After writing my first novel The Perfect Murderer, I took a month to weed out filler words from the manuscript. My search was prompted by 43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately. When I started this exercise, I thought it would take a couple of days, but after noticing about 25 other words and phrases to remove I continued to plug away. Two months later, my manuscript was 9,000 words shorter.
I moved on to hunt for hyphens—words that need them, and those that don’t. This was time-consuming to do, and very boring too with none of the joy of creative writing. It set me to thinking about how differently I feel about a novel at different stages of writing it, then doing multiple edits, while trying to interest literary agents and publishers in it.
I’m a pantser as a writer, plotting loosely while still having a firm idea of what the overall themes will be. In making outline notes for a novel, I do more sketching of the natures of my characters than making a detailed plot. My protagonists direct the story as much as me. This planning stage feels a bit like drawing a rough diagram of a building on a scrap of paper, something that I will inhabit with fictional people who’ll construct the walls for me.
Actually writing a novel, I feel both involved and removed from the process. My characters sometimes do things that I haven’t anticipated, but which are true to their natures. Writing a crime novel means strewing red herrings all over the place, as detectives try to work out what’s going on, so I don’t worry too much about mazes and dead-end corridors that appear. All the same, it can feel a bit like directing the building of my house/novel from a distance. Reading through the latest chapters at the end of the day, to see if it makes sense, is like trying to learn the layout of a new building.
Once finished, upon typing The End the editing begins. I become a building inspector, correcting features of my story-house—moving an illuminating window from one chapter to another, to reveal details that made my murderer act the way that he did. Overall, it looks like my story works, but as with any newly-built house, I know there’ll be plenty of bedding-in to come, with further adjustments needed.
Trying to flog the novel to literary agents, through queries and submissions of a writing sample from my story, requires so much polishing and hard work for so little response, that I feel like the world’s worst double-glazing salesman. While trying to ingratiate myself with these gatekeepers, my story house sits neglected and empty with no visitors. I don’t read it anymore, and though I’m proud of my creation, it’s also a museum of old thoughts. I want to make something new.
Tired of scrutinising my manuscript, which feels more like a forensic examination of each and every brick for integrity, I yearn for fresh writing challenges. I’ve become numb to whether the story works as a story, after picking sentences and individual words apart with tweezers and scalpel.
So, my novel has gone from a rough sketch to a building project followed by a second-fixing, correction, mopping-up exercise, onto being a product that I hawked from door to door, before I turned neurotic, micro-managing the elements that I used to construct my monster like Doctor Frankenstein.
Have any of you gone through similar shifts of attitude to their work?