and time yet for a hundred indecisions
and for a hundred visions and revisions,
before the taking of a toast and tea
(T.S Eliot: ‘the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock)
The question I must ask today is: ‘when is a story finished?’
I ask this as a result of some valuable feedback I got from a trusted friend and reader. I believe that this feedback may have saved me some embarrassment. I believe it has gotten me closer to my stated goal – that being in the first instance to be a better writer and in the second to be a published author.
The trouble is that you sometimes need to go backward to go forward… or perhaps that’s not quite what I mean.
I am developing a new understanding of what it means to write, and as a result I have had to seriously reconsider my claim to having a finished novel manuscript.
I shall here use the metaphor of the sculptor. When recently I was in Paris I went to the Musée Rodin. I can highly recommend this to anyone in Paris. It was free the day we went to wander through the gardens, and it is in the gardens that some of his greatest and most famous work resides. One of the exhibits in the garden is the work which was unfinished at the time of his death. These statues and busts are in various ways incomplete, and in so being they give the most marvellous insight into the craft of the artist.
Rodin’s pieces give the unshakable impression that the artist is not so much carving a shape from the stone as much as he is removing the excess stone from the sculpture within. It is as if, where we see a block of stone, he sees what is within and labours to reveal it to the rest of us. By this reckoning the sculptors process is thus: select the stone, envisage the sculpture within, reveal.
How does this apply to writing?
I put together a 241,000 word draft for my novel (at one point it was over 300,000). I ensured it had all the narrative elements, that it finished on a climactic scene and that the main threads of the plot were resolved (and enough left loose that a sequel would work). I thought at this point I was finished, but now I think I was at the second stage of my sculpting analogy.
The 300,000 words made up the stone I had to work with. The narrative elements, climax, resolution, were my vision of what would be revealed within that stone.
What was lacking was the reveal. The feedback I got helped to confirm for me that I needed to act on those niggling doubts. They’d been there all along, but I’d denied them the gravitas they deserved. My sculpture was a hunk of shaped rock, but what I saw in it wasn’t necessarily seen by others.
So now I need to carve more stone away, shape the lines a little differently, cut-back and polish in some places, restore and reinforce in others. But this is a good thing. This is an essential part of the process.
There was a time when I thought that cutting words meant that the words themselves were wasted, but that’s not the case. Those cut words will determine how well the finished piece can be seen. All the stone that Rodin carved away from the sculptures he sought to reveal was important. Without the removal of that stone we couldn’t see the artist’s vision. Likewise the words we lose to the editing process are important.If such things were not removed art galleries would be full of stone slabs instead of sculptures.
So I’ve been neglecting the website a little in favour of carving words. That hoary old question of process over platform, and for the foreseeable future process is winning hands-down. I’ve also put on hold a short story in the final phases of development and the untitled novel project I had begun.
I want to get a pitch-worthy final revision done by November. So far I’m down to around 200,000 words, and I’m nearly a third of the way through the draft. At this rate I’ll get it down below 150,000 perhaps even to 120,000 words (which is a figure that has been recommended to me as an upper-limit for a first time novelist.
So head down, delete key on stand-by, and I’ll meet Prufrock for the toast and tea when I’m done.