The Loneliness of the Umpteenth Draft.

One of the things I enjoy most about writing is collaboration. Writing, particularly novel writing, is a long, lonely and often mind-and-body-destroying process. For days on end it’s often just me, enough coffee to make a sloth do the Charleston and a well-placed brick wall with a rapidly growing skull indentation. As a result I tend to get over-enthusiastic about collaborative projects – let’s write a sit-com, let’s do an opera, let’s rewrite Wikipedia and replace every third noun with ‘ping-pong’. Given my schedule and those of my would be collaborators, these tend to wallow on hard drives or GDocs, slowly de-evolving from a good idea into a thing that was noted down once.

The antithesis of this is the editorial partnership. My main one is with Simon Sylvester, author of The Visitors, due to be published next year to a world that seems, as yet, insufficiently grateful for the wonderful book coming its way. I’ve just read the latest draft and it is superb. Simon and I have been reading each others’ work for years now, since we both embarked on our now-binned first novels, and a productive partnership it has become.

I bring this up because it is high in my thoughts. As I said, I’ve just finished reading the latest draft of The Visitors and at the same time he has returned the favour by reading the latest draft of my new novel, Silma Hill (Scottish Gothic thing, mentioned elsewhere). Literally at the same time. As I was emailing him saying “finished!”, the electronic postman (I like to think of the internet having actual mail carriers, it helps explain why it sometimes goes ‘postal’) delivered an e-pistle from Simon saying the same. Quite nice to realise that at the exact same moment, here in Japan and there in Cumbria, we were at work reading each others’ novel.

I got lost in Silma Hill, in both senses. It started as a silly idea, a way to get my head out of The Wasting Embers, a writer’s holiday, as Virginia Woolf termed books like Orlando and Flush, but grew and grew into an actual novel. It’s like nothing I’ve written before: very plot driven, a dramatic page turner in the R. L. Stevenson (happy birthday, by the way) / James Hogg tradition. My favourite writers are modernists or stylists, and my prose tends towards the ‘literature first, story second’ style, but Silma Hill demanded a different voice, one that I had to fight to sustain. Needless to say, the dent in my brick wall has become worrying. I just hope that wall isn’t load bearing.

This is where collaborations come in. Simon had a read and came back with a precise, concise list of problems. I read his email, looked back at the draft and thought “of course, it’s so obvious. A new chapter here, rejig the prose there, tie up that loose end and done.” From despair to where? as the Manic Street Preachers once sang, throwing syntax to the winds. To motivation, that’s where. I’ve sketched out a plan, boiled the kettle, tied a cushion to my forehead and put Death Cab For Cutie on (my current writing music of choice). New draft, here I come.

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