Making A Cake Out Of Manure

“There’s no reason you shouldn’t, as a writer, not be aware of the necessity to revise yourself constantly. More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.” — John Irving

You’ve written a masterpiece. Sure you have. Take it out of the drawer (or click into the folder on your desktop) and check it again.

Does it seem a little flat? That doesn’t matter. It’s a classic, a future great, kids will read about it and learn this novel for years to come. I’m sure of it.

All you need to do is cross everything out and start from scratch.


“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov


It’s not always the case that you should trash your work and start from the beginning.

Sometimes you only need to kill a few scenes or shift them around — and sometimes you only have to tighten the dialogue in certain areas, or cut obtrusive phrases, or slice out a paragraph or two in order to speed up a lagging section. In any case, it’s always wise to take a step back from your novel and view the bigger picture.

Can it be massively improved? Many times the answer is yes.

But a lot of authors — especially those desperate to break into the publishing world — don’t want to put in that kind of effort. Or they’re scared to. They know something’s wrong with their novel, but they’re not ready to fix it because they like it too much and they’ve grown attached. It’s similar to being in a relationship that you know isn’t right for you. The girl (or guy) might have plenty of great traits that you’ll miss, but overall you just don’t feel it, and you know, deep down, you’d be happier with someone else. Well, the same can be applied to your fiction. It might be good, it’s just not good enough. And in cases such as those, it’s worth pulling it apart and fixing it back together.

Realign the spine, structure the bones, then begin slopping on the flesh.


“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard


How do you know when you should scrap it? That’s a hard question to answer.

Firstly, if your most reliable readers keep telling you something is wrong it may be time to listen to them. If one out of ten, or two out of eight, point out an issue but no one else has a problem with it, you can disregard it. People have different tastes and needs and some folks are just extra finicky and needlessly pedantic. However, if the issue(s) is recognised by the majority, it’s best to address it.

Author Neil Gaiman once said: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — And all that means is, listen to their complaint but ignore their advice. You know what’s best for your story, not them. Once they highlight an issue, analyse it and pick apart why it’s wrong. Then change it.

Some comments might be vague: I didn’t quite connect with the main character. Others might be straightforward: You have a big ugly glaring plot hole in chapter 12.

Whatever the complaint, don’t argue its case. Your first instinct will probably be to fight the complaint and justify your decisions after the fact. You might try to explain that you meant for your main character to be dull, as some kind of reflection of the mundanity of society. Or you want people to hate your main love interest because that mirrors the hatred she feels for herself — or some other self-indulgent bullshit to give meaning to your mistakes.

Don’t do that. Take the comments on board with a simple sentence: thank you, I’ll take that into consideration. Arguing your case won’t make them change their minds. You can’t convince people to like your book, and you can’t hang out with everyone who reads it, leaning over their shoulders saying You just don’t get it. If enough people are confused by your meaning, that just shows you weren’t clear enough. It’s not their fault if they don’t connect with your work. The onus is on you to grab them by the throat and not let go until the final page.

So sit back, look at your work, and improve it.


“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler


When I was younger I used to think rewriting just meant tinkering.

I’d read so many quotes about rewriting but it never occurred to me these people actually rewrote large sections of their book. I assumed they fixed a sentence here or there and chopped out a line of dialogue or two. In reality, some writers will excise characters, fuse scenes, and rip out whole chunks of the book — deleting chapters and rearranging the plot — until it’s right.

That’s the difference between writers who make it, and writers who don’t. There are thousands of competent novelists out there, authors who write well but aren’t quite able to grip their audience, and they don’t know why. A lot of the time, if they had the patience to work through their novel from top to bottom — analysing the pacing of each scene, the relevance of every moment, the inner and outer tension of the characters and the plot — they’d be able to give their work more weight.

But the job can be daunting. Rewriting 700 pages? Killing so many beautiful scenes? No way, some of them think. I’ll keep it as it is. 

But if you want to succeed, you need to stop being precious.


“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman


Back in 2003, Eminem won an Oscar for his song Lose Yourself, taken from the soundtrack of his semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it became the longest running single at Number One for a rap song, lasting almost six months at the top of the charts.

