The other day I looked at my grey hair and receding gums and thought, I’m sure I was about twenty last time I checked. Or thirty. Either way, this weird little middle-aged face is something new. I also thought, it’s been an age since I had a story published, and I should get on with it.
I’ve been writing as ever, behind my somewhat quieter blog, but in the last couple of years I’ve very purposefully slowed down my submission rate.
I started writing fiction in late 2009 and, for a year or two, churned out short stories for publication. I enjoyed being published. Then I went on maternity leave, with all the joy that brings (and no time to write at all).
When I came back, I realised how much I dislike most of my old stories. If they aren’t clunky, contrived, self-aware, expository, naive, boring, sloppy, pretentious or, worse, didactic, then at best they aren’t “me”.
I want to change that; to submit work that I like rather than just something “good enough to publish” (or both, of course). I want to savour the writing, layer it, and fully enjoy it for its own sake. I think a lot of people make that transition the other way around, but I don’t want to get stories published for the sake of it; I want to build a body of work that fits together as an integrated whole, perhaps with a view to publishing a collection, or collating shorts into a novel. I don’t know how realistic this is, but the only way to find out is to try.
The initial result is that I’m writing almost exclusively for my bin. I’ll draft something, have an honest re-read a day or two later, and smack the delete button so hard it hurts. That accounts for 8/10 stories. For the remaining two, there’ll be an edit, followed by cold storage, a further re-read, and one more binned. The last story will be edited a third or fourth time before being binned. Once every four or five rounds, a story will emerge that doesn’t make me wince, and I might submit it. At the moment, that’s about two a year, about 2% of the stories that I start.
It’s painfully slow, but I’m trying to see it like whisky — you can chug back a cheap blended whisky with coke, and throw it back up when you’ve had too much, or you can sip an oak-aged malt, savouring the peat, wood and smoke of decades. They aren’t the same experience, in the distilling or the tasting.
So that’s why no one has heard much of me this year, but I am still here, and I am still writing.
Meanwhile, I’ve been interested to read other writers’ views on the writing process, and the percolation of stories over time.
On her blog, Alison Wells has written a series of posts about slow writing and quality. This month, Valerie O’Riordan blogged about her writing process. Just now, Marcus Speh has taken it a step further and speaks of a transcendental process in his writing, along with the interplay between different languages (and a McCarthy quote that I wish I had found). These people are great writers, and they are all advocating slow writing. Maybe there’s something in the air — or maybe ‘slow’ is just a good thing.
I’ll add more links as I find them — later, though, because I have to dash now. My writing process might have slowed down, but the rest of life is still zooming. I have children to entertain and a house to clean, before my hair goes white, my teeth fall out, and all the stories rot out of my head.