Week 68

"Alan's prize hollyhocks leant brown and shrivelled against the fence." ...or...

"Brown hollyhocks, once prized by Alan, now leant shrivelled against the fence."

This is more like it!

This is what I expected writing to be like! Choosing the best words to describe something and then deciding which order to put them in!

Look at those adjectives - "brown"!, "shrivelled"! - for a while I even considered the simile "like wounded soldiers". And look, "Alan"! I don't know a single person called Alan, I have literally made him up!

Lock 68 on the Trent and Mersey CanalThat's not how it's been with my novel, however. The aim of first draft has been simply to get it down, which means a focus on a layer of narrative that's above the linguistic or stylistic. I often find myself writing how I've come up with "ideas", which always strikes me as a flat way of describing the process, because it's only by writing a scene or situation that characters and plot, or a new angle on them, comes to life.

Wow. Pretentious much?

What I'm getting at, is so far my novel is a string of ideas. Some that work, some that don't, some that contradict each other. They make up the story, but it's crude, out-of-focus.

In other words, what's important is what those ideas are, not how they are expressed.

I figured that I'd finish this string, the current draft, then read it through with a big red pen, except this red pen wasn't for striking out the odd word, or adding an insert, it was for highlighting the odd thing that could be kept, and crossing out great sections that should be dropped. The right words, and the order in which they are placed, was the last thing on my mind. That would come in the second draft, or the third, even.

That becomes a little worrying when you've written so much, and still have so much to go. Some writers prefer to edit as they write, so when they write the words "the end", well, they're not far off. When I write those words for the first time (not that far off, I hope), I'll be starting all over again with a second rewrite that'll be as much starting from scratch as tweaking. It won't be until at least the third draft that I'll be allowed the luxury of twiddling with the order of adjectives.

Shrivelled and brown?

This way of going about things doesn't fill you with confidence. What if my second draft is as bad as the first, just more voluminous? Will I carry on like this, layering ideas onto ideas, and never getting down to the business of true editing or writing anything good?

That's where short stories come in. I've not written many before - not unless you count a particularly heartfelt piece about horses when I was 8 - and I don't read them much either. Dipping in and out can be convenient, it can also be death to concentration. Without a longform story and developing characters I get bored.

I thought I'd give one a go. Writing the same story solidly for over a year was taking its toll, and I had a few ideas for stories: one-liners, thoughts, overheard snippets of conversation, nothing much more. I thought writing one might reinvigorate me and give me a bit of confidence, show that I can tell a good yarn after all.

So that's what I did. The writing process I've been anticipating for so long was immediately condensed: I wrote a first draft, set it to one side, took another look after a week, redrafted it by tightening the story, cutting down on tangents and concentrating its focus, and then did another draft, this time just polishing and improving the language.

So it works. The first draft was messy, and it wasn't the story I wanted it to be, or what I had in my head, but enough was in there that was worth pulling out. Redrafting brought more ideas, and the word count went up before it went down, but by the end it started to read like the story I had originally imagined, plus a few new ideas.

Then all that was left was a polish of every sentence, taking each one in turn like cutlery. That's when it felt most like what I expected writing to be like. That's when it was easiest. And not half as much fun, either.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 127,812