Revisiting Past Work by Neil McGowan

This past month has been quite introspective for me. I’ve been looking back through some of the short stories I’ve written over the past thirty-odd years with a view to seeing if there’s anything in there that still engages me.

I will say, I don’t write anywhere near as many shorts as I used to – the books have kind of taken over, there, meaning the time to write something small and self-contained has shrunk – so the majority of them are earlier works.

I’m also, for obvious reasons, not revisiting those stories that have been published. I think they can stand on their own merits.

This started four or five weeks back, after a conversation with a work colleague who was asking me about writing (surprisingly, not the usual questions about ‘Where do you get your ideas’ and so on). We were discussing how it’s possible to see a writer’s style and voice develop over the years with each book they put out – we started looking at the development of the Harry Potter books, funnily enough, and how they grow in size and complexity as the authorial voice grows in confidence. I opined that there was probably a lot of stuff I’d written that I’d look at now with a mixture of fondness and horror, as I think every writer’s voice is shaped not only by life’s experiences but also by the external pressures of the wider world.

But it got me thinking. What did I have in the fabled ‘desk drawer’ (apart from a couple of early books that will almost certainly never see the light of day) that might be worth revisiting.

Over the next few nights, I pulled a lot of material from the trusty external drive I use as part of my backup system (I work in IT, so am a bit obsessive about a good backup strategy…) and settled down to review it.

I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, some of it was almost painful in the way it was written and developed. Lots of it was predictable, and the language, especially in the earlier pieces, was workmanlike, rather than literary. There were numerous problems in terms of structure and narrative choice that I can see now. (And yes, there were still some typos, despite my best efforts to ensure the final draft of any piece is free from such errors; the cynic in me wonders if they breed on the page…)

But there was some good stuff in there. In fact, I’ve earmarked a couple of pieces with a view to revisiting them and updating them. Mainly, I was struck by that same sense of development as I gained more experience. The later pieces were more coherent in both structure and voice, and every now and then I’d come across a phrase I don’t really recall writing and thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s quite good.’ For example, I was reading a piece from 1998 and there was a scene set at night on a boat. The story itself was mostly forgettable (it was a pastiche of Lovecraft, and not a particularly good one) but there was one phrase that grabbed me, describing the ocean at night, mostly calm and lit only by the moon, as ‘like the surface of a cup of black coffee, flat and still and reflective.’ I liked that, liked how it stayed away from the usual cliches. Now if only the other ten thousand words or so had been of similar quality…


Peter Leyland said…
An interesting piece Neil. I like the idea of mining past work for inspiration and as a way of recording how the authorial voice has developed. Thank you

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