This week I made an alarming discovery. It came about as follows:
From time to time I have been known to write a short story. Once, and only once, I sat down at the keyboard, with nothing more in my head than a first line, and I wrote a short story in one session. I made it all up as I went along, characters, plot, the lot.
Usually, however, I am a careful planner. Perhaps over-careful. Sometimes you can lose spontaneity that way.
Anyway, about three years ago, at least, I found myself with an idea for a short story about a woman aged around sixty, confined to a wheelchair, who tells a visitor how, years earlier, she had murdered a man with a shotgun, and got away with it.
Quite how and why I ever had this idea I shall never know. It is clear evidence, you may think, of a disturbed mind, doubtless the result of some traumatic (and long-repressed) incident in childhood.
But there it was: the kernel of an idea in my mind. The narrator/murderer even had a name: Clarrie.
Time passed, and I would think about this story occasionally, while shaving, or driving from A to B. And after a while Clarrie turned into a man, by name of Lucius. Lucius would not be confined to a wheelchair, but he would be crippled, as a result of being born with a club foot. And Lucius would also murder somebody with a shotgun, and get away with it.
Further time passed, until, in the early summer of this year, I decided that it was high time I got on with writing the damn thing. So I did some structural work on the story, as distinct from just letting it ferment at the back of my mind. And it became, for better or worse, a fairly major project, in the sense that it required some serious thinking.
Anyone who commits a murder had better have a credible motive. So I worked on the motive. And then I thought, well, yes, this is all very well, but just describing how one man kills another isn't very interesting; in fact it's rather sordid. So what can we introduce by way of twists, or surprises, ironies, misunderstandings, and so forth.
About a month ago, I began to actually write the story. I had imagined that it would run to 5,000 words or so. But by the time I'd finished it, it was over twice that length. This was made necessary, I thought, by the need to provide the leading characters with enough backstory to make what they did not only credible but justifiable.
At last it was finished. It had turned out to be much more of an effort than I had ever imagined, so I was glad to get it out of the way.
While writing this short story, and even before I wrote it, it had occurred to me that, since the story was related in the first person, it could easily become a one-man play for the stage. Now you know, and I know even better than you, that the likelihood of such a one-man play ever being produced is very low indeed. Nevertheless, it was worth, I thought, preparing a version in script form, and seeing if I could find an actor aged 60 or so who might be willing to do it at, say, Edinburgh.
So I sat down to do the stage version. Wouldn't take long, I thought.
The first problem was that, at 10,500 words or so, the story was too long for a one-man play. I wanted it to be about 7,000 words, so that it would run for perhaps 50 minutes on stage. (These calculations are, by the way, preliminary; don't take them as infallible.)
So I set to work to trim the story by about one third.
Now I had imagined, as I wrote the short-story version, that it had swollen to 10,500 words simply because it was necessary to introduce lots of backstory in order to make the characters' actions convincing. But what I found, when I started to trim, was that there was masses of fat in the damn thing. It was prolix; repetitious. It was, to my dismay, flabby.
OK, to some extent I could justify this by the fact that the story is told in the first person. And a man who tells a story to a friend may well repeat himself occasionally, digress a bit here and there, go forward and backwards in time in a slightly disorganised manner. So, some of this repetition and vagueness was understandable and legitimate. But much of it was... well, unintended.
At which point I gave a deep sigh.
Here I am, with more than fifty years of experience in writing fiction behind me. I must have written, what, two million words of it? I have also devoted thousands of hours to studying the art of fiction. And this is the result? A story, which, when examined closely, turns out to be flabby.
And so my alarming discovery of the week is this: as the years go by, writing doesn't get any easier. Or, by the look of it, any better.
I find this rather depressing.