, in the matter of months. But I see now that the time over which you write your book is very personal. It might take you 10 months, it might take you 10 years. But if you're able to stay consistent over those 10 years, the book will be that much better.
There are some of us who are blessed with patience. Not me. I'm fucked, because by the time I get to Draft 5 I'm so sick of the story I want to move on to the next one. I wish I could slow down my brain. The idea of striving for voice consistency is helping me slow down. I got to understand that by taking my time I won't lose the story, yet I will lose it if I step away. I will lose my voice. And it will be a challenge for me not to step away from the same story after a year or two or three. I'm simply too ADD.
And another aspect of writing over long periods of time: you change as time goes on and sometimes simply can't go back to who you were at the beginning of your story, and when you arrive at the end, the whole thing needs to be either completely rewritten and or be shelved and never see the light of day.
It seems every story needs to be rewritten as many times as it takes to get it to the point of consistency. We writers don't see the rough spots anymore, not after toiling over the story for months or years, but it takes a reader a day or two to swallow the whole thing and if anything out of place it immediately jumps out and cuts the eye and bothers the ear. That's where great editors come in. And if you're an indie writer and don't have access to editors or can only afford one editorial pass? Well, you're screwed. So unless you discipline yourself with rewriting until the story is smooth, chances are, the readers will set your book aside.
I see the whole writing/rewriting process as a bog that I have to wade through. At first I have no clue where I'm going. That's Draft 1. But I push on and because I'm not aware of the pits and perils along the way somehow I make it out. The second time I know where I'm going but I also know the crud and the pain and the despair and the disorientation that comes with it, and so Draft 2 is the hardest. I'm still not clear which path is quickest and I keep getting lost knowing that here I will sink to my waist and over there a cloud of mosquitoes will feast on me and up above there is a dead body floating and it will stare at me with its dead eyes as I trudge by and there is nothing I can do about it but keep going. Now, the third time through is faster. I remember the road. I know what shortcuts to take. I know where I can cheat and where I can't. And so it goes. Draft 4 is easier, and Draft 5 is even easier. I can keep running through this bog until I know it so well I get bored.
I also realize I'm very lucky. Because I write full-time and don't break for weekends, I'm able to reach this consistency sooner, in fewer passes. ROSEHEAD and IRKADURA are my only two books so far that I have written without interruptions, and it shows. They are my bestselling books. Everything else is below them. THE BADLINGS has been interrupted twice, by the copyright issue and by the Amtrak residency, and its original voice was gone. I finished it and it's a fun little story but it could be better. SIREN SUICIDES was constructed by me trying to plot it and failing and then getting so tired of how it expanded that I just hacked it up into three pieces and made it into a strange abrupt trilogy. So with TUBE I want to apply everything I've learned so far and make my voice as consistent as I can. It's also the first book that I don't want to finish quickly because I feel comfortable working on it. I think I know what I'm doing and that feeling gives me the sense of calm that I didn't have before.
Imagine the kind of voice consistency that comes with years of experience. With 10 years, 20, 30. I can't even fathom it. It's a dream, and it's something I noticed in every well-written book. Well-written books I don't read, I gulp. They go down smoothly. There is no hiccup after. And all that's left after is a strong voice that sings in my head and that I don't want to stop singing. That's what CRUDDY sounded to me like. I wonder how long it took Lynda to craft it, but the fact that she did take time to craft it shows. I was taken by the opening line and never once throughout the whole book did her voice waver. It carried me through to the very end and at the end it made me cry, for the character, for the story, and for how well it was written.
Knowing that this is the result of copious rewrites makes me less scared. The time I will spend will be well spent. Is this some kind of a new writerly wisdom I'm acquiring? I don't know. But it feels solid. Solid and comfortable and hard, still very hard, but with the end in sight. Well then, back to the bog I go. Maybe I will walk it so many times, at the end I will dry it out, exhausted by my endless steps and then the walk will be easy. Peace of cake. Until the next book comes. And the next. And the next.
And I will have to walk in a new bog, alone, again and again. The glamorous life of a writer.