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Literary Archaeology

David Eddings once said “write a million words or so. Then burn them. Now you’re almost ready to start”. It’s a terrible thing to tell a potential writer that they probably need to have a twenty-year apprenticeship. I don’t think anyone truly believes it, simply because you occasionally hear about people whose manuscript is published with barely any changes, and it becomes a multi-million bestseller. The thing is that books like Chinua Achabe’s Things Fall Apart is an exception rather than the norm. Most of us, especially those of us who start writing at quite a young age, need to get a bit of life experience, as well and understanding how to hone our craft.

I have around a dozen novels that are unpublished. They will never see the light of day. These were written at least twenty years ago. Some of them, I think, are probably cringeworthy: did I really write that? What was I thinking? And yet, from my memories, there are a few scenes that stand out.

When I started writing, word processors were a pretty neat idea, dot matrix printers were revolutionary, and when I upgraded my word processor from 256k to 512k RAM, I thought I had made it!

Those first novels were written in a programme called locoscript, a simple text format. At the time that I moved way from 3” discs to 3.5” discs, I had a cable that could transfer from one machine to another. Eventually these became windows .wri files, and I stored them on a ZIP drive: an external drive that stored up to 100MB of data. (Actually, the best thing about word processors in those days was that there was no internet, which meant no distractions. No Facebook, no email. Research was done in a library, in advance. A word processor also only performed one task at a time. When the word processor programme was running you couldn’t have a game in the background. When you sat down to write, you wrote).

I recently started to think about these novels and I thought with self-publishing platforms like CreateSpace and Lulu, there was no need for these files to continue festering on a hard drive, and started to “restore” them. But it was a definitely a case of restoring them as they are, there were to be no updates whatsoever. If I didn’t, then there was a chance that they would be lost forever – they’ve been stored through different formats. And actually, in some cases, the files had become corrupted. Fortunately I have a few crates in the garage which contain printouts of a draft of the story – sometimes an earlier version so that name and locations have been changed.

The idea isn’t to restore these novels so that they’re fit for publication – many of them are well beyond that. One of them in particular, my longest ever novel, I can see is that I have tried to stuff too many ideas into one place. And, as I mentioned above, others are totally cringeworthy. There are three that I’m not even sure I want to go through this process. But that would defeat the object. Each of these books represents inspiration, imagination and dedication. They may not be literature, they may not even be good, but they represent a few months of hard work in my life. And perhaps it's better that I worked those ideas out of my system then, rather than addressing them now!

Because perhaps within those stories, there is a glimmer of hope. I’m sure that every apprentice looks back over his work and sees something that appeared perfectly acceptable at the time, but age and experience lets you see it in a new light. But that’s the point of learning a craft. You see progress. You see the spark of what made you want to become a writer in the first place.

David Eddings published a couple of his early manuscripts much later once he’d established his reputation as a writer. It’s true he burned two of his manuscripts: one because he thought it was so awful. The other was an accident.


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