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It's messy - even for the best

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Thu, April 12, 2012 20:52:11

One of the more interesting things I’m doing this month is a short writing residency at Seven Stories in Newcastle, as part of a wider project called Write Around the Toon. Seven Stories, if you haven’t been, is a fantastic place on the banks of the river at Ouseburn. Housed in its galleries and archives is a national collection of artwork and manuscripts by children’s writers, from Enid Blyton to David Almond.

An aspiring children’s writer like myself can find it both fascinating and intimidating. All that genius is enough to make you want to shrug your shoulders, get your coat and admit you could never really do any better. But after spending a quiet couple of hours in Seven Stories’ archive collection, leafing through some early typed and handwritten notes and manuscripts by the wonderful Philip Pullman, I also felt pleasantly reassured. Because even the best writers sometimes struggle with plot and find themselves forced to make changes at the bidding of editors who definitely do not always know what is best.

For example, Pullman’s 1988 novel The Shadow in the North was originally published two years earlier as The Shadow on the Plate. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll know one of its central characters is a Victorian photographer, and so the plate in question is a photographic one. But Pullman’s US publishers didn’t get this at all. “We first think ‘dinner plate’, and know that couldn’t be right, but there seems to be little else to hook into to intrigue us, so we could easily by pass this title,” says the American editor in a letter, which then goes on to mention other “troubles” with the novel.

In the original version of the book, the central character of Fred does not die – this only happens in the later versions, perhaps when Pullman realised the strong potential for a further work featuring the intelligent character of Sally Lockhart. And pages of Pullman’s notes show that the plot did not come as easily as it may appear in the final version. One page – covered in the author’s hand-drawn doodles – shows that some events in the narrative are causing him some problems and Pullman outlines his suggested solutions. “Still uneasy,” he notes.

And the scribbles also reveal the author truly wrestled with the problem of when a key incident should take place. The word ‘Timing’ is highlighted by a hand-drawn box around it. Later, Pullman writes in capitals: “TIMING. TIMING.” There are some notes about why it needs to take place in order to let other events occur, and later: “But the timing – still not sure.” And eventually, to my joy, the phrase: “But what about the fucking timing?” Isn’t it nice to know that even the most esteemed and erudite writers have moments of sheer frustration - and wasn’t it brilliant of Pullman to write his thought processes down?

These archives are full of fascinating little jewels like this, often hand-written, with crossings-out which show all the author’s original wording and ideas. In some cases there is the early twentieth century version of ‘cut and paste’ – in other words, passages that have been literally cut out with scissors and sticky-taped to another part of the story. It’ll be interesting to know what form such archives will take for more modern works that have been composed entirely on a computer screen. In the meantime, though, it’s a comforting realisation that the process of writing a novel is as messy for the exemplars like Philip Pullman as it is for the rest of us – even if his finished products are infinitely better than most of us can claim.

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