Award winning author, Claire Fuller talks about rewriting, revising and editing her novels

Report by Sarah Noon

Claire Fuller: Rewriting, Revising and Editing HWS 28th September 2021

Claire is a MA graduate of Creative Writing at the University of Winchester and has written 4 novels.  Her most recent novel Unsettled Ground was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Claire’s presentation was about the processes she goes through when writing – particularly with regards to revising, rewriting and editing. Claire began writing Unsettled Ground in June 2018, completing her first draft in May 2019. She is a writer who says she revises her first draft as she writes.

When she originally sent Unsettled Ground to her agent, she was invited to a rather posh lunch in London, where her agent talked about how much she enjoyed it … and then right at the end of the meal suggested that Claire change the setting from the 1950’s to contemporary!

Initially, Claire says she resisted this suggestion but “came around to it in the end.” As a result, she found herself having to re-write the whole thing. This created a challenge for Claire, who says that whilst this did not change the narrative of the story, lots of changes had to be made, such as the description of the hospital – its treatments and equipment, how people deal with death and how we live with and rely on technology in the 21st century.

Claire Fuller at the Hampshire Writers’ Society, University of Winchester

So how did Claire tackle this? Well, she essentially worked on Word, with two screens side-by-side and went through the novel line by line. Fortunately, she says, she “…dislikes writing but likes editing!”

Claire describes herself as a “rolling reviser” explaining that writing the first draft and then revising it, simply does not work for her. She also says she is “not a planner” and when she is writing, she often does not know what is going to happen next. This means, she explains, that she encounters many surprises along the way. Claire revises as she goes along as otherwise there is a danger of her not getting past the first chapter. She talks about the Young Adult author Patricia Wade’s notion of the “Back Brain” – the brain that is running in the background. Claire uses her back brain to change things which need to happen in order for her story to move forward.  She gives the example of her protagonist, Jeanie, being illiterate, but only having this idea partway into the novel.

Claire warns that working as a rolling reviser can slow down the forward progression of a narrative. When Claire began writing, she would set herself a goal of 1000 words per day then going back and “tweaking” them. However, she now has a new goal which is to simply “write some new words.” This may only amount to one sentence, but working in this way enables her to be a rolling reviser, whilst still ensuring that the narrative moves forward. This also means that when Claire has finished, it is already beyond its first draft. She explains that the benefits for her of working this way are:

  • She can get back into the novel’s “time and space”
  • Re-drafting time is reduced at the end
  • She better understands the main characters’ motivations
  • The first draft is not too poor quality (she often thinks to herself “What if I die and someone reads my terrible first draft?”)

Claire gave some very useful tips as to how she edits her work. She describes how she relies heavily on the Word Navigation pane which shows headings, subheadings and word counts for each section. This enables Claire to easily go from one section of her work to another without the necessity for constant scrolling. It also means that she can easily move an entire chapter or section of the work without having to cut and paste. This is an excellent tool when focusing on structure.  She also adds little notes such as “You need to write this bit”.

Claire is also a fan of the square bracket! Inside these go words which need improving or researching but can then be located quickly at the end of her session without disrupting the flow of her writing. She also saves a first draft of her work but says that this rarely changes; it is more of a “security blanket.”

After Claire has finished her first draft, which she says is usually about 50,000 words. She then leaves the work for as long as she can (anytime from one week to a few months) and uses this time to focus on other writing and reading projects. She then returns to her draft and “reads it like a reader.”  Ideally, she will print the manuscript so that she can make notes on it but is then not tempted to fiddle with the work as she would do if it were on a screen. She then makes notes on the following:

  • Character
  • Plot
  • Timeline
  • Opening and end
  • Reveals
  • Subplots
  • Voice
  • Foreshadowing

Claire claims that her biggest issue is “slow beginnings and fast endings” and so she might focus on that, as well as increasing the word count (50,000 words is not enough). Claire adds chapters that help to develop the smaller characters – for example Julian didn’t have his own voice in the first draft and so Claire wrote extra chapters so the reader could get to know him. She ensures that the readers can understand the bad characters better and that minor characters all have some sort of anecdote or subplot. Claire uses the example of Stu, who was horrible to the protagonist but had essentially “walk-on parts” only. During the re-reading process, she wrote a note “We need to talk about Stu.”   She then asks questions about the character (“Stu, why are you so horrible to Jeanie?”).

It takes between six months and one year for Claire to edit her book, with the process focusing in more and more, until Claire is editing at sentence level. At this point, she will use the Search function on Word to follow a character or an object through the story to check for plot holes etc. She then checks each scene or chapter to ensure that they are driving the story forward. She makes a list of words which she feels are overused and again uses the Search facility to find them and change them – being careful, she says, not to create even more over-used words! She then does the same with adverbs, searching for “ly”. Another thing Claire does is she chooses a paragraph and copies and pastes this into a new, blank Word document. She then works on this, considering how she would feel if this was the only piece of the story she could read to others. Would she be happy with it? She explains how the act of removing this section from the rest of the text can help her to look at it with fresh eyes.

Claire talks about the importance of reading her work aloud and to an audience – although the audience may be a cat or dog, or a voice recorder.  She will stand and read it and listen to the rhythm and musicality of her words. She will sometimes remove the speech tags so that she can better hear the conversations between the characters and whether she can tell the characters apart. She describes how by the end of the process, she has read her book about fifty times – mostly out loud.

During the editing process, Claire says she will open a page of her novel at random and see how many words need changing.  If it is frequently two or more then further editing is required. If it is just one word, she feels her work is ready to show to other people (she claims there are never “no words” to change!).

Who does she show? Well, she may send her work to her editor, or to others in her writing group – a group of approximately ten other writers (largely from when she did the MA course). The writing group provides her with deadlines, motivation and the ability to critique the work of others. The importance of the writing group to Claire comes across very clearly; the opportunity to work with others who are known and trusted on her edited work. Claire says that she would not have been able to have four published novels without the writers’ group.

Claire will show some of her work to her family. They are readers and not writers and so are able to offer different perspectives. But, she says, she always holds some scenes back until the work has gone to the agent. 

Claire is already writing her next novel (or should we say re-writing?) and we wish her every success. As a member of our audience said to Claire:
“Thank you. Your writing is lovely.”

Unsettled Ground, by Claire Fuller, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. Published by Penguin.

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