Wasted Words

3 11 2012

One of the frustrations of writing is that it is so wasteful. If writing a novel is like firing up a generator, it is in my case a most inefficient machine. I generate many words, but these alone are not enough. Words do not create a book.

A few years ago I might have been tempted to say that characters create a novel. It is true that without believable characters, many novels would fall flat. The characters in a novel are the actors in a film. Without character there is no point to action. But a good character alone is not enough to make a book sing.

Themes and ideas are important, but a self-conscious novel of ideas does not invite curling up by the fire on a chilly November night. When the evenings draw in my literary taste buds want something rich and concentrated. All summer I have flitted through nature writing, alighting on descriptions of woodland, river and seascape. I now want to retreat inside, close the curtains, light candles and read more deeply.

My winter reading nourishes me and feeds my writing. I’ve found, though, that I’m impatient with many contemporary novels. Perhaps it’s because I know too much – I have insider knowledge – and the magic is lost. While researching the Beautiful Truth I relied on memoir and wanted to create the effect of reading fiction that felt as natural as a journal.

I tried out many ideas. I thought of including diary entries, letter extracts, screenplay notes, but these techniques felt tricksy and attention-seeking. I wanted nothing to detract from the power of the events described. In the final edit I cut thousands of words. Some of the excised passages I had worked on for days. Weeks. I cut and pasted these wasted words into a document that grew each day like a ghost novel. One day I might go back and do something with it, but I doubt it. Offcuts often prove disappointing. I know this from baking.

One thing I learned is that it takes courage to peel off all the insulating layers and reveal the heart of what I write. Clinging to words because I happened to write them is the real waste.

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