Friday, 16 July 2010


On his blog Jim Murdoch tells us how he spent 3.5 hours getting a sentence right (via Heinz beans, Gillian Anderson, etc). He ended up with "From now on, whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, I’ll think of a girl with red hair on a bus" but didn't think that would be the final version.

Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times and used to brag about it, but Gustave Flaubert's perhaps the most famous re-writer. His manuscripts have been scanned in. Have a look at the University of Rouen's collection

Nancy Rawlinson thinks of drafting as follows - first Write it out in order to know it, to understand it (whatever “it” is here: story, idea, feeling). Then write it again, with this new knowledge having been dredged up and placed, to some degree, at the front of the mind. These two documents might have very little in common. The first enables the second, and the second isn’t so much a rewrite as a re-imagining.

I recently read "The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else" (Michelene Wandor). It's about Creative Writing courses. She thinks that the traditional workshop must go, because it emphasises re-writing rather than writing. But I need to re-write. I try to keep earlier drafts because sometimes rewriting smooths away interesting quirks. In general though, if I write quickly I revert to self-parody - samey characters, plots, details, sentence-length - so my re-writes can be extensive. I individualise the characters, sneak in twists and hints, change the phrase order in sentences, go through checklists (the 5 senses; the start and end; etc). Sometimes I add or delete a character or scene, or change the PoV. I've been known to delete all but a paragraph, or join 2 pieces together. My financially most successful piece went through 19 years of re-writes. By the end of that it looked bruised and battered to me, a war veteran with an artificial leg, sewn-on arm and a dangerously damaged soul. I have a different, more benevolent attitude to a piece written in a fortnight and accepted by the first mag I sent it to. But do readers see any difference between the 2 pieces? I doubt it. There are many ways to end up with a good story. If you try a route you've not tried before there are bound to be more dead-ends and longeurs.

I tend to start with a handwritten draft. Once I have a few hundred words I type it in. There's sometimes a phase when I juggle things around (the example below is taken from that phase) and I frequently re-print drafts.

Sometimes (especially with poetry) I cut a draft up and re-order the pieces on a table. I rarely write at the keyboard. Gradually the piece takes shape, but not before changes small and large. Here's a later snapshot with multi-colour edits

George Watson in the Times Higher Education (July 2010) made these points

  • In a 1979 talk entitled "A Neglected Responsibility" [Larkin] called on British libraries to acquire and preserve poetic manuscripts, hopeful that a corrected draft might persuade the young that a poem is the end of a deliberative process rather than a spontaneous act.
  • Revision can disimprove, and a poet can bother to the point of being bothersome. Auden's publisher used to tell how hard it was to choke a new edition out of him when he was endlessly intent on revising; Wordsworth spent half a lifetime rewriting The Prelude without improving it

1 comment:

  1. I don’t like the fact I use ‘think’ twice. Perhaps I’ll change it to:

    "Whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, I remember a girl with red hair I saw once on a bus."

    I’m not a big fan of rewrites. I write and edit. And that’s it. More and more though, even with short poems, because a keyboard is available I write straight onto it.