Thought of the Week: The Right and Wrong of Revising Your Writing

First of all, I had considered titling this The Wright and Wrong of Wrevising Your Writing, but it seemed a little too kitsch. What do you think?

Secondly, I have no intention of defining right and wrong. I’m not that daft.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is one of my favorite composers. His four symphonies are of course the best known of his works, the first in particular, opening with its dramatic C minor chords and booming timpani, inspiring pathos and doom in all their forms. However, far more than these massive works I prefer his chamber music, and in particular his works for piano and strings. In his life, Brahms wrote three piano trios, three piano quartets, and one piano quintet. That we know of.

His first piano trio, in B, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and is a constant player for me. The opening theme is serene and grand, and simply leads onward from there. The scherzo is tense and jittery, with the third movement being the sound of utter beauty. The finale, with its ambiguous tonality, draws on the agitation of the scherzo but adds in a extra melodic element to it.

Here’s the thing: it isn’t what he originally wrote. The piano trio was written and published in 1954, when Brahms was twenty-one. The piano trio we hear and listen to today was written and published in 1891, when he was fifty-eight, and it is almost completely different. In fact, it’s unique that we even know of the two versions, because Brahms spent his entire life revising and rewriting his works, never satisfied with the results. The tragedy of this was that, upon completion of his revision, Brahms would burn the original manuscript, leaving us with no trace of the process of his genius.

This is a shame, for having heard both versions, I actually find myself preferring the simpler innocence of twenty-one-year-old Brahms to his more mature and darker fifty-eight-year old self. I am given to wonder what the first editions of his other works might have been like. Sometimes there is a charm and quality in the passion of the first draft – Black Sabbath’s debut album, recorded on an eight track for £500, is a masterpiece.

My son makes up stories. Mostly in his head at the moment, but he enjoys it. Recently he started inventing back stories for the bounty hunters in Star Wars, which I thought was pretty cool, and not something I had given much thought to. When we discussed it, we realized that a particular detail of his invention couldn’t possibly have happened, because Boba Fett ended up alone on Jabba’s skiff over the Pit of Sarlaac, and so couldn’t have been involved in a smuggler’s ring previously. At first he disagreed with me, and I let him have his way. But a few hours later, he came to me and asked, “Dad…is it okay if I change the history I made up about the Star Wars bounty hunters?”

I thought this was incredibly insightful; having only just invented this history hours before, there was already a danger to him of changing that history – as though it would be telling a lie. If we decided to change our minds and say that it was actually Buzz Aldrin that first walked on the moon, there would be an outcry. “Lynch them!” people would cry. And they would be right.

But then what of fictional history? The natural answer would be, of course you can change it – it was made up in the first place! But look at what happened when George Lucas changed the history of Star Wars, with his revisions of Episodes IV, V and VI, and the release of Episodes I, II and III. Some of the scenery in the original movies was entirely changed. Whole scenes were added, which again changed the meaning of some of the story. Han Solo fired first! In the later films, we learn details that very nearly contradict the original movies entirely, and people have had to greatly stretch the meaning of some of the character’s dialogue in order for it to all fit. And look at what poor George got for his efforts.

So where does that leave us? As a fiction writer, you’ll often find yourself modifying some of your back story so that it makes more sense in the context of the main plot. Heaven knows, half of what I created in the Appendices of The Redemption of Erâth has already been flatly contradicted by the story I’m now writing. And I can’t imagine anyone would question me for that.

So when does it stop being okay to change your story’s history, or even the story itself? I’m sure J.K. Rowling wasn’t 100% happy with every word she wrote; even I can see some passages that leave something to be desired. But would we let her rewrite the book? Is it merely when the book becomes published that we lose the right to change it? Isn’t still in its essential nature our work? Why shouldn’t we be able to change it as we see fit?

I don’t have an answer to this; Brahms got away with it, and George Lucas didn’t. Peter Jackson felt the need to turn the ten hours running time of The Lord of the Rings trilogy into fifteen hours, and most people are okay with that (though not, perhaps, with watching it all). It seems funny how the public become so possessive of another person’s work – as though we owe it to them to stand by the work we created. Is this fair?

Let me know what you think in the comments!


Tales of Despair: Standing on the Edge, and Daring to Jump

There is a game I played on my iPhone. It’s called One Single Life and I didn’t play it again. The game’s concept is very simple: you run, you jump, and you land on the next building. There is just one catch: if you die, you die. You do not get a second chance. This is one of the most thrilling games I have ever played; the knowledge that my quarter-inch avatar is about to leap quite possibly to his tiny death sends tremors to my fingers. My heart beats fast, and my palms are as dry as dust. I am terrified.

I know this sensation well, and it is the pause before the leap. In my youth, I spent a great deal of my time rock climbing, mostly at indoor rock gyms since the weather was usually bad. Some of the long routes were scary; one curved wholly over the ceiling of the gym, some sixty or seventy feet off the ground. Still, there was always a sense of safety, of a second life: the floor was cushioned, you were roped in, your climbing buddy had you.

But there was a time when a friend and I went walking in the Swiss Alps. I say walking, but we were young and foolish, and couldn’t resist the temptation to race each other up small cliffs here or there, quite proud of our budding climbing skills. This naturally delayed us, and we found ourselves quite late in the day still on a glacier, not even close to where we needed to be, and so decided quite wisely to take a shortcut over a low peak to the north. The peak had looked innocent enough on the map, but when we arrived at its base, we realized we were faced with a hundred-foot cliff face that was not quite vertical…and of course we just had to climb it. After all, it would surely be faster than going around.

