Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Tale of Two Hamlets

Pictured above is a stack of paper about a foot tall, made up of most of the versions of my novel Killing Hamlet. There have been, I think, twelve major revisions of this book since the first draft was finished, back in 2007. After revision number eight, I realized that the story just wasn't working at all and I told my agent that I was going to rewrite the whole story from scratch. And I did, and now it's drastically different and I've revised that version four times.

Originally the story was called Ophelia's Ghost. Then it was The Secret Parts of Fortune. For a while it was So Honest A Man. Now it's Killing Hamlet and I'm sticking with that because, I think, that title actually works for the book.

I'm telling you all of this because yesterday I sent the current version off to my agent so that he can (I hope) fall in love with it and start submitting it to publishers. I suppose that at a time like this it's natural to sit and reflect on the road taken to get here, so that's what I'm doing. I really don't have any specific point to this post; I just wanted to take the photo above and post it because it amuses me. The spiral notebooks on the top of the stack were used to write the two first drafts (all my drafts are done longhand) and the printouts were for revisions (because all of my rewrites/edits are done longhand).

Michelle can tell you that taking a book and rewriting the whole thing from scratch is not only a huge pain in the ass and a scary undertaking, it's also a strangely liberating activity. Once you see that none of your work is set in stone, that none of it is permanent or sacred, you're freed up to take risks and push the story into territory you'd never have considered if you were just working over the same material again. My first version of the book, for example, was essentially a prose retelling of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," with a few twists and told from the point of view of Horatio, Hamlet's best friend. I kept thinking, while working on that version, that if I were to write the book again, I'd do a bunch of stuff differently. Which is what I ended up doing. It's now no longer Shakespeare's story at all, but a new tale that winds through and around Shakespeare's Denmark, pulling the old story into new shapes and sending familiar characters into unfamiliar, uncharted areas. I think it's really cool now. But it's taken me almost three years to get here.

Anyway, there is no rest for the wicked and I have lots of other projects. I have one new novel in first draft form, and I have another novel in the planning stages, and I have at least two more that are still just ideas. I'm going to begin a serious outline of the novel currently "in planning," and then write a first draft of it. That should take me until the spring to do. I'll set that first draft aside and turn to the first draft I've already written of that other book (Cocke & Bull is its title) and see about revising the heck out of it. I've been making notes for the last seven months.

Like I said, I really have nothing useful to say in this post. I just want to give some kind of update on what I'm doing to sort of demonstrate that I'm not just some guy who writes about writing; I actually write as well. And, you know, I think it's important that people who are moving through the publication process talk about how it's going so it can be demystified.

I was tempted to write something about my agent, and how things have gone with him while working on this book, but today I'm posting about that on my own blog. So you can look here if you want to read that story.


  1. I enjoyed reading your post. I'm in the same position as you: waiting for my agent's response. The version she has is draft eight. You are right about the liberating nature of multiple drafts - it's healthy to realise that nothing is cast in stone.

    Hope the response you get is the one you want and good luck with the sales process. Killing Hamlet is a book I would certainly want to read!

  2. Congratulations, Scott! I look forward to this book's publication and wish you the best with your next endeavors.

    As intimidating as that moment before a complete rewrite is when you're thinking, "Jeez, that's such a big project," I concur that it's almost addictively exciting once its underway and you realize what it means that you can do.

  3. Sir, that is one impressively thick manuscript. Many kudos to you.

  4. I just wanted to say thank you for this post. I have a scrawling manuscript that is about 110,000 words, and I am going to rewrite it, break it into two books, and then finish it with a final book.

    I have been really intimidated by the project, but this post has made me feel much better about it.

  5. Rewriting a book is a pain the rear. I hope I never have to do it again, but I must say that it taught me a lot about my own writing. I must also say that you have incorporated the eels nicely. It's deliciously well done. :)

  6. You said many USEFUL things in this post:
    1. writing is seriously time consuming
    2. it is also liberating
    3. it is also scary!
    4. if it needs changing, (like a baby's diaper) you change it.
    5. when you finally submit it, you better have something else to do, because it is now out of your hand.

    Great points, sir.

  7. Charlotte: Good luck to you, too! Here's to happy agents and happier authors.

    Nevets: Yeah, there was a very long sigh before I decided to rewrite. There was also a half hour when I absolutely knew it wasn't possible. But I got over it. Now I sort of think of revisions as an opportunity to take stories apart and put them back together again, and I'm a lot braver about the process.

    Loren: Well, it's like the same MS a bunch of times! The actual final version is only 82K. But still, a lot of work. I figure my lifetime wordcount is well over half a million by now.

    Tony: It's well worth doing, I think. And totally do-able. Once you've made the commitment to the task, it creates its own momentum.

    Valerie: I am deforesting Canada all by myself, I think. Yeesh.

    Michelle: I kept the boyhood eels scene, too! Yay, eels!

    lakeviewer: Number 4 is the most important thing. If you need to change something, you just change it. Saying, "Well, that's a lot of work" instead is not a win.

  8. I thought you were talking about cereal.


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