I regard writing as in some ways like sculpting with clay. In sculpting the starting point is a design and an armature (the framework on which a clay sculpture is moulded), with writing most of us begin with a general idea of the story we want to tell and the arc it will follow even if we have not committed it to paper as a plot outline. With historical fiction an understanding of the chronology of the period in which the story is set forms part of the framework. When clay is placed over the armature it creates the general shape and form of the statue just as the first draft provides the basic shape of the story. For many of us this draft is rough and needs a great deal of work. My first drafts are rubbish and could be considered as clumsy 40,000 word plans, full of ‘telling’ and of logical inconsistencies. My second draft balloons to the point of too much information. With a clay sculpture some areas need to be reduced and the clay added elsewhere to give balance to the form, other parts need intricate sculpting. The real revision begins for me with the third draft as the story is cut back to more manageable proportions. I feel that this is where the real art of writing begins – taking something that is almost right and working on it until it is as perfect as I can make it. Sometimes during this revision unplanned but ultimately important minor characters spring to life fully formed. And, occasionally, I will discover that a section that I have worked on for days needs to be discarded altogether – this is, perhaps, the hardest part. Finally there is the polishing – working on nuanced word usage, punctuation, grammar. Spending an hour trying to find that single appropriate word because the one I have used is not quite right.
By the time my work is ready for reading, it will have gone through possibly a dozen drafts. My first readers help me to get a sense of perspective on my writing and whether a story is working the way I want it to. Judges reports from competitions also help with this. Even after years of writing, I still do not initially accept criticisms willingly. I often read through comments muttering ‘No, you don’t understand!’ I have learnt that it is best to skim the criticisms so that I get a general idea and then put the emails and reports away for a few weeks. When I come back to them, with emotion put aside, I can see the problems clearly and accept my readers’ careful criticisms. I will incorporate some suggestions into my next draft but not all. I am incredibly grateful for the time and effort readers take with my work.
The hardest sections to excise from a story are those which have involved a great deal of research. My completed novel Forsaking All Others began with a scene at Dublin Castle before one the main protagonists, Edmund Wyard, returned to England. Some readers saw no problem with the scene but others said, ‘Nothing happens – it serves no purpose.’ I argued in my head that the reader immediately got a sense of time and place and learnt a deal about Edmund, the manner of man he was and how he was seen by others. And I had done so much research on who the the Lord Deputy was, his character, the layout of Dublin Castle in the 1580s, the weather, the attitudes of the English to the Irish, the usual route taken by the English returning home from Dublin. I believe another reason I clung to this scene as the opening to the novel was that I knew that the next scene was too weak to work as a beginning. I finally came to grips with what I had known in my heart from the first time the opening was criticized and cut my all hard work and the weaker second scene as well. Elements from both scenes have been used elsewhere in the story but this revision has, ultimately, improved the story.
As an ultimate exercise in self indulgence, I have included the deleted first scene below. Please note that Robert Hayes’ attitude to the Irish in no way reflects my own, especially considering that half my ancestry is Irish.
Robert Hayes stared up at the gulls circling overhead, scraps of white against the grey sky. No more than fifteen minutes Wyard had said as he headed towards the Lord Deputy’s house leaving Hayes to bring the horses from the stables. That was half an hour ago, if not more. He hoped to God Wyard hadn’t changed his mind.
Hayes resisted the urge to tug yet again at his horse’s girth strap. He had checked and double checked the straps, the bridles and stirrups, the saddle bags of both his horse and his master’s. He adjusted the poniard at his back as he watched a small company of horsemen clatter into the upper yard of Dublin Castle. A surly bunch – Irish, by the look of them, or English gone native. Hayes cleared his throat and spat onto the cobbles as the last of the horsemen disappeared towards the stables. He would not trust a single one further than he could spit into a gale.
A gust of damp wind whipped across the courtyard. Hayes clamped his hand on his cap and scowled. It was supposed to be summer. No matter what his master felt, he would not be happy until he set foot again on English soil. It wasn’t right to think it, but news of old Sir Christopher Wyard’s death had been a Godsend.
He steadied Wyard’s horse, ready for mounting, as soon as he caught sight of his master with Sir John Perrot, the Lord Deputy. Some said Perrot was a by-blow of old King Henry’s – he certainly had regal bearing and a temper to match. But it was rarely directed against Wyard; he had a knack of getting on with such imperious old men without fawning. That the Lord Deputy would personally farewell him was a measure of Wyard’s standing here. It had been the same with them all, Grey and Pelham and Sidney too it seemed, but that was before Hayes’ time. And no matter what some of them said behind Wyard’s back, if they had a choice, it was Wyard they were happiest to serve beside when facing the murderous savages that inhabited this island.
When Wyard had mounted his horse, Sir John said, ‘Well Edmund, God speed you. Much as I need men of your ilk, for your own sake I would urge you to not come back. You have more than done your share here and this God-forsaken country has been the death of too many good men. You’ll have enough to concern you in England.’ He grasped Wyard’s arm. ‘I knew your father well and you are as good a man as he. We will all miss him.’
Wyard met Sir John’s eyes and said, his voice flat, ‘We will.’
‘When your mourning’s over, son, get yourself a wife – enjoy what’s come to you. Enjoy the sunshine too,’ he looked up at the sky and laughed, ‘it’s summer now in England.’
Wyard saluted Sir John and wheeled his horse towards the Castle gate, Hayes following. They clattered over the bridge and out into Castle Road. On the open road they broke into a gallop as they headed for Dalkey and the boat that would take them back to England.