A Million Words?
I had a rare moment of organisation today, gathering all my notebooks together in one place. They contain a lot of words, likely over a million of them. I went back to the first and found that I started this period of writing just over six years ago, scribbling stuff down on the train commuting between work and home. I found some of the embryonic passages from which my novel originally developed. It's been a long gestation.
As with most aspects of my life, I attempt to make up for a lack of talent with a huge commitment to hard work. A good sentence doesn't come naturally to me, but I believe I'm good at recognising one in the hearing. My writing process consists of writing lots and endlessly tweaking, changing words and order, reading passages back until I stumble upon a construction that works. I keep changing things until it sounds right and I can hear my voice in there clearly. The characters have evolved in much the same way, as the result of thousands of tiny changes, until their voice has made itself heard. In that manner, they've created the story too. I'm still trusting that they're going to lead me to a satisfactory denouement.
It's a very long process. And all-consuming, which goes some way to explaining my intermittent posting here these days. I've never been a multi-tasker!
I'm currently reading 'A Swim in the Pond in the Rain' by George Saunders. It's a masterclass in short-story writing by one of our greatest contemporary exponents of the form. It's been very reassuring to have discovered that what I've just described might not be quite as haphazard and idiosyncratic as I feared.
There's a point where he quotes Stuart Dybeck: "A story is always talking to you; you just have to learn to listen to it." He then goes on to describe his own revision process, reading through and 'feeling' each block, sensing what works and what doesn't, making changes accordingly. He says that he can trust that the big thematic decisions will be made naturally by way of a thousand accreting microdecisions at the line level. He says that when he found this method, it freed him. He didn't have to worry, didn't have to decide. He just had to be there as he read his story fresh each time. "Revising like this is a way of listening to the story and having faith in it: it wants to be its best self, and if you're patient with it, in time, it will be."
I thought that was rather wonderful. If you feel there's a writer in you, or just want to read more deeply, his book is brilliant on so many levels