Thursday, 12 May 2016

Tacking up the Metaphorical Horses – Ruth Hatfield

Last month I wrote about my galloping story, and the delight of chasing after its flicked-up hooves. I didn’t have the time, then, to think about why it was going so well, but I think I’ve now realised part of the reason:

I turned off the ‘edit’ switch.

This does mean that my story starts as one thing and goes on to be many others – horses change colour, people disappear into the wings one moment then turn out to be long-lost in the next, a sedate journey turns into an abrupt van chase, some incredibly dull things are pondered at great length and one of the main characters begins the story crying over a broken clock but within three pages turns out to be a brittle, single-minded person who sheds tragedy with the nonchalance of a spring moult. Or maybe that’s a terrible way to describe it. Who cares? I’ll deal with it later. Later, when I’m editing.

I think I had begun to edit as I was writing first drafts, in pursuit of better structure and clarity, and it was a terrible habit to slide into. I know that editing as you go along (or even before you put words on the page) does work for some people, but it really didn’t for me. I became conscious all the time that I was Writing a Book, instead of just indulging myself in a wild, amusing speculation. The result was joyless.

I went to a school recently to do some workshops, and one of the lovely and enthusiastic teachers said that she hoped I would impress upon the kids the importance of editing, because they were always so reluctant to do it. Inside, I felt metaphorical heels digging themselves in. Of course revising and reworking is vital, and it’s important to learn that the more effortless and light a piece seems, the harder a writer has probably worked to make it so. But for some of us, editing is painful, turgid and difficult, and we need enough faith and joy in our original work to make it worth all the effort.

I didn’t want to tell those kids to bear in mind the importance of editing. I wanted to tell them – Splurge! Vomit! Gallop! Get it all down – none of it is wasted IF YOU ENJOY IT! Happiness can be hard to come by, sometimes. If something brings you pleasure, that’s an end in itself. If you think it’s worth it, when you’ve had your fun, you can bring out the dissecting kit and start slicing it apart and pulling out its entrails. But make sure you’ve given yourself the best chance to enjoy the journey first.

I didn’t do the Dead Poets Society lecture, of course. I just got on with trying to deliver my workshop in what I hoped was an encouraging, freeing way. I’m very aware that there are many different ways to enjoy writing – I remember an interview with Agatha Christie in which she said something about how she enjoyed all the planning but found the actual writing itself a dead bore (god knows what she thought about editing). I guess what I’m thinking about at the moment is that fact that in the quest to improve my storytelling, I went too far into territory that doesn’t suit me. Advice about how to write books is always interesting, but perhaps you should only take on board advice that your heart agrees with, in one way or another.

In short, I suppose that when I’m tacking up my metaphorical horses, I’ve learnt that if I spend an hour grooming the pony till it gleams, then the whole ride remembering to keep my heels down and my elbows in, I might ride nicely but I probably won’t feel it’s been time well-spent. A quick brushing-off of mud and a canter up a hill – that’s more like it!

And (obligatory SATS dig) don’t get me started on the idea that you can’t write proper stories until you can understand complex grammar…


Penny Dolan said...

Happy galloping away, Ruth! Lots of lovely ideas in this post.

Ruth Hatfield said...

Thanks Penny!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Ah, Ruth, alas, some of us, including your nice young teacher, have to spend all day with the kids and, unlike visiting authors, don't just get to gallop in, do a joyous writers workshop and leave the teacher to do all the grooming, feeding and mucking out! ;-) Because it does have to be done at some stage, eh?

I do encourage my students to just write the first draft and not worry about anything else till it's done, because there are some of them who sit frowning over their writing and checking the spelling and rewriting, then the bell goes and they have done about two paragraphs if we're lucky. But there are also those who write very little and refuse to rewrite at all. So I tell them that even I, a published writer, have to edit. Sometimes I even bring along a piece of my writing on which an editor has scribbled lots of comments, not all of them polite. Hopefully it makes the point.