A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is a great book, and deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. You can find reviews of it all over the place. What I want to add is a little different.
In the author’s notes, Anthony says that he re-typed his book four times to get to the final manuscript. I was gob-smacked. I hate typing. I’m crap, I wear out backspace keys faster than an F1 driver goes through tyres, and even after getting rid of all those wiggly red underlines, I find I’ve used the wrong words (where / were / wear) all over the place.
But, I’d been stalled on one of my own books for some time. I knew it wasn’t quite there, but continual editing and re-editing seemed to be getting me further away from where I wanted to be, rather than closer to it. As an old mentor of mine once said, writing can get like over-worked pastry, crumbly and grey, and that’s what was happening to this book.
So, I followed Anthony’s idea. I printed my book out, sat down, and re-typed it. I don’t mean I went through it with a pen crossing out some bits, re-working others and typing in the changes. I’d been doing that for ages – too long – and was getting nowhere. I mean I put the stack of paper next to my computer and typed the whole lot in again from scratch.
I was cynical when I began. I tend to write my first drafts long-hand – yes, pen and paper – and type them in, and that first typing in is part of the process of improving writing. I’d already done that, and I’d crossed out and moved bits around and all the other stuff writers do to try and wrestle these awkward entities, words, into submission. I doubted I would gain much. However, this book has about 70 chapters of a about thousand each, so there didn’t seem to be much to lose by trying it out on the first one or two.
Day 1: Re-typed the first two chapters. What a grind. Fuck.
Day 2: Read what I’d typed on Day 1. Boy. I didn’t know what I’d done, but even if it was still crap, it was a much better grade of crap.
So, I set myself a target of 4,000 words and went for it. And that was me, for just under twenty days. By the end of it, I felt as though something very heavy had driven over me and reversed a couple of times. I was barely articulate. I’d broken my laptop keyboard. But it was worth it. The book had gained a stylistic uniformity that took me by surprise. It had fewer loose ends, fewer asides that went nowhere, and just read better.
Perhaps because I hate typing so much, the process of re-typing did what the editing couldn’t: forced me to think if I really needed to say a thing, or whether I could say the same thing with fewer words. One thing that took me quite by surprise was that my book came down from 73,000 to 67,000 words. I didn’t think that was possible.
So, writers, if you’re at a dead end with the polish that shines, I recommend re-typing. It kept me sober for almost three weeks, too. But that benefit turned out to be rather more transient…