Before Xmas, as a means of coercing myself into action by giving a very public hostage, I committed to starting 2017 by finally transcribing the manuscript of The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel, written by me thirty years ago this year, albeit only as a First Draft.
It has lain, ever since, in an oversized but overflowing ring-binder, having never gone through any substantial re-writing because the act of completing the First Draft proved to be enough to exorcise the ghosts with which the story dealt.
I decided to write it because it was long overdue, and because I wanted to see if there was any part of it that was at all salvageable, or usable, or if it was any good at all (suspected answer: no). If nothing else, once it was all committed to pixels, I could print up a private copy through Lulu.com and stick it on my shelves along with the rest of my accepted canon.
The plan was to start on or immediately after January 1, but having dug out the binder, and sorted the loose papers from when it burst open into some semblance of order, I started in mid-December. I am still going, and there has been only one day in which I have not been typing busily away.
To remind you: the book was written in longhand, in blue biro, on A4 narrow feint paper. I am (with occasional mild alterations) transcribing one sheet per day, that is, two sides of the paper. This is the daily minimum. Some days I do more. Some days, I do less, when pages contain struck out sections. On average, I am copying up about 830 words per day, in spells of 35-40 minutes.
(I apologise to all those who may find this boring beyond words. There is a Deep Space 9 review immediately above which may be more to your tastes.)
In the early stages, my memories played me false. There was not only a Chapter 1, whether written before or after the bulk of the book, but multiple versions of that, and the same went for Chapter 2, which started to get very heavy-going long before I had everything transcribed. Progress has been a bit more smooth since then, and I have already today copied the first section of Chapter 6.
As I said before, the main thing that surprises me is that the writing isn’t anything like as bad as I expected it was going to be. It is mostly utilitarian, and there are lots and lots of clunky moments, and I have not been able to totally resist the urge to improve things by adding the odd line here or there in different coloured type (mostly as markers to remind me of new ideas and approaches for if I do decide to revise this).
But there’s the odd line here and there that impresses me as evidence that there was some thinking going on, and whilst the whole thing has been written very plainly, looking at it from the outside, there’s a surprising lot of subconscious subtlety in there in the choice of words.
This is first person work, and the specific words used at times reflect a deeper understanding of the thought and emotional processes at work here. Seeing them is encouraging. There is one point, in the last chapter, where a very strong signal is given by the writing, which is the only such instance that I remember as being deliberate, and seeing mini-instances of similar steps is very enjoyable.
Then again, there should be stuff like that. This is a filtered and fictionalised account of part of my life, and re-reading it, as closely as I am doing in copying up, I am being reminded of that period of my life, which is now almost forty years distant.
The principal character is me, albeit slightly more idealised (only slightly, there’s a story about that and Woody Allen and Annie Hall that I intend to tell once I get round to re-watching that film). The leading lady is based on a very specific woman I used to know and the main supporting characters all have their beginnings in friends and workmates, though I only used the originals as starting points and developed the people from there.
But they are all people I used to know, people I have not seen in almost four decades, friends and colleagues I worked with, an environment and a setting that I left behind a long time ago. The book was written less than a decade afterwards, but was the culmination of preparation and plotting that began somewhat earlier. These people, those places, the feelings were all still very fresh in my mind and, if only for the book’s sole reader to date, I did a bloody good job of keeping them alive.
This personal aspect is likely to be a strong factor in any decision to rewrite the book. If I do that, eventually, it will be an interesting test, as I will effectively be collaborating with my younger self, and trying not to let too much of my instinctive cynicism permeate his work.
A not wholly unintentional side-effect is that this is going some way to unlocking those parts of my brain that deal with fiction writing, and which have been struggling for the last few years. I may only be copying up, but it’s using muscles that have atrophied, but which are now functioning enough that on three occasions I have turned to my newest original work and added to it. It’s not been much in terms of overall wordage, but it’s got me over an awkward chapter end and into a new scene, and I can feel the fizzing.
So in every respect, this is working out well. I’ve been at it for over a month and I haven’t reconsidered my estimate that this will take until the summer to complete transcribing, but it’s a positive decision, and I don’t think I’m going to need you, my adoring audience, to keep me to it. This one will run.