Ah, ’tis true


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If I could go back in time to 1999 and meet myself on the day I started writing Déjà Vu, I’d say, “Ha! You fool.” Then I would yip off about England winning the ashes and tell my former self to get gambling.

Then I would say: “But enough about financial reward. See that book you’re writing? Yes, the one that’s currently ten words plus three hundred pages of white space. Before it’s published, you’ll end up rewriting it about ten times. Seriously. Think about it. Ten. Times. That’s over half a million words. Still feel all artistic and creative? Sap!”

My younger self would reply, “But I’m writing it really carefully! This’ll be just like English lessons in school – straight As, easy peasy. I’ll probably have a literary agent before the Millennium Bug hits.”

I will then slap my younger self upside the head. “Belt up and get ready for a high-speed reality impact. Oh, and get a haircut.”

Ever read that poem, When I was one and twenty? Here I am, in the year 2006 (almost 2007), repointing the brickwork on the latest towering work of genius begat from Hocking’s brain. It was 120,000 words when I finished the first draft.

“Excellent,” I said in the mirror as the draft was printing. “Thank goodness I’m so much more mature as a writer; lucky me that my prose now borders on poetry and my characters are as memorable as Dickens’s. I’ll hardly have to rewrite it all! I’d better practice my rejection speech for the agents when they start to call.”

Buckle up, Hocking.

This morning, three quarters of the way through the draft, I read the following sentence:

Like a fever, her indecision broke.

Like a fever? Like a fever? In which respect? Did it involve dribbling? Hot milk and honey? A day spent listening to Radio Four?

Never mind the clichés and the claptrap that tells the reader exactly what he or she should be thinking. Let me find an example…oh dear, this one appeared within two clicks:

Kirby switched his reins left and right of the horse’s nape, Western style. Horse sweat foamed at his knees.

Horse sweat foamed at his knees? That’s up there with Hemingway. It’s sharp-as-a-tack important to make that clear, in case the reader thinks that it’s camel sweat and gets all confused.

Of course, there are some bits that are less shit than others. Here’s one that’s perhaps only one step or two from its final shape:

Hrafn held the torchlight on Shaw. He could have both men arrested and let others unpick the threads of their involvement. But the seven letters had not faded from his concern. S, T, E, N, D, E, C. The CVR bus: sabotaged. The landing gear: undeployed. He let his mind walk the curves of a 737-800, feel the rivets, the fluid forces of wind, the cracks of overspeed, and the insistence of a question for its answer.

Well, to be serious for a moment, I’m not overly concerned for the manuscript. As I maraud its pages, my scorched earth policy on crappy sentences should do the trick, eventually. But it’s enlightening to note how happy I was with the manuscript after that first draft. Certain that I had learned so much from writing Déjà Vu (and another novel in between, which is currently being read by friends). I have learned a great deal…but you don’t get to write a good book in one sitting.

Writing is rewriting. And so to work!

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “Ah, ’tis true”

  1. Somebody quoted somebody famous, who said: “You don’t need to be a good writer. Just a good editor.”

    And that’s the truth. Only reading that you edited Deja Vu from 120,000 down to 75,000 gave me the confidence to do the same to Adventure Eddy and by golly, was it a better book by the end of it.

    I’ve just reread a lot of my Nanowrimo effort – and there are sections of great dialogue and action… but they’re thin between dollops of unmitigated shit.

    But writing is like sculpting, I guess. Except we create our big, square block of stone and only then do we start chipping out the sculpture inside.

    Good luck!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Rolski. Editing is where it’s at. DV is definitely a svelte whippet compared to the original, and I hope to do the same to Flashback. Best of luck with your own stuff!

  3. I love that analogy. Writing is like creating a huge block of stone and rewriting and editing is chipping away at that stone until a book emerges. So true.

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