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Planned chaos: Sarah Armstrong on freewriting and rewriting

ArmstrongHis Other House

Local writer Sarah’s Armstrong’s second novel, His Other House, was published on 1 March by Pan Macmillan. Her first novel, Salt Rain, was shortlisted for several prizes including the Miles Franklin. As she works on her third novel, she reflects on how her approach to writing has changed over the years. 

There’s something exhilarating about writing a novel and having absolutely no idea where the story is going. Anything is possible and unexpected twists in the plot can pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. I once read someone describe writing a first draft as groping your way blindfolded through a strange room.

I’ve heard many writers commend this approach to a first draft, most recently Jeanettte Winterson, who was the standout guest at last year’s Byron Bay Writers Festival. She encouraged writers to let their work be wayward and uncontrollable and spoke of the ‘necessary chaos.’

I’ve always urged my writing students to use freewriting* in their first drafts, worried that too much planning or thinking might prematurely constrain their writing; worried that they might miss one of those wonderful unexpected passages of writing that can emerge when you are really letting the writing flow and not worrying about what’s coming next.

But I have to confess that my own approach is changing. I am doing rather less blindfolded groping than I once did, and rather more planning ahead.  When I wrote Salt Rain I had no idea where the story was heading. The spark for that story was something that came up in a freewrite: an image of a girl sitting on a hill in the rainy dark, looking down at houses in the valley below. That was all I knew about the story and it wasn’t until about the fourth draft that the plot became clear to me.

When I started writing His Other House, I had a situation in mind (which I won’t reveal as it’s a bit of a spoiler). While this situation contained all the necessary drama and tension, there was still plenty of work to do. You know, small (!) stuff like develop fully dimensional characters, figure out character arcs, decide on a structure and setting, get clear on voice etc. But I had a clear narrative framework to hang it all on, which made writing it much more straightforward than my first novel.

Now, I’m about halfway through my third novel and I’ve moved even further from the blindfolded groping approach. (In truth, there’s another novel I worked on after Salt Rain, one that my partner, Alan, and I tried to co-write but the less said about that the better.) With my current project – working title TTC – I had a dramatic situation in mind, but this time I also knew exactly where the story started and where it ended. I knew how the protagonist would change throughout the story. There’s still a lot of work to be done and there are still moments of surprise (eg. Oh! This character is a nudist!? Really? Okay) but I am not groping my way through the first draft. I am wandering forwards with a map in my hand.

Sometimes I worry that this means I have lost something. Some spontaneity, some free, wild writing that I’ll never, ever see if I write with that map in hand. But I tend to think – as someone who has been writing fiction steadily for more than fifteen years – that even as I write to my loose plan, I have learnt how to keep some essence of freewriting, some sense of being spontaneous and open to the unexpected. So perhaps it’s all about the stage of writing I am at. I wonder how my approach to writing will have changed in another fifteen years?

One thing that hasn’t changed is the rewriting required. And it’s always more than I imagine. Even now as I work away on TTC – I’m mid way through the third draft  –  I notice myself thinking that this one won’t require as much rewriting as the others. Which is total delusion of course and just something I tell myself so I am not overwhelmed by the task at hand.

When I sent His Other House to my agent about a year ago, I truly felt there was nothing more I could do to it. I’d already got feedback from readers and made some tough rewriting decisions. I figured I was done with it. But, of course, once Pan Macmillan contracted me for the book (and the next one as well) and gave me some editorial feedback, I saw how much more there was to do on it. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen these blindingly obvious things before, including a fairly significant rewrite of the ending. Then I was done with it. It was definitely as good as I could make it.

A month or so later, I got the copyeditor’s suggestions, which as well as grammar and punctuation included a few questions on character and pacing. Yep. Suddenly I saw all the ways I could make it even better and so I worked away intensively for a couple of weeks. Then I was done with it etcetc. Luckily I only got one more (tiny) bite at the cherry when the proofs came through. I was overjoyed to hear it had gone to print, not least because it meant I could stop thinking about any possible ways I could make it better.

Which brings its own particular disquiet. Because that’s it. It’s set in stone now. This stage of the process – as a book goes out into the world – involves a letting go. People will like it or not and there’s nothing I can do about that. When the book is in a reader’s hands, they have their own individual relationship with the story. Each reader brings their own life and inner world to the book, and a unique reader-book relationship is formed. It’s almost – strangely – nothing to do with me now.  Luckily, I have a wonderfully imperfect third draft to turn to, and a roughly drawn map in hand that tells me where it’s heading.

Don’t miss Sarah at Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015. Sarah’s novel His Other House was published by Pan Macmillan on 1 March. Book club notes are available from Sarah’s website www.sarah-armstrong.com

* Freewriting involves writing quickly, without stopping to think or choose the perfect word. When you freewrite, you take the first thought that comes to you and you let the writing be chaotic and ungrammatical and rambling. It’s about distancing that inner writing critic which can so often limit writing.

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