All in the edit?

DSCN1840This week I’ve been thinking about editing. Mainly because I’ve written half a novel in three months, steaming ahead to get the words onto the page, rather than being overly concerned with reworking.

I remember my MA tutor and mentor, Jane Rogers, telling me that every novel is different, and I suspect it is, but managing to write so much in such a short space of time is unusual for me. Okay, so it’s my third novel and I had it mapped out before I started, but with previous novels I’ve struggled with character and tone for much longer.

On reflection, I realise how much I have changed as a writer. I spent my twenties at Time Out magazine, writing and editing miniscule reviews for restaurants, shops or museums, and I learned to be precise, that every word counts, that you always have to cut back to make the damn thing fit the column. I got into the habit of writing a sentence only to edit it before moving onto the next sentence. It was obsessional. My eyes felt sore.

When I came to write my first novel it took me years to shake off self-consciousness: I spent so many hours struggling at my desk in an attempt to eek out a couple of sentences. I envied those who could write blindly, badly even, in order to get the words down. The results of my struggles felt stifled, understandably, because of my attempts to control the process, and I longed for my writing to be more natural, to access my subconscious.

But in those days, I loved the editing process, and constantly stopped to print what I had written, to read in bed and edit, to then put the corrections onto the text, only to do it all again a couple of days later. I liked showing my precise unformed thing to people, too, to get feedback (reassurance), a pat on the back. I was learning my craft; it came to me slowly. Now that I’ve found my voice, and a way to be free, it’s the writing itself, not so much the crafting, that gives me the most pleasure.

I managed to undo the knots that came from my experience as a journalist, and once I knew the world and characters of my first novel, SHADOWING THE SUN, I flew, as did my writing. While writing my second novel I discovered meditation, and often started the day in a zoned-out state, which helped the writing… and to stop thoughts of kids, breakfast mess and laundry. It also helped me write pretty wacky passages.

Of course, to be a good writer you need the combination of free expression and restraint, to simultaneously move forwards and pull back. Many people have a stop-start attitude to their work, in that they have flashes of inspiration and intense writing periods, necessarily followed by a breather, time to think and edit, before moving onto the next stage. I read somewhere that Ian McEwan writes 10,000 words before he reads back, so he writes and then edits in chunks. While Will Self is quoted as saying he doesn’t look back until he has finished the whole of a first draft. ‘I write the book through,’ he says. ‘And then I start rewriting it, in successive waves.’ I admire him for this, although I’d worry that I might head out on a random tangent.

I was steaming ahead in order to send half my novel to my writers’ group and then to my agent, but had this nagging voice in my head that said, “Don’t do it! No!” I have now listened to that voice (it gave me no choice) and won’t be showing it to anyone until I’ve finished a draft at least. I’ve learned over the years that I am my best editor, and I need to trust that I know better than anyone how to write this book. What comes later can only make me better, but what comes before might disrupt my vision, might take me somewhere I didn’t intend to go. I’m doing all right, I tell myself. I also know that in time my work will speak for itself.

Author Peggy Riley http://peggyriley.com‎ won’t show a new novel to her agent until she’s on draft number three. More interestingly, she rewrites each draft from scratch. ‘I like to start over. I like to abandon my words and keep looking at the nut of the thing inside them and behind them, coming at it from different angles, again and again, sure I can do better.’ This intrigues me, as it appears to delay an already lengthy process, but also because I can’t help thinking: What if you lose perfectly good words? What if there was a nugget of genius in your first draft, which you don’t see the second or third time, and it’s lost forever? But that’s denying the complex process of writing good fiction. Yes, something might be lost, but something better might be found.

On that note. I’ve got work to do.

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