image of cherries


This year in our garden, the fruit trees were pruned in late winter. Some, like the young apples and quinces I have nurtured from tiny sticks, were cut so severely that I feared for their lives. Yet I trusted the wisdom and expertise of the pruner; it was for their own good he assured me, as I trimmed fallen plum branches for next year's kindling, and helped load the rest of the debris onto his truck. The trees would grow stronger and healthier than before, he said. And now, in this early spring, the slender trunks of the quinces are already pushing out bright new buds.

The sense of life stirring, the promise of future delight that spring always delivers, reminds me of the early stages of writing a novel. It is a time when thoughts and ideas push towards the surface, rising up out of the dark and impenetrable yet far from dormant unconscious, tentative, yet unstoppable as the blind press of spring bulbs towards the light. And like almost all new growth in the garden, early ideas often generate more material than can be utilised in the final draft. Wrestling with tangents, extraneous characters and sub-plots, is part of the first draft struggle. Sometimes in the excitement of having created something where nothing existed before, the core story ends up clogged by superfluous description, or details that belong to another work entirely. But in a first draft, anything and everything goes, for it is, by definition, a piece of work which has not yet found its final shape; like the proverbial block of stone, a first draft contains a perfect statue waiting to be liberated, or so every writer hopes.

Re-drafting has much in common with sculpting: it is a process of chip chip chipping away that calls for amazing quantities of patience, and this is the point at which novels sometimes go awry - the writer knows the beautiful form exists and they want it out, now. But true beauty cannot be hurried; like a lovely, mature garden, a novel must progress through its proper seasons.

Following the gathering period of note-taking and experimental beginnings comes a hot spill of words onto the page. When this happens I am up and at my desk early, and anything that stems the flow becomes an irritation. Pages are quickly filled, and there is a feeling of lushness that is intoxicating. In the lulls comes a sensuous pleasure in dallying with

language. Roget's Thesaurus lies open and there are lists and lists of words. A spell of this type of writing has the feel of a long hot summer, and with luck some of that heat will fire the finished manuscript.

Autumn, in fictional terms, is when a well-structured story settles on the page. Certain passages begin to glow, while others naturally wither and fall away; it is a harvest of all the work that has gone before and a time when the writer quietly begins to revel in the layers of the text they have created, its richness and sense of permanence.

Of all the seasons, both in the natural world and in writing, winter is the toughest, yet also, perhaps, the most rewarding. In winter the bones of things are laid bare - leaf skeletons, the lovely shapes of deciduous trees, the form and symmetry, or lack of it, in a garden, or in the manuscript of a novel. Winter is the time of reckoning, of cutting back and reducing to what is essential, of slashing and burning everything else. This can be uncomfortable when working with the final draft of a novel, for we are forever reluctant to 'kill our darlings' even though we know their death is crucial. Jean Rhys once said that all problems in a novel can be resolved by cutting, and as with the necessity for pruning fruit trees to make them stronger, I have no doubt at all that she was right.