Today we’re setting off to Balavil, a large house in the Highlands, on our maddest Dark Angels adventure to date – an attempt by 15 writers to produce a collective novel (I’ve mentioned it in previous posts).
We obviously won’t get it written over the weekend, but if we’re not too distracted by the views of the Cairngorms and the not-inconsiderable hospitality of our hosts, Allan and Marjorie Macpherson-Fletcher, we should at least leave with a good idea of who does what next. That’s the plan. Though there’s many a slip twixt dram and book.
Two years ago John Simmons and I were involved in a similar, though less ambitious (some would say insane), project. We were writing Room 121 as a weekly exchange of blogs that turned into a book – a collaborative book that maybe contained the germ of the Balavil idea.
For this week of the year our exchange was on the subject of writing and editing, which neatly fits our preoccupations this weekend. This is what I wrote (titled Spit and polish). John plans to post his answering piece from the book in his blog, 26 Fruits, next week.
You’ve mentioned two poetic forms in the last couple of weeks – haiku and sonnets. Both set challenging constraints. Both demand that you think very hard about what you have to say, and choose the words to say it very carefully. It’s most unlikely that you’ll complete either a sonnet or a haiku at the first pass. The sonnet will have an untidy thought that needs polishing, the haiku a word that needs changing to set the syllable count right.
The first draft of anything is seldom the best. If you want what you write to hit the mark and be memorable, you owe it to yourself not to press ‘send’ as soon as you reach the final full stop. Even a trip to the coffee machine or a walk down the corridor can be enough to subtly alter your perception of what you’ve just written when you return. An absence of only a couple of minutes can put the spotlight on that little passage of woolly thinking or throw that awkward phrase into relief. And you’ll notice even more if you’ve been able to leave it overnight.
I’ve always thought of editing as almost the most creative part of the whole process. I wrote my first few novels straight onto the computer, unable to resist the temptation to edit as I went along, always straining for perfection before I moved on. They took forever. Then I changed my approach completely. I started writing the first draft fast, by hand, in notebooks, focusing only on the story, not the language.
Two things happened. First of all, I got to the end in a fifth of the time and there was more urgency and more fluency in the telling. The story read faster and, to my mind, better. Secondly, I began to love the second draft stage when I could polish and fine tune, sculpt, tweak and fiddle, free of the pressure to keep the story moving along at the same time. And although, interestingly, I found that what I’d written tended to need less editing than I would have expected, I always felt that this was the stage at which I was really giving full rein to my craft. It was actually the most satisfying part of the process.
The pressures of business life mean that you won’t have the luxury of several weeks’ polishing time, probably not even several days. But even a few minutes can make the difference between something that merely does the job and something that has a little shine to it.
Thanks to The Dark Angels, the method you describe is the one I now systematically apply, and I too find the same frisson of excitement at the editing stage. It’s like listening to the works of a favourite artist, but this time, the artist is yourself.