I have been asked by Sonya Rhen to answer four questions about the writing process. Sonya has been very active lately in connection with National Poetry Month and her blog is well worth a visit.
1. What am I working on? I have recently published two novels (general fiction) and am now putting the finishing touches to a story for children before working on it with an illustrator. This, as they say, is not me at all. I don’t know where the idea came from but I’m not complaining.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre? Probably in the way it keeps a balance between seriousness and humour, though this would be for others to judge.
3. Why do I write what I do? Because the ideas are there and I feel the need to give them some existence outside with my own head. That way, hopefully, they may have a life of their own.
4. How does my writing process work? I begin with the idea/ideas and sketch and draft an outline narrative. I avoid making this too detailed since these things take on a life of their own. No matter how good the plan may seem, I know I won’t be able to stick to it once I get going.
When a draft is complete I revise it as carefully as I can, looking out for poor expression, unintentional repetitions of words, inconsistencies in the narrative and so on. All the usual things that lie in wait for us.
Lastly comes some fine tweaking. A slight change may feel like an improvement at the time, but is it? Checking it two days later will show whether it really convinces.
Below is a scan of the second page of a novel. If the author (and her editor) had heard what had been written, the word ‘this’ might not have occurred so often. It pays to listen. Does anyone out there know who the author is? I will reveal all in an update.
“mistaken in making of this a flying visit. My mother marvelled for days over this, with no resentment. It was less a visit than a visitation. It was never repeated.
The other friend, the one I thought of as Betty Pollock, though that might not have been her name, was less opulent, but kinder. This friend we actually journeyed to see, an event so rare that I remembered it. This visit occasioned no wistful comments from my mother, probably because Betty Pollock was not someone of whom she had learned to be slightly afraid. She was even rather unattractive, though clearly was not concerned by this, and in any event her large plain features were transformed by her dazzling smile. The other thing I noted about her was that she was happy. This was mysteriously apparent. I experienced it with relief, though I did not understand it. Now of course I can identify it as a state of steady satisfaction combined with an absence of longing. This must have been less the gift of her husband than of Betty Pollock herself, her smile signalling her contentment with her lot to all within her radius. She too had very red lips, though her hair was grey. She too was eager to reminisce, having nothing to hide. ‘Yet my mother seemed inhibited in her presence, perhaps because of the contrast between them. I think that Betty Pollock vanished from the scene shortly after this visit: her husband was anxious to leave London and move back to Swanage, where he had grown up. I think my mother missed her, though not as much as she missed Dolly Edwards, who remained out of touch.
They had once been part of the same set, though this was a modest suburban affair, formed largely by parents who knew each other as neighbours or friends, and vigilant elder brothers who did duty as escorts when no other was available. I see Dolly as the bold one, Betty as the poor one, and my mother as the beauty, but whose beauty was undermined by”
Sometimes we edit ourselves, sometimes others do it for us. What is the purpose of this process? Quite often it is to ‘tighten up’ the narrative, which raises the question why we would want to do that? Do we really want to be tight? We probably do if we are writing a page-turner or a crime story. We try to keep the reader wondering what will happen next.
Some editors are more interventionist than others, how successfully we don’t know since we seldom get to see original, unedited texts. Robert Carver’s editor appears to have made his style more laconic, changing the import of his stories in the process. Going further back, it is known that Stendahl’s publisher reduced the length of The Charterhouse of Parma. Since we cannot compare the draft to the published version, there is no way of telling whether he improved the book or not, though given the chance to read the original I would take it.
Another reason for wanting to tighten up is that our draft is prolix and repetitive. If so, we would want to improve it. But I have come across a reason which doesn’t impress me so much. This is how it goes. Nowadays, people expect instant gratification. They know what they want and they want it now. Used to surfing as they are, their attention span is less than that of previous generations. They expect a story to skip along at a brisk pace and will lose interest if it doesn’t. So writers must adapt their work to the spirit of an age when many are more articulate with their thumbs than their tongue.
Yes, a spare, lean style can be very effective, but is that the only style open to us now? Can’t we be expansive any more? Are digressions out of the question? I hope not. Not only is there nothing wrong in principle with the expansive, in the right hands it has a lot to offer. I am left with the feeling that cutting too much flesh from the bone might not be the best idea. Who wants to cuddle up with a skeleton? Not me.