Writing as sculpture

by Suw on January 15, 2009

I’ve nearly finished the first draft of The Revenge of the Books of Hay, a couple of months later than I had intended to, but so it goes. I’m currently writing one of the very last scenes, a big showdown between two of the key characters, and whilst I was writing the other night I found myself really eager to speed through the scenes and get to the end. It wasn’t just a “race to the finish”, because I know that once I put the final full stop at the end of the final sentence in my notebook, I need to type it all up and do some major surgery to make it work as a story. It’s not like it’s actually going to be finished when I stop writing longhand.

If you read the first draft as it is, you’d be deeply disappointed. I didn’t realise that one sub-plot would be important until I was nearly at the end of the story, so suddenly it jumps back 500 years and hurtles through that whole thread in one hit. Then there’s another sub-plot that I have vaguely implied but which needs to be actually written out properly. This story isn’t anywhere near finished, yet I’m eager to whip through the last few pages because the fun bit is still to come – all the reworking and polishing and crafting that will (hopefully) turn it from a mush of words to something more satisfying.

I’ve had a number of conversations with Vince lately about the rewrites to his book, An Alternative History of Balesley Green. Vince writes very differently to me – he thinks quite carefully about what he’s about to write. He plots things out, thinks about where chapters should end and what the cliffhanger’s going to be. I, on the other hand, just go “bleeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhhh” and hope that what comes out makes some sort of sense, and maybe even shows evidence of grammar, punctuation and spelling. But I can’t guarantee it. Often I’ll find myself writing a sentence and thinking “This is a shit sentence, but sod it, carry on.”

Vince’s rewrite seems to be much more about fixing what’s there, reworking chunks, refining, polishing. My way of rewriting is to, well, rewrite everything, restructure it, pull it about until it’s the shape I want it to be. I might be overstating Vince’s methodology, but he strikes me as being like a sculptor working in marble. His first draft is akin to the first pass at a statue – you can see the figure emerging from the stone and, whilst it still needs a lot of work, everything’s pretty much where it is supposed to be.

I work more like a sculptor of clay. My first draft is the armature onto which the clay is applied, but half way through sculpting what I thought was a noble stallion, I discover that it’s actually a chicken and so the clay comes off and the armature is reworked until it’s chicken-shaped before I start re-applying the clay again. This may happen more than once before I find a shape I’m happy with.

Importantly, I realised that I enjoy the rewriting more than the writing. I love taking all the clay off, mushing the armature around, and then starting again. That’s why I’m eager to whip through the final scenes – because I just can’t wait to start mucking it about and squishing it all into shape.

Vincent January 15, 2009 at 11:22 am

One of the reasons I used to hate re-writes (compared to now, where I only view them with mild hostility), was because every time I went back to the story, I ended up changing everything and the only consequence of that was having two first drafts of two different stories, instead of a second draft that improved on the first.

However, that leads me to another discussion of the sculpting analogy I was having with Victoria, where she alluded to there being a finished statue in the block of marble and the writing was simply a case of finding it (though she may have disagreed with my interpretation of her views after the fact). This meant each decision could be defined as right or wrong, depending on whether it led to that hidden sculpture.

Naturally, my view differed. There isn’t a right story to be discovered, no statue waiting to be found. Any tale written with the requisite craft can be ‘right’, but… whether it’s good or not is a different question. Trying to answer that question raised a debate that got a little messier.

neil... January 15, 2009 at 11:22 am

I’m with you on the first draft. I, too, write long-hand. It is a process of getting everything out of my head and in to a Moleskine, a process that seems to cement the story in my mind to and extent that in writing the second draft I rarely referred to the actual notes. The initial draft consist of frequent notes such as “this bit is rubbish”, “stuff happens here to get them home” or “forgot to mention the hat”.
For me, planning too carefully at the beginning would dampen the the thrill of discovery as the story develops, particularly when the characters take you, the author, by surprise in their actions or words. Lots of planning keeps the author in control and sometimes you need to let our the reins and switch from composing text to transcribing what your characters decide for themselves. Sure, you can write yourself into a corner, but again, that is the thrill. The reader goes on a journey with a novel, so why not the author, after all, we have to spend so much more time wrapped up in it.

Stephanie Booth January 17, 2009 at 9:45 pm

I’m a first-draft person. Well, I’m not sure about when I write fiction, as I don’t (yet… need to get back into the groove of the 50 word stories) — but I hardly ever edit anything that I write.

If I do, it’s minor cosmetic stuff. Or maybe swap two paragraphs and change the first word so they fit together well in that order.

When I was in school and we did creative writing, I would usually write a first draft (we were using pens in those days, whee!) and then copy it again cleanly with a few minor cosmetic modifications. So I guess my way of doing things is not really linked to “fiction or not”.

But who knows, the day I actually get around to writing a story, things might change!

As for writing long-hand, RSI has made that impossible — I can write about 5-6 lines well, half a page legibly, and then it turns into disaster. Plus, I’m so used to composing on the keyboard that the lack of “features” like “delete” and “go back here and add a word or two” or “hmm, keep that for later and start writing higher up again” make the process very awkward for me.

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