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An ode to blue biro

How long is a piece of string? Or, to rephrase the question, how many times should I go over this crusty old manuscript before it resembles a novel? There is no definitive answer to this, but regarding a strategy, my personal weapon of choice is the common or garden blue biro.

The art of rewrite is a strange thing. Unlike the mind numbing prospect of the blank page, the fully-formed sheet of A4 presents a different set of problems. Like entering the Borneo Jungle with a machete, the intrepid writer has to hack and scythe his way through an impenetrable mass, leaving only the good stuff – of which there may be precious little.

But the rewards of the process are considerable. Each subsequent draft gets marginally better. Of course, it’s all subjective and relies on the writer’s honing skills, but it’s well worth it if you can develop the necessary staying power.

The Irish writer, John Banville, claims to despise his novels after he’s written them, especially when he happens to come across one of them in a bookshop. Many writers will empathise with his reaction. The hours of tortuous editing and revision that go into the making of a novel encourage such levels of disgust. Perhaps that’s what all writers are – little more than seasoned re-arrangers of words, finally arriving at the conclusion through a long process of elimination.

Personally, I don’t tend to feel the same way about my own work. Having been through all the phases of inspiration, exuberance, frustration and apathy, I usually arrive at a place of equanimity, knowing that I’ve seen the job through from start to finish and done my best. And the humble blue pen plays a significant part in the process, cutting out the deadwood and putting in the finishing touches.

I was once given a piece of advice which I’ve always stuck to: Edit on the printed page. For some reason, editing on a laptop or computer is not the same. You tend to miss things – not just typos, but appalling lapses in continuity and sentence construction. Hence, the vengeful blue pen that comes in like a cavalry charge to decimate the lines of text on your sheets of A4.

I like the military analogies when describing writing. After all, the writer is always at war with himself in some way.

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