Most manuscripts benefit from being redrafted before
they are sent out to agents or publishers. Itís a chance for the
writer to reassess the story, to see what does and doesnít work, and to
try to fix the problems. Yet, itís a daunting task, even for an
experienced writer. Most people donít really have much idea how to
tackle the job; as Robert J Ray notes, they start at the beginning, tweak
a word here, a line there, juggle a couple of paragraphs, lose interest,
Beyond that, most writers really donít have much time
at their disposal for rewriting when theyíre much rather be moving on to
the next story. Robert Rayís book is intended to address all these
problems, and provide the writer with a step-by-step method to identifying
and fixing a novelís weaknesses, and then completing the work in a
Rayís key point is that rewriting is not about dealing
with words but about working with chunks of novel, and his method is
very focused on breaking a novel down into easily manageable chunks with
which to work. Thus, the three important elements of a novel for him
are Story, Structure and Style, of which style is the least important. You
fix the story first and worry about the words later. Much later.
Within Story, Ray argues that while everyone focuses
on the main action, the key to a good, strong novel lies in working the
subplots, because that is where a novelís detail comes from.
Consequently, a writerís first job when rewriting is to read the novel,
identify the subplots, draw up a chart, and then work through each subplot
in turn and flesh it out. Proper planning and research is very much at
the heart of everything, according to Ray, so his method relies very
heavily on making lists, being clear about who everyone is, and what needs
to be done with them.
Ray also believes that establishing backstory is an
important part of effective rewriting, and his preferred method for
dealing with this, and indeed for dealing with all aspects of exploring
the novelís mechanics, is timed writing, a technique he learned from the
author and teacher, Natalie Goldberg. Through bursts of timed writing,
a writer can get to the heart of what is going on with a character and
their story, as a result of which subplots become richer and contribute
far more to a story.
Ray employs the same methods for isolating and dealing
with key scenes in the novel, ensuring that the story is properly paced to
hold the readerís interest throughout.
As well as using timed writing, and encouraging the
writer to examine and code the elements of the novel, to be clear about
what is and isnít working, Ray also turns to script-writing for further
inspiration. He is strongly of the opinion that understanding the craft
of script-writing can be helpful to novelists in terms of understanding
how individual scenes should be structured, and how a story arc can work
most effectively, and devotes a significant amount of the book to
analysing the structure of various well-known films to show how
story-telling lessons can be derived from them.
Finally, Ray shows how to polish the novelís style
through thorough line-editing and the careful selection of words.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Rayís
rewriting method may seem to some to be prescriptive and mechanistic, and
it is certainly boot camp for the writer who has never previously
attempted a rewrite. Ray is a hard taskmaster. Having said that, it is
for precisely these reasons that an inexperienced writer is likely to find
his advice so very useful.
It may be that with time, an author will refine his or
her practice, finding the tricks that work best while discarding the
others, but for the first-time redrafter, Rayís methods provide a good
foundation, and most importantly, they use a clear timetable. Over
eighteen weekends (that is, four and a half months), a writer can carry
out the work necessary for an effective rewrite of a novel, and have the
manuscript ready to go.