The last couple of days I’ve realized that my work on The Swan Harp has taken on a different quality. I’m no longer writing large new pieces of text. Instead I’m working my way through the manuscript and – well, sanding, I suppose. I’m removing the bumps.
For example, between two drafts I changed an incident from spring to fall, but one of the activities in the episode could only happen in the spring. Now I’m finding things like that and fixing them. Maybe nobody else will notice these things, but I sure do because I’d notice them in another writer’s work.
The difference between this kind of work and what I’ve been doing up to now is that it’s rather harder to quantify what I’m getting done any more. Yes, I can say that I revised ten pages, or forty (if the incident has already received several polishings), but the immediate gratification of seeing today’s word count is gone. If I write a new incident, I can see what I’ve done; something that didn’t exist before now has shape. If I polish an existing incident, or remove errors, or fiddle and rearrange, it’s harder to tell if what I’ve done is actually an accomplishment. I know that at least some of it will have to be done again.
The first time I had to make a major change to The Swan Harp – cutting out a 10,000-word chunk which was a major incident and also a really good piece of writing – I had the sweats all day. While I haven’t had to make that large a cut since then, I have whacked out pieces and moved them around, changed how some characters think and see the world, lost control of others. I’ve learned to deal with it, and I no longer sweat. At least, I don’t sweat as much.
In the course of rethinking and rewriting over the last year, I’ve turned the whole story from a fairly simple folktale-reversal to something with underlying themes of responsibility, identity and pride, and the thin line between good and evil. Yikes! Who knew that would happen? Not me!
I don’t know if anyone can say what makes a real writer, except for the act of writing. When I see how some of the writers I know work at their stories (I’m looking at you, Lucinda Kempe!) with patience and diligence and – sometimes – sheer bloody-minded doggedness, I think that bulldog tenacity has a lot more to do with being a Real Writer than the golden bird of inspiration.
There’s a wonderful bit in Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood’s book about writing, about how writing can sometimes feel like chiselling the work in stone, “especially on the sixth draft”. When I first read that, I had just finished the second draft of The Swan Harp, and I thought it was finished. I couldn’t imagine doing a sixth draft. Hell, I couldn’t imagine doing a third.
Yet here I am, on draft – I believe – number five. (I just call it “current working draft”, but it’s at least one removed from the Frankenstein Draft, which was probably number three. Or maybe four.) My sixth draft looms on the horizon, once I’ve finished with the belt sander and have got the result out to my patiently-waiting readers.
I suppose I’d better sharpen my chisel and find a slab of rock.