Editing or making that ugly ill-formed lump into a thing of beauty
Early one summer, when I was fifteen, I found a fledgling owl on a pavement near our house. He couldn't fly. I took him down to the vet. I was told it was relatively easy to rear owls. But that rearing them in order to return them to the wild was more tricky. They are easily tameable. I named him Timmy and took him home..........
I’ll tell you in a minute what happened next.
Editing is the best bit of writing because every time you do it you’re making your book better. But before you can start the editing you have to have the raw material to work on. Sorry to state the obvious!
Writing doesn’t come easily to me. To get the original story out and onto the page is a slow, hiccupy sometimes painful process. It was when I was thinking about the creation of that first ugly, misshapen draft, that the image of my owl came to mind. In the wild, owls eat the whole of their prey, bones, fur and all. They then regurgitate a pellet of the indigestible part of the diet. So, if you’re rearing a young owl, you have to incorporate some of these elements, to keep this mechanism working.
My mum did not really relish the prospect of having a tame owl round the house, we already had a dog and a cat, so Timmy lived in a large box in our garage (my dad's car was banished to the drive). She devised the idea of shaking a jar of dried beans whenever I fed him, so that he would associate the noise with food. In those early days I lifted him out of his box and he would sit on my lap to be fed. It wasn't long before he gave me a surprise by taking off for a test flight. From then on he lived in the garage rafters, from time to time uttering strident screeches, which to me sounded more like Weee-eee-eeeeb rather than Tu Whit. I now had to climb up a set of tall step-ladders to give him his food. He would still sit on my lap and would allow me to stroke his head while I gave him the scraps of meat wrapped up in rabbit skins (available from a local butcher in those days, and kept in the ice-cream compartment of our small under-counter fridge). I often watched him, sitting up there on his favourite rafter, regurgitating pellets. It looked a very uncomfortable process; it looked like it took a great deal of effort; it looked like Timmy would far rather be doing something else as he gagged, retched and eventually brought up a surprisingly large and steaming lump of matter.
Back to writing. It’s only after the horrible process of excavating that first draft out of myself, that the fun begins. It’s only when I read the whole thing through that I realise it’s not (usually) as bad as I feared. But even when it is pretty rough and ready, the ideas about how to improve it start to flow. And it’s not just the way I’ve expressed myself that can be tidied up. New revelations come to me about the characters and their motivations - why did X say that and Y do this? Flaws in the plotline show up, but also the solutions. The story may even go off in new and surprising directions. All of this is like magic and is deeply rewarding.
After we released Timmy we’d leave his food out in the garden every evening on the top platform of the step ladders. And we would shake the jar of beans until he flew into the garden and alighted next to his evening repast. Gradually he stopped coming and we could only hope that he had taught himself to hunt and survived.
One summer night, a year later, we heard a very loud - and very close - ‘tu-whitting’. It sounded just like Timmy. My dad shone a torch onto a full-grown owl sitting in one of our beech trees.
As we watched he flew down and perched on the top of the side door to the garage where Timmy had lived. He sat there for several minutes then flew off. It was almost as if he had come back just to tell us he was all right. He'd made it.
I’ve since discovered that my conviction that Timmy was a boy was misplaced. It’s the females who go ‘tu-whitt’ and the males who go ‘tu-whoo’.