Articles - What About the Leftovers?

Please Miss, did you always want to be a writer? Please Miss, where d’you get the ideas? Please Miss, what’s your favourite book?

We’ve all been asked these questions. And more. And we do our best to answer as if the question is new and interesting. However, there’s one question I’ve never yet been asked, and to which I long to work out the right answer.

What d’you do with the leftovers?

Each of my main novels used three to four reams of A4 paper: for the first draft when typed up from the longhand version, for the second draft typed from the corrections, then the third, and eventually a final draft. This was in the pre-computer age (pre-Tippex too which only became a commercially available in the late 1970s). Cut-and-paste was one’s chief editing and correcting system.

Before the story even reaches its first of many re-typings, its conception is likely to be the tiniest scribble on a scrap of paper, or perhaps a single phrase I want to keep hold of. Then there’ll maybe be a useful date jotted on an envelope, a newspaper cutting, the title of someone else’s story on a similar theme which a friend has recommended, a photo of what I imagine a character might look like. These apparently unrelated oddments start to gather in a paper file, somewhat grandly termed ‘Research Notes’. Out of that file, once it begins to bulge, will be born the essential story. There are also all exercise books, notes and jottings of scenes, characters, found dialogue, curiosities picked up outside the school gates, new slang.

When the approved version of the book has finally left the house, it seems foolhardy instantly to dispose of all previous paperwork.

Alan Bennett has described a similar experience when finishing a play: “Tidy my desk; going through piles of papers accumulated during the re-writes and rehearsals of “The Lady in the Van” and feeling, as I often do when a play has been mounted, that it’s slightly to the side of the play I wanted to write and that now it’s on, here among the cuts and alterations is the real play.”

It is not just the sentimental sense of loss when one has released one’s words into the care of the wider world. There’s also an awareness that one might need something lurking in this back-up of paperwork. What if the commissioning editor asks if there could be a sequel to the title that was thought to be a stand-alone? Those background research notes could be useful.

Or a student might ask a question to which one has long since forgotten the answer.

Please Miss, how did you know about all that history stuff?

A search in the Warlands ‘Research Notes’ file for the list of books consulted and a check on the scribbled marginalia of a first draft provides some answers.

Please Miss, how did you know how to spell Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch?

A quick look in the Ollie and the Trainers ‘Research Notes’ and there’s the answer: a message I wrote tomyself:

“On Monday, go to children’s library, ask librarian for Guinness Book of Records”.

(That was a pre-computer question. Today, one simply taps into the keyboard: ‘Britain’s longest town-name.’)

A ring-file, ‘Children’s Names’, which I’ve compiled over thirty years, has been another valuable tool. The annual publication of the most popular fore-names registered for new births is moderately useful. But what of the unpopular? Or the unusual? On author visits, I might ask pupils if any would be willing to loan me their forenames to record for possible future use. I date each list and the school’s location. In addition, the money-raising innovation of printed tea-towels with pupils’ self-portraits and names, has been another useful addition to the ‘Children’s Names’ ring-file. An editor once queried my naming an everyday character, ‘Ahmed’, as being too difficult and too foreign. Thanks to the ‘Children’s Names’ file I was able to point out a list in a school I’d recently visited with four Ahmeds in one class.

For recent and current work, the storing solution is easy and tidy. The little stack of CDs takes up so little room. But what of the paper accumulation of the writing past? Do I keep it? Do I shred it? Do I put it in a lead-lined trunk and bury it?

Please Miss, Please Sir, can you tell me what to do with the leftovers?

Scattered Authors Society bulletin