December 7th, 2015
Having not yet reached the end of my first draft I am reluctant to go back and rework the start, in which some sections must be revised and others must be rewritten. (The setting is different now, and the past before the book begins is different.) But I don’t need to hurry back to those early sections; I know what I must do there, even if I also know that the very act of making those changes will have their own knock-on effects later in the book. I am concentrating on where I am now, nearing the end, where I must reduce the number of climactic fireworks and be careful with my several revelations. (Title for the book: The Book of Revelations? No.)
Revelations will be made. I don’t think I can – or should – reduce them, but I don’t think I can let them all fall out at once; I need to parcel them out, and the easiest way to do that will be to break the flow of revelations with other scenes. As the book has a great many short scenes I don’t think the interruptions will seem unnatural. But I don’t want to invent filler scenes; I hate padding. So I have moved a couple of already written scenes forward to become late interruptions. They cannot be simply lifted out and moved; that would leave craters. I’ll have to rebuild around them, closing gaps and plastering cracks to leave the remaining text smooth and apparently unblemished. It’s here that I’m glad I’m writing longhand. But I’ll say more about that next week.
December 14th, 2015
Last week I said I was glad that I write longhand. I write in spiral-bound notebooks, so I have the entire text visible on my desk. In a paper notebook it’s easier to flick to and fro and to scribble notes and changes on or beside the text, to assess changes before making them, to reverse any that don’t work, or to partially reverse them (a trick particularly awkward on PC). Easier because I have in my scribbled pages all versions visible: the latest, the ones before and the original. All are there.
Yes, my draft looks a mess and a typist might struggle to decode it (though to me it doesn’t look that much of a mess). It is constructive chaos (a phrase I’m fond of, using it to describe both my handwritten text and the state of my office). In the days of typewriters when manuscripts were received from authors on sheaves of dog-eared paper, many ‘final’ scripts were themselves a chaotic mess. I used to share an agent with Beryl Bainbridge, who was a great one for cutting her pages into strips and sticking them at the foot, side or across other pages. Some became twice or three times the length of standard A4 sheets, others gained flaps of inserted text mid-sheet which had to be lifted and read in conjunction with text below.
My own heavily amended handwritten pages are more manageable largely because I write on right-hand pages of the notebook, leaving the facing page for inserts and amendments. When I move a piece to elsewhere in the text I don’t (like Bainbridge) cut it out and move it physically. Instead I identify it with an insert number and mark the destination page. Writers who work directly on screen may consider my method clumsy and old-fashioned but it is one I have returned to. I am not computer phobic (I was a programmer for IBM and have worked with computers for nearly 50 years) but I find handwritten texts easier to manipulate. I work on mine till it becomes a sorry mess; only then do I transfer it to the clinically clean PC – where I amend it once again. And again. And yet again.
December 21st, 2015
In this book the characters have refused to be who I’d intended them to be and instead have defined themselves. To some extent they always do; writers don’t so much invent the characters as find them on the page. But this time mine have changed entirely: all of them; I don’t think there’s a single one (except perhaps the Lithuanian?) who at the end of the book is consistent with the person I thought they were at the start. It means, of course, some extensive rewriting. The good brother is now the worst; the smug one decent; the heartless has gained the warmest heart. When I started, the sister didn’t have a sex life. (Now look what she has done!)
So now, before the usual tidying up I will have to go back and rewrite rather than revise the early sections. The people there no longer exist; they have been replaced, and their substitutes (made of flesh and blood) are jogging on the sidelines anxious to come on. I have a new team. It will be a different game. Yet (and here the metaphor crumbles) as I bring the new players onto the field I already know the outcome of the game. That’s a slightly odd feeling, as if the contest has been rigged. I am the ultimate fortune-teller. I know their fates.
January 4th, 2016
No diary last week, as Christmas intervened. It would be easy to skip the diary this week also, as I have done nothing on the novel, other than think about it off and on, as writers do because they never really forget about what they’re writing. It lurks there, raising a hand from time to time like a bright child in the classroom: “I’ve thought of something. Listen to this.” A new plot twist, a remembered scene. A new plot twist will be welcomed but those half-remembered scenes are like fading dreams: they came to you originally in the night or when you were out for a walk, away from your notepad, and at the time you thought, “That’s good, I’ll use that. I shan’t forget.”