Can you imagine how powerfully a song has to connect with its audience for it to stay atop its competitors for half a year? It’s unheard of. Also, in a time of mass piracy, the song shifted over six million copies in the United States. Six million. Whether you like his music or not is irrelevant — those sales are monumental. It was even in featured in the 2004 list of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

And the reason I’m mentioning the phenomenon of Lose Yourself?

It wasn’t his first version.


“Revision means throwing out the boring crap and making what’s left sound natural.” ― Laurie Halse Anderson


Go on YouTube and type in Lose Yourself (Original Version) and you’ll hear how this worldwide smash hit originally sounded. The lyrics were different, the central theme of the song was different, and although the beat and parts of the chorus are similar, they lack the spark and creativity of the final released version. Eminem, for whatever reason, decided to redo the song from scratch.

In an interview published a few years ago, he claimed he no longer remembers writing or recording the first song, and it’s probably true. With his past, he was quite possibly high on drugs at the time and his memories of those days have been eroded. Either way, during that period of his life, he realised something wasn’t quite right with the track. He trashed his unmemorable first attempt, kept the foundations and skeleton, and rebuilt it from the ground up, taking an average song and turning it into one of the most successful songs ever created. That’s why he’s Eminem and why other rappers are failing.

The point is: his original song isn’t bad. If we’d never heard the newer improved version, the original would still have been considered a decent, albeit forgettable, song.

Your novel might be passable. It might be readable.

But is it amazing?


“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.” — Helen Dunmore


My friend Rob Boffard, author of the successful Outer Earth trilogy, is the perfect example of a professional who rewrote a decent book to make it into something special.

Around the time we first started talking, Rob told me he’d been shopping his Sci-Fi novel (titled Tracers at the time) around to agents and receiving positive feedback. But nobody wanted to take him on as a client. I told him to email the book and let me take a look.

And the truth is, when I began reading the first draft, it kind of bored me. But out of respect to him, I kept reading through the slow parts, forcing myself to carry on; and then, around 100 pages in, the novel suddenly hooked me and I couldn’t stop reading. I zipped through the rest in a few days. From trash to amazing in the space of some plot shifts. I’m so glad I stuck with it.

Once I put it down I called Rob up and I said, “You have a problem with your first hundred pages,” and then I babbled on about plot constructions and character motivations and rambled endlessly, thinking this might be the end of our friendship before it properly started.

I figured he’d reply with: “You’re wrong, go fuck yourself,” and hang up.

Instead, he took my advice graciously, said he’d take a look at it, and he rewrote the beginning, trimming and cutting and morphing it to give the novel pace from the outset. He’d taken my advice on board, then used his own wise judgement and reshaped the novel to fit his own ideas — taking what I said as a marker, but writing in his own fresh direction. And the book was infinitely better for it, and after a few more edits he sent it off to agents again.

This time, he was offered representation by three different agents. He could pick and choose who he wanted. He went from being rejected to being sought after. And this is why he signed a three-book deal with Orbit. Rather than pout and argue his story’s merits like an amateur might do, he sucked it up, acknowledged the faults in his novel, and persevered.

He rewrote that motherfucker until it worked on every single level.

Again, his book wasn’t bad to begin with. The writing was solid and the characterisation was great — the book just lacked a little momentum in the plotting department. It needed a sharper edge and he wielded his editing sword to give it one.

If you want to succeed, you need to do the same. If your book keeps coming back with rejection slips, it might be time to step back, view your work, and admit to yourself something isn’t working.

And then try to fix it.


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imagesTo Collaborate Or Not To Collaborate
(That’s The Question)

“I used to write with a partner. But then I realised I love the sound of my voice too much to share it with someone else.” — Unknown

Plenty of authors collaborate successfully on joint projects. First they outline their idea, then they work out a schedule in which they bang out a chapter each — or they write half a chapter, or five chapters, whatever — and after that, they edit the other’s segments. For some writers, this can work. If they respect their fellow author, if they have similar ideas about what makes a story work, about where the story should head, about character construction, etc., it can be a powerful combination. Stephen King and Peter Straub are a notable twosome. In The Talisman their styles merged — you can’t tell who wrote what — and the whole effort comes across as seamless. Not every pairing works as well as those two, though.

There are also plenty of possible pitfalls to consider.


