When I finish a piece of writing, I often wonder if I’ll ever write anything again. Michael Longley said, ‘If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.’ I think every writer would travel to that elusive place and gather up the makings of poetry and fiction, if they could.
First drafts are like gifts: they start from something tiny and, when written down, they are reassuring. That something tiny is a seed of a thing that comes somehow, from somewhere; it nestles in and germinates and, with perseverance, it flowers. It might be a word, or a sentence, or a character’s name that swirls in my brain until I write it down and try to lead on from it. Other times, the promising seed doesn’t amount to anything and the draft is abandoned. There is a danger, maybe, in trying to rush a piece of writing into being; it’s no harm to mull over a promising beginning and bring it slowly to life.
When I first started writing seriously, first drafts used to spurt out in one sitting (both poems and short stories), but my pace has slowed and it can take a few months now to get the first draft of a story down, or a few days for a poem. And that’s only the writing. Prior to that, the seed-thing arrives: not an idea as such but, more often, a little sparkle that springs from an image (painting or photograph); an unusual name; an overheard conversation; an anecdote someone has told me; a real-life person I have read about whose story intrigues me; or an interesting situation, e.g. What would a painting say if it could talk?
A first draft is usually fairly ugly: it has wrong words in it and too many words. In fiction it may have plot or timing errors; mistakes in naming characters; or implausible events. But the beauty of all this ugliness is that it can be tinkered with until it takes a semi-pleasing shape. After that, the pruning begins.
I love self-editing—it’s one of my favourite parts of writing—and I’m very much a cutter rather than an adder. In poetry, I write a lot of short lyrics. In fiction, I love short shorts, and even my longer stories are rarely over four thousand words. Brevity is something I value. So, I start with a flabby, overwritten first draft and then I do some exuberating cutting. I look for repetition, superfluous adjectives (superfluous anything), and words and phrases that jar or weaken the piece.
Once that cutting is done, I put the piece to one side (I’m impatient, so it’s never for more than a few days); then I look at it with fresh eyes and start snipping again. I don’t send new work out straight away but I let it ferment for a while, do one final edit, then send it off.