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Island Life, Word Birds & Process #24

Earlier in the week my writing group sister & I were discussing a quotation she’d come across. Anyone who knows me knows my take on these things. The more ‘inspirational’ they are the less likely I am to be enamoured. This one is different. It’s less inspirational & more common sense. We were in agreement.

“Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading.”

Although the quote has been officially credited to William Knowlton Zinsser, an American writer, literary critic, editor & teacher, it’s also been attributed to Ernest Hemingway. It hardly matters. For the purposes of making my point, I’m happy to have Hemingway on my side too. Neither writer meant ‘easy’ as in ‘peasy’ – they meant that when a book is easy to read the words flow, the eye is mesmerised; the pages turn as if by remote control because the whole is the the result of dedicated hard work, often  written in metaphorical blood.

My first book, Ghostbird, was published in March this year. It took me years to write, rewrite & eventually submit. It got rejected; I rewrote it, resubmitted & so forth. It was hard, hard work & eventually it paid off. I got a publishing deal with Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. I think I can safely say, even if it isn’t your cup of tea, my book is easy to read.

I’m currently editing my second. I began writing it approximately eighteen months ago. The first draft was completed in roughly ten months which seemed ridiculously fast until I recognised I must have learned a few tricks on the way. (And there’s nothing like being published to make you want to write another book!) After I’d written the second draft (& edited the hell out of it) I submitted it to my editor, the gracious & scarily perceptive Janet Thomas. Her input was, as it always is, positive with added ‘buts.’

‘Buts’ are what a great editor excels at. ‘Buts’ are what they say after, ‘I love this part…’ It’s when the light bulbs go on, the boxes get ticked & the writer realises she still has work to do. It doesn’t matter because the solutions to the ‘buts’ make her heart sing.

This is my third draft – a deeply focused edit involving a good deal of rewriting based on Janet’s wise advice. I have excavated the layers beneath, accessed my authentic story; I’m doing the best I can for my characters. I hope to have this version finished by the end of the month. It will still be scrutinised again & possibly taken apart.

And here’s my point. The initial idea for our stories often comes out of somewhere unexpected. They take us by surprise, fire us up & it’s incredibly exciting. (I had the idea, characters & most of the story outlined for this current book in two days!) It’s the filling that takes the time. Writing a book is hard graft. There is more to it than a great idea. And a padded outline isn’t a story, a single draft isn’t enough. Neither is a second proofread, friend-read one. Until it’s been picked apart by someone with no agenda other than to make the story the best it can possibly be it remains a half-formed thing.

Unless one is Margaret Atwood – or someone of that calibre – an easy, quickly written story is a draft. Unedited, it grates on the eye, has the reader reaching for her metaphorical black pen. If we love our characters, have faith in our story why would we opt for easy? In my view, easy is lazy. Nothing worth doing comes without effort; least of all writing a book. It takes time, dedication & resolve.

anne-sexton

The title of this piece refeWriting, she reflects, never stops being hard and painful and yet, “it is probably the closest you can get to joy in life”. And then she adds an afterthought, as though to herself: “Happiness and joy are not the same.”

I’ve just finished reading a book that made me cry (in a good way), shake my head at the perfection of it. It wasn’t written & published in a few months. It has excellence, faultless research & attention to detail on every page. As I read, the pages turned by themselves, the words conjured spells & this morning when I came to the end, I stroked the cover & seriously considered going back to the beginning.

The book? It’s by Louise Beech & called The Mountain in My Shoe. I’ll be reviewing it soon, if I can resist reading it again.

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