I won’t speak of the abandoned Swiss military base at the top of this mountain – that is for another time – but it was halfway up this ridiculously foolish ascent that I first truly realized that I could die. Despite my confidence, the rock was loose, and in grasping for a handhold, the stone simply came free in my hand. For a single, endless moment, I wheeled slowly, sickeningly away from the cliff, releasing the rock and knowing it might hit my friend below me, and all the while grasping in utter desperation at the cliff with the two remaining fingers that attached me to it. Somehow – I have no memory of it to this day – I did not release my grip from the wall. I believe I was in tears when we finally arrived at the top.

The free fall in the stomach, the dryness of hands, the hypersensitivity to every touch and sound, are the hallmarks of standing on the edge of death. Sadly, my experience in the Alps was not the only time this sensation came over me. Countless times since then, I have found myself on that edge, often with a blade to my wrist. I have lived with people who have stood on that edge with me, and we would stare into the darkness together. The sensation, as the steel bites into your skin, or the rope rubs roughly on your neck, is not of pain, or of comfort, or even of anguish: it is the dusty, gliding feeling of standing right on that edge, toes over the abyss, and deciding to leap.

In the end, I never leapt. Some I know did, but were caught, and survived. Some leapt and we never saw them again. I could never overcome the sensation, the thrill of death that had saved me that day in the Alps, and fell back from the edge each time. I was crushed, dismayed, guilty and furious, and all this would collapse into the deadness that I was doomed to live for yet another day; but I was nonetheless alive.

This was all some time ago, and though I still see the edge each day, I keep my distance. I wouldn’t want to fall off by mistake. I can’t convincingly say that the fear of the leap has taught me anything, but I am glad of it, for had I jumped I would not know my wife, and I would not know our son, and the world would have been a darker place.

Still, I wonder at the thoughts of those others, at the moment they chose to make the leap. I imagine it was release – the final decision they would ever need to make was done, and there was no need to look back.

The Virtue of Voices

My iPad told me it is World Book Night tonight, and Emily Temple on Flavorwire thinks it would be nice if everyone read a book to someone else, instead of to themselves. As an exuberant fan of the spoken tale, I really couldn’t help sharing my own thoughts on this, which is that it’s pretty great. One could argue a spoken story is like the best conversation in the world: you get to say your piece, and everyone actually listens to you.

I remember so very, very fondly the stories and tales I would hear in bed every night from my father growing up. Often it would be a book; Curious George, and then Shel Silverstein, and then The Famous Five. My father had a wonderful, even-paced baritone, his skewed northern accent a lilting lullaby to my young ears (before you get too worked up, not all my memories of you are fond, dad!).

My mother read to me when I was older; Great Expectations was our treat together, and though I often didn’t understand all the words, Dickens’ imagery through her voice simply flowed through me, and I saw every detail of Satis, the house where Miss Havisham lived pent up for so many years (yes…that’s where my blog handle comes from).

Even my older sister, one camping trip in the Italian Dolomites, read me a story which I had forgotten the name of; a magical tale of wishes that came true, and the lessons the children learned from this. I particularly remember the divining rod that found the stream, and how the water that gushed out flooded the farm. I only just now, decades later, rediscovered what it was: The Wish Giver, by Bill Brittain. I thought I had lost this book forever, but its memory – from a single, spoken telling – has stayed with me ever since.

The thing that was missing, though, from many of these tellings, were the voices. Certainly, my mother would get quite excited, and Magwitch got quite a growl to him. I always knew when a character was speaking when my father read to me, but not always which character. There was an exception to this, however, and this was when my father would invent a story. This happened rarely, but was magic when it did: a Story With No-No Book. These were the dark tales, and the grim, and quite suddenly, when the words of the page were no longer there, the voices were all that was left, and it was thrilling. Often these stories would be mysterious, and more than any written book I would be terrified, not daring to know what was going to happen to the hero, who always seemed oddly to share my own name.

And now, of course, I am reading to my own son. Sometimes we share a Story with No-No Book. More often we are reading from a real book (or an eBook). And what I remember from my own childhood has stayed with me: the voices are everything. The narrator may tell the tale, but the characters make it. The Secret Garden was full of (terrible) Yorkshire accents. Treasure Island was full of pirates who sounded just like Robert Newton (except for Squire Trelawney, who sounded like something out of Little Britain). Gandalf was unashamedly my impression of Ian McKellen. It gets to the point where my son not only knows who is speaking when, but will actually call me out if my accent slips even a bit (you try keeping Harry, Ron and Hermione’s voices all distinct).

Even so, with all these wonderful voices (and mind you, it gets pretty difficult to remember what an Ent sounds like a book and a half later), sometimes there’s one character, here or there, that really steps beyond the page and truly, truly comes to life. I’ve only done this a few times myself; the Witch-King of Angmar was so sepulchral and creepy I gave myself shivers as I read his lines. Reeta Skeeter, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, somehow came out with a wonderful lisp, at once sugary and sinister.

Not all voices come out well, of course. Sometimes I’ve had to change a voice halfway through the book, realizing it didn’t fit the character (or that my poor throat couldn’t handle quite that much gargling). Sometimes I just can’t remember what someone is supposed to sound like. Willy Wonka was great in the Chocolate Factory, but somehow went all wrong in the Great Glass Elevator. I attribute it to his being in space for too long.

So what is the upshot of all this? Nothing really…just to say that, if you are going to read to someone aloud, get the voices. It’s all about the voices. Dig deep in your mind, or pull from the latest movie version, but give those characters the life they deserve. Hell – read aloud to yourself! Go on – read the next chapter of whatever book is in your hand aloud. I can guarantee you two things: you won’t miss a word of the story, and your characters will quite suddenly become more alive than they ever had been before.

What are your favorite memories of reading and being read to?