This quote comes from a character in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel “The Labyrinth of the Spirits”. The character is a writer, advising another, much younger writer. When I read the line, I put the book down and realised not only how true it was, but that it describes EXACTLY the experience I’ve had with my current WIP, that Difficult Novel, the Prize Winner, as I’ve come to think of it.
When I finished the novel three years ago, it was how I wanted it to be. The story, the style, the characters’ development, the intense descriptions, the sex. The novel was extremely difficult to write, something I’ve blogged about on several occasions, but I was quite pleased with the result. It was only when I started proofreading it that I realised (I had my sharp-witted cynical editor’s hat on) that no one could ever read it in the state it was in. I might think it was brilliant, but no one else would.
It took three years before I was brave enough to tackle it again. This time, it was with the weary acceptance that I was going to have to slash huge scenes of great importance (to me) that would not please a reader. The only way I could deal with this was to tell myself there were two novels: there was my version, the version with the sexual awakening and extremely intimate descriptions; and there was the romantic version would readers find considerably more exciting and, frankly, sexier, without there being any descriptive sex.
Rest assured, this was never porn. I’m presuming one could call it erotica. But that was never the intent of the novel. The theme (or one of them, anyway) was of an earthy sensuality, something which is actually quite hard to achieve without it becoming graphic. To be honest, while there were quite a few sex scenes (I never counted them but I think there must have been at least ten), it made up less than 3% of the novel.
But far more important than the excised sex scenes were the stylistic changes I had to make. I developed a particular style for this novel which I stuck to all the way through. I have no idea what you would call it. “Use ten words when you could use two” is a good description. Making stylistic changes is horrible. Comma-heavy sentences; very long, complex sentences; an overuse of the phrase “I thought” and “as if”; extreme use of present perfect progress tense (verbs ending with “ing”) which really weakened the storytelling; probably way too much passive voice (though I’m not 100% sure what that is); trillions of adverbs. These were all things I noticed were weakening the narrative and led to wild slashings with my red pen. With endlessly long sentences, I added a great deal of semi-colons, a punctuation object I actually understand better than most. However, I’ve probably put in way too many of those now and may have to undo quite a few of them.
The Big Red Edit (which I’ve blogged about here) ended up with quite a bit of rewriting. The last section (told from a different character’s point of view) was, I had thought, perfect. It was only when I got reached it, in my new eagle-eyed editor-mode, that I realised it was actually bloody awful. I tweeted about it at the time:
At last I've reached Part 3 in my Big Red Edit! It's a really good piece of writing so I don't need to do much work on it...
IT'S TOTALLY CRAP.
It was very well-written, actually. In fact, it was quite beautiful! But it was TOTALLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE. This is the point where you have to think of your reader, not your own gratification, particularly if you actually WANT your reader to know what’s going on.
So: Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s words are very apt indeed. The first few drafts of the novel are all for you. It’s the story you want. It’s what lies in your heart. It’s your dreams and your hopes and desires and fears.
When you rewrite, you add comprehension. It’s taken me forty bloody years to work this out. Some writers have an instinct for writing what their readers want. Others, like me, are caught in their web of dreams and imaginings, and while their writing is pretty amazing, no one understands it. I used to proud of this. But pride comes before a fall and I’ve swallowed all mine.
If you’re looking for an example of truly excellent writing, an absolute master of language who is ALWAYS comprehensible but also manages beautiful prose, I can’t recommend Zafón more highly. He writes in Spanish so I truly have no idea if it’s his style that comes through in the English translation or his translator; no matter. Read his books. This is a man who knows where to put a comma.