Friday, 26 February 2010

Secondary Composition

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I am on a ‘writing sabbatical’. One of the projects I’m working on is the verse novel I wrote as the creative portion of my PhD in Creative Writing. Though the novel was good enough for the examiners, some of their comments, as well as those of friends who had read it afterwards, led me to believe I should tweak it before submitting it to publishers. I put the manuscript away for several years, while I worked on other projects and on making a living, but at the start of this year I decided I needed to finish what I had started. I needed another round of Secondary Composition.

Secondary Composition is my name for the third stage of the Writing Cycle. I have taken this phrase from Robert Graves, who in an early essay talked about ‘the secondary phrase of composition’. In another essay, he quoted Dr W H R Rivers from his book Instinct and the Unconscious:

In this comparison of the poem with a dream, one fact must be emphasised. The poem as we read it is very rarely the immediate product of the poetic activity, but has been the subject of a lengthy process of a critical kind, comparable with that which Freud has called the secondary elaboration of the dream...[my emphasis]

Conflate these two phrases and we get Secondary Composition. I find this term extremely useful for describing the critical and creative processes that occur after the initial white-heat first draft. I had been looking for such an all embracing term, because I found in my teaching that most students were using such terms as Redrafting, Rewriting, Revision, Editing in the belief that they refer to the same thing, when in fact they don’t. This confusion is something I plan to expand on in a future entry.

So, for the past two months I have been engaged in Secondary Composition work on my verse novel, which is titled The Silence Inside the World. Over the New Year period I had the opportunity for a writer’s retreat, which involved looking after the country property of some friends. The peace and solitude was what I required, and I spent the two weeks reading through the manuscript, making notes on it and using a piece of software called Snowflake Pro to help me clarify character motivations and plot points. The software is available from, and can be used for the planning of a novel or, as in my case, as a diagnostic tool for an existing draft. Essentially, for those two weeks I was engaged in structural editing. I saw holes in motivation, plot and structure that needed addressing and gained more insight into the story I was trying to tell.

When I came home I was caught up in admin and teaching commitments right up to the moment of my long service leave kicking in. Since then, I have been a full-time writer and will be for almost another four months. For the past four weeks I have taken what I discovered on my writer’s retreat and been applying it to a line edit of the verse novel. This sort of editing is trickier than for a normal novel, as it involves more than the usual rearranging, condensing, deleting or adding of words and sentences that prose writing involves. I not only have to check syllable counts and rhythms for each line, but also have to make sure I keep scenes and actions in the three line stanzas I have been using. If I get rid of a line, I have to juggle the lines around them to retain the stanza form. Such story and editing demands are enough to drive a person to his or her favourite ‘comfort’ substance, demands I’m sure T S Eliot had in mind when he wrote the following lines in his Four Quartets (actual format unsupported by Blogger):

Words strain
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
'Burnt Norton, V'

Yet it is our job as writers, during our raids ‘on the inarticulate’, to keep trying ‘to learn to use words’.

What I can report is that, as of yesterday, I have virtually finished this round of Secondary Composition. The Silence Inside the World is now a verse novel of 8,589 lines, 64,141 words. I say ‘virtually’ because I will put the manuscript aside for several weeks, so that when I read it through again I will bring fresh eyes to the changes I made, some of them major. Only then will I be confident the manuscript is the best I can make it and is ready for the next stage of the cycle: Publication.

That’s a story for another entry.

Keep learning and keep writing.


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