Scalpels vs chainsaws: how do you edit for travel writing?

Ladies and gents, I’m as excited as a very excited thing. Even if I have used up all my metaphors to get here.

Last night, I pushed A Eurasian Diary past the 40K word mark, causing me to loudly clap my hands and issue forth a “woo,” potentially rousing my wife and a couple of neighbours in the process. But it was a huge milestone for me – the last ten thousand words have progressed slower than I’d wanted, with a long sequence of re-edits along the way, so to feel once again like I’ve got my head above water was a happy moment. 

Which leads me to think a bit about process. One main difference I’m noticing with writing a travelogue versus writing fiction is the process of editing itself. When working on a novel, my process has always been fourfold – 1) scaffold the plot, chapter by chapter, on some A3 grid paper, 2) into this grid, spew a great surging river of dreamspawned consciousness, 3) go through it from the beginning with the ruthlessness of a chainsaw sculptor, happily hacking thousands of words of bumpf from its frame, and finally 4) take out the scalpel, some eyeliner, and work it into its final supermodel form. Long fiction is all about sketching first, detailing later.

With travel writing, there is no sketching. Maybe because it’s such an autobiographical type of thing, the rough sketch is already there – the boundaries and the momentum are quantities I already feel I understand. So, instead of a big long stream of consciousness to see where it takes me, every sentence is placed with loving care and precision. Every alliterative phrase is remade as I go, every redundant use of “strange” or “vast” or “smelled” (saying a lot about the nature of this trip…) is plucked out step by step, paragraph by paragraph. The scalpel’s in my hand at the same time as the pen.

So now, if I advance the manuscript by 600 words in a night, I feel like jumping up and down and writing my mother, because I tend to go backwards almost as much as forwards.

All this means the build-up is slower, but with luck, it might also mean the chainsaw job won’t be necessary at the end of it. You may disagree once you see it! And see it, you will*….. you will*……

* you might not, but you probably will


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