“There is no such thing as a self-made man.

You will reach your goals only with the help of others.”George Shinn


When I was younger I wrote comedy skits with a friend. On that occasion it worked. My friend thought I was hilarious (and I tend to agree), so if I suggested a different approach to a joke, nine times out of ten he’d laugh at it and we’d make the change. On the occasion he didn’t agree, I knew he was right. It just didn’t tickle his funny bone. Our personalities and sense of humour were so in sync that collaborating came naturally. We had no problems with it. He’s still my best friend.

However, I’ve found that case to be a rarity, both from my own experiences and from other writers I know. Finding someone you truly mesh with is one in a million.

For a start, unless you’re fully in sync, you’re going to clash. If you enjoy the person’s writing, that doesn’t mean you’ll get along when writing together. You need to have a close friendship with your collaborator and be aware of their likes and dislikes and make sure they’re similar to your own. Working with someone of a different culture, with a different background, intelligence level, and humour, etc., can be a mistake. You both tug and pull in different directions. You want to murder someone halfway through — he wants that person in the sequel. It can cause endless arguments.

On the flip-side, if you work with someone whose ideas are too similar to your own, you won’t challenge each other and your ideas may be flat and too comfortable.

The reason for a collaboration should be to step out of your comfort zone. Push the boundaries and break through into new, unchartered territory.

If not, what’s the point? You might as well just write it by yourself.


“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” ― Helen Keller


My next experience of collaboration didn’t work for me. I connected with a film director (now a friend and mentor of mine) and we cooked up a few ideas together for scripts and began working on them. For the most part I dealt with the writing side and he took on the role of editor — sending back first drafts with notes and further ideas for development. And although, in the long run, he helped my progress as a writer with some insightful comments, I also felt like our ideas were way too opposite. If I  wanted a blue bus, he wanted a red pony. If I wanted planes, he wanted trains. That wasn’t him being difficult, or even him producing bad ideas, we just had two different but valid approaches to the same problem, and that didn’t work for me.

I guess I could have argued my side until he accepted my way of thinking, but there’s no point collaborating if I’m going to do my own thing anyway. You have to compromise, and with every compromise you can lose a little of your art. The more you accept ideas that aren’t yours, the more the story is shaped away from your vision, and that always grated on me. 

When you think about it, a collaboration is double the work, not half. At first it seems like the easier option: you have someone to share the workload, someone to add input to the story and construction, and someone who’ll be at your side to champion your corner and spur you on. But it’s actually harder to maintain control. What starts out as a joint project, may morph into something that is either completely removed from your starting point, or something you don’t recognise as your own. That can be devastating, especially if you’ve worked hard on it. You want to feel like you’ve given birth to something great — not that you’ve compromised your integrity to please someone else.

Otherwise you’re left with an empty feeling at the end of the project.


“Individually, we are one drop.

Together, we are an ocean.” – Ryunosuke Satoro


My problem is that I want to control things; this, I suppose, is why I’m a novelist. I became an author in order to create worlds and manipulate them how I see fit, like a kind of storytelling sociopath. And if someone else is part of that process, I’m relinquishing the control I’d originally sought out.

My collaborator was a director so he was used to compromising. It didn’t bother him. He understood that scripts can go through hundreds of changes before filming. That’s not how I work, though — I have my vision and I like to follow it right to the end, although that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant to suggestions. If, afterwards, I can find a way to strengthen my work through rewrites or restructuring, that’s cool. I’ll pick it apart and make it stronger. But giving a scene more depth is very different from replacing one character with someone else’s invention. 

But maybe you can handle that. Maybe I’m overly precious and difficult. However, if you do decide to follow this route, make sure you find someone you click with — not just on a personal level, but with film and story ideas. Ask him what films or books he likes. If he enjoys everything you hate, you have a problem. You’re not on the same page, and you need to know that up front. You don’t want to butt heads three hundred pages in and realise your minds are turned in different directions.

Two creative minds can be a dangerous thing when you clash on an idea. You both believe your one is superior and there’s no way to settle it unless someone folds.

And the guy who folds will usually regret it in the long run.

So if you decide to collaborate, pick your partner carefully.

It’s the most important decision you’ll make in the whole process.


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