I’m talking words – get them right or get them down? I ask because recently I spent rather too much time playing Oscar Wilde’s Comma. You recall his dilemma?
Unlike Oscar, I tinkered with more than the odd comma. I tussled with an entire sequence.
As in . . .
I’m about halfway through writing the the next book in my Bev Morriss crime series. The deadline’s the end of June. As per, I aim to hit a daily daily word count but last month several days went by when no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the words down.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I could. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of words but not les mots justes – they just weren’t singing off the page. To misquote Eric Morecambe, it was a case of all the right words but not necessarily in the right order. Or maybe they were the wrong words in the wrong order.
Whatever, they just didn’t work.
I rewrote the sequence countless times, spent ages reworking, fine-tuning and still it didn’t read, look or sound right. A lot of writers do this, of course. It’s certainly the way I work but not to the extent I had to recently. And that’s the operative phrase: had to.
As an author, I’ve never been able to move on to the next passage, even paragraph, until I’m as happy as I can be with the one I’m writing. I know it’s down to the years I spent in TV journalism.
Every news story I covered, I had to edit, edit and edit until it was right. It had to come in at the correct length and it had to come in on time. Only then could I let it go and move on. I’ve been a fiction writer for fifteen years now and constantly editing is still the way I work.
But, is it the best way?
Since my Oscar experience, I’ve been giving it some serious thought. Was the later version of the passage I’d struggled with for hours and hours really that much sharper? Did the first version not have a fresher feel? Did it not flow equally as well, if not – whisper it – even a little better? Had I been over-thinking, over-writing? I was certainly overwrought.
Out of interest, I asked a writer friend to cast an eye over both versions. We’re in almost daily touch and share highs and lows (meaning, keep each other sane) and she was well aware I’d been having a hard time. Anyway, I asked her verdict.
Before revealing it, here are two slightly shorter versions of the passages she read. Bear in mind they’re both early drafts and neither will make it to the book.
‘They live in Bourneville, gaffer. I’m heading out there now with, Tyler.’ Kay Henderson had barely been able to string two words together on the phone. Bev knew a face-to-face would be more effective and if her instinct was on the money, quicker in the long run. She had an inkling the Henderson girl had paid a heavy price for shooting her mouth off. The ultimate. If that was the case, they needed the mother to open up, soon as.
Having collared Mac in the car park, she’d brought him up to speed as they walked back to the motor. She’d badly needed his chauffeuring services, so she could do some serious detecting en route via the phone. Now she’d accrued a bit more info, she’d just put Powell in the picture.
‘So you’re saying this Gemma bird’s got form?’ The DI sounded a tad sceptical; probably thought she was going out of her way to miss the early brief. But when did the blond ever listen properly?
‘I’m saying if it’s who I think it is she made a false accusation a few years ago that landed a guy in court.’ Bev was still waiting for Terry, a mate on the West Mercia force, to get back with confirmation of the girl’s identity. In the meantime, she was scrolling on-line newspaper reports to refresh her memory. She and Tel had discussed the case in the run-up to the trial and she was ninety per cent sure she’d heard him mention the name, Gemma.
The Gemma in question had a habit of telling fairy stories. Quite the serial offender. Little Miss Anonymous in the media had got off lightly but the same couldn’t be said for the teacher she targeted. He’d very nearly been sent down before the truth – make that the fantasies – came to light.
Could rush hour traffic get any louder?
‘Bristol did you say, Morriss?’
Frowning, Bev clamped the handset tighter to her ear. ‘No, gaffer, Bourneville. It’s where the family live.’
Moira Henderson had barely been able to string two words together on the phone. Bev knew a face-to-face would be more productive and if her instinct was on the money, getting out there now would be a damn sight quicker in the long run. As she’d tried telling Powell – she had an inkling the daughter had paid big time for shooting her mouth off. Either way they needed to get the mother talking, soon as.
‘Are you saying this Gemma bird’s got form?’ Powell sounded a tad sceptical; probably thought she’d do anything to avoid the early brief. Her and Mac both. She’d collared him in the car park before he even set foot in the nick. Mac was doing the driving honours while Bev did some homework on the phone.
‘I’m saying if it’s who I think it is she made a false accusation a few years ago that landed a guy in court.’
The case had been West Mercia’s baby; Bev was still matey with one of the detectives who’d been on the inquiry. She’d messaged Tel the sixty-nine thousand dollar question, and was waiting for an answer. Tel had been well hacked off when the trial collapsed, called the girl all the names under the sun, including – if Bev recalled rightly – Gemma Henderson.
‘And you’re thinking this Aiden bloke’s waited till now for payback?’ Powell sniffed. ‘Sounds pretty unlikely to me.’
‘You might be right, gaffer.’ Always a first time. ‘Won’t know till we’ve checked, will we?’
What Bev did know was that the Gemma she had in mind had a habit of telling fairy stories. Little Miss Anonymous in the media had got off lightly considering she’d spun a web of lies. Unlike the guy she’d vilified. Apart from having his reputation shredded, Aiden Manners had very nearly lost his liberty before the truth – and fantasies – came to light.
So which version did my author friend prefer? The first. Her thinking? That it had the edge in pace and focus. I have to say neither version really did it for me, and I agonised a while more until feeling happy enough to move on. Still I found it an interesting experiment, hardly scientific, but it certainly made me question further the way I work.
The bottom line is – I know I won’t change. Probably, can’t. Not least because other factors come into play. I feel if a sequence is wrong it can have a knock-on effect on the next and the next and so on. Plus I’d hate to get to the end of a book knowing there are sections that aren’t right and that serious work’s needed to fix them.
Not, I hasten to add, that I’m ever completely happy with a book when it’s finished. Is any author? I fine-tooth comb the script several times, editing and tightening yet again. But when it’s ready to go to my editor, at least I know that – as far as I can – I’ll have hit the right notes in just about the right order.
Until the edit comes back.
To finish – two of my favourite quotes on writing.
And as for Mr Hemingway’s words . . . I couldn’t put it better myself.