‘Can Ya See What It Is Yet?’

A while back at the day job (actually a morning job at a local marine engineering firm) one of the engineers asked me how many words I was likely to produce when I went home to write that afternoon. I had to tell him that it doesn’t work like that, at least not for me.

A few writers (like the late Bob Shaw) can get the story straight out of their head and onto the page more or less perfect first time. Most writers I know bash out a perfectly readable text as first draft. It will have typos and may need some revision, but it will be something like a story.

I, however, view the first draft as an unpleasant mix of metaphors originally used for mathmatics and childbirth: it’s like nailing jelly to the ceiling while sh*tting a melon. After much sighing, swearing and finding excuses not to write (oven needs cleaning, need to go and buy cheese, haven’t written my blog for a while – oops, rumbled), what finally appears on the screen (or on paper if I’m in a longhand mood) is often resembles something between a shopping list and an exploded thesaurus, with occasional lapses into coherence. It will take at least one re-write to get it into a state where it can even be critiqued (and everything I write is crit’ed).

Often it is only at the crit’ing stage that I get back in touch with the original idea(s) that prompted me to write the story in the first place. Sometimes the crit reveals that the story isn’t actually the one I thought it was. Occasionally it exposes the sad fact that the sparkly delicate blossom I originally spotted in the dark depths of my imagination has been irreparably damaged in my attempt to force it out into daylight. In that last case, the story is consigned, with a mixture of reluctance and self-disgust, to a virtual bottom drawer where it will languish until and unless I decide to plunder it for parts later.

Those stories that do survive their first crit will always need changes, often big ones. I leave a crit’ed story  for a few weeks before coming back to it, so it’s fresh again. Then I re-build. For me, this is the fun bit; I revel in crafting an inadequate story with promise into a presentable piece. I push out first drafts with a grimace: I re-write with a grin. Re-writing is an iterative, sometimes apparently endless process (thank gawd for computers), but some time during it I find out what I really have. Finally I can see what it is. And maybe I’ll even like it. Or to steal another metaphor, this time from Monty Python: the first castle sinks into the swamp, the second follows it, and the third one one burns down, falls over and sinks into the swamp; but (sometimes) the fourth one stays up.

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