Sometimes – particularly when out for a walk – I may spend some time fleshing out a new scene, only to forget about it on returning home, and the scene comes back days later but, like a dream again, it returns incomplete, in flashes. I may try to jot it down belatedly but all too often I can only puzzle over it, trying to remember what it was that made me think the scene so memorable and what it was actually about. As I try to get to grips with it, the memory fades. It really can be just like a dream: it had been so vivid, so meaningful, but its essence evaporates like morning mist. That half-remembered scene – and here’s the writer’s curse: did it really have a meaning, would it have fitted in your grand plan, or was it nothing more than a dream? Those are the bad days when you think you have lost something precious, and the loss niggles at you all day. Finally you have to accept that, like a lovely dream, you can not return to it. You’re back in the real world now.
January 11th, 2016
After two weeks off for Christmas and Hogmanay, I was feeling liberated. I had reached the end of the first draft and as I wrote the final word (“lark”) and stood up from the desk I wondered for a moment what to do. I’d got there. It was the end – though not the end I’d thought that I was heading for. For the last month I haven’t known where I was heading, and quite how I would end this jungle of a novel. I just kept writing, imagining myself into the plot and characters, trusting that they would work out an ending for themselves.
They knew roughly where I wanted to go – or rather, I knew roughly; the characters themselves seemed less concerned; they were happy to continue the journey as they chose and to tell me when – and where – they had finally arrived. It’s as if I’d said, “Let’s go to London,” assuming Paddington, and they’d bought tickets to King’s Cross. OK, I thought, King’s Cross is where we are. (Actually, the novel is not set in London, but so what?) We’ve arrived, I’m liberated, as I say, and can jump down from the train.
Here on the platform (to pick up a theme from last time) I find myself surrounded by a set of passengers different from those who were with me when I got on. These are the people with whom I shall start the rewrites which, given this revised cast-list, will be more extensive than I am used to. This is where the rough-cast will be refined. First comes some heavy lifting, as I mould the first half into a different shape. With new ingredients.
January 18th, 2016
You know that eerie comfort that comes from sinking into your own familiar disorder? To anyone else it looks a mess but you’re at home; you know where you are; you know where things are. I don’t live this way but as an occasional change I welcome that dash of disorder.
I am an obstinately longhand writer and I experience the same sense of reassuring comfort when, after an absence, I return to a much worked-upon handwritten draft, densely scrawled across and splattered with arrows, crossings-out, numbered circles and insertion points. Sometimes I may discover three versions of the same text squeezed into one cramped line. (Beyond three is unmanageable; hence the arrows and numbered insertion points for missing text.) Some of the pages become such a tangled mat of amended prose that I would not dare offer them in that state to any but the most devoted of copy typists. (Remember copy typists – and typing pools? So last century.)
I am enmeshed in those tangles now. Months ago, I wrote the early pages of my novel carefully but blindly as I felt my way, and I find those pages now more densely reworked than usual. I didn’t know the characters then and I didn’t have their voices clear in my mind. I hadn’t the facts clear in my mind: locations, relationships and events have now changed.
I am, in effect, writing a different novel. Some writers would throw away those early pages – assuming the pages still existed and hadn’t been swallowed up in the swamps of computer memory – but where other writers like to attack a clean page I prefer to stumble about in the multifarious thickets of my own prose, recovering the best healthy saplings and transplanting them into a new and, in time, well-ordered wordland. To you it may look like 60 pages of near-impenetrable jungle, but to me it is home.
January 25th, 2016
I had forgotten how different revising a text is from writing it in the first place. In theory, I don’t need to use my imagination, because the imaginative process is over, the story is set, and all that remains is to correct and improve what has been written. But revisiting some of those early scenes, written months ago – and written in haste, with characters not fully set and the purpose of the scene not always clear – can be like reading something written by another author. Except that this is an author you can correct.
Dialogue can and must be tightened up. Similes can be sharpened and made fresher, flab taken out. And there is still plenty of room for imagination. Workaday conversations that served their purpose in moving the plot forward but which were far from scintillating must be enlivened. Some scenes will be altered, some taken out, and fresh ones will be inserted. Much of the work (certainly in my case) will be on breathing life into characters who, for the first few chapters, had not shown me who they were: small changes in description, big changes in the way they speak.
This, I find, is an imaginative process after all. This is where I imagine the details and make my people real. It is almost like that moment in Pygmalion when the marble statue comes to life – though there is a danger: the original Pygmalion (like Professor Higgins) fell in love with his creation and may have been blind to Galatea’s faults. I cannot do that with my creation. I must be her most severe judge.