It’s fair to say that I’ve always had a scorched earth policy when it comes to editing my own work. It is entirely normal for me to commit hundreds of thousands of words of writing that ultimately ends up amounting to nothing more than preparatory when it comes to the end product. This may be a result of poor planning, although I would venture to dispute that. I’m not claiming that there’s any sort of virtue in this behaviour either, only that it is my process to write as well as I can, and if something isn’t up to scratch to edit it as far as possible, and if it still doesn’t work, to condemn it to the obsolete pile.
Reflecting on your own process is always in danger of being a self-indulgent activity, and possibly self-deluding after all how much can anyone truly understand with clarity why they do what they do. Nevertheless I’m writing this so even if I’m self-indulging in delusions of my own making here I am for another few words.
My impetus to write anything creatively, particularly sustained pieces of work, is not to explore some grand narrative or intricate plot, it is to express what is like to experience a given stimulus or to convey a way of living. It’s already well into the pretentious zone on a concept level so it’s true that my writing is not for everyone. My process however is excoriating and ruthless. If I’ve committed a few hundred thousand words to something and it still isn’t providing the essence of what I set out to then I stop, re-evaluate, and start again. A lot of other varieties of fiction have no need to behave like this and I applaud that. Certainly genre fiction can make the content work, or can determine a really solid plot and then power through. Other literary fiction writers may very well be able to start with a plot on page one and then look up when the first draft is finished, and whilst I don’t begrudge that I certainly am envious.
Former students of mine may recall a phrase that I will so frequently use “keep digging”. When I say that I mean that the writer may be heading in the correct direction, but there’s greater quality or dramatic truth to locate. This sense of excavating the story within the writing process is the same way I work myself. Sometimes you end up digging way past what you were aiming for and end up somewhere else entirely and you have to take a few steps back. Sometimes you find that things are working just fine but aren’t what you still aim for and so have accidentally written another story. As much as I’ve committed so much of my life to being a bit of a story expert, when it comes to my own process I have to explore and never impose, and whilst typing those words make me cringe a little, I know the sentiment to be true.
This chunky bit of explanation carries me all the way to the current status of the so many years in development novel…
After more time than I freely wish to admit last summer I hit what I believe to be the correct voice of the novel, which directly unlocked the rest of the endeavour. Applying that voice to the existing content resulted in a chunk of the material being archived and the rest of it being filtered through the new voice. Alongside and following that new content was created which was authentic to the voice and sentiment that I had been aiming at since I first began. Fast forward to now and I believe that the project is nearing completion; a tinkerer by nature means I always struggle to draw a permanent line underneath it but in order to hit the publication deadline I think I’ve got to let go and hand it over. Just not today, I think I’ve had an idea.