Yesterday, I spent a very happy day re-writing one of the children’s stories I originally wrote over 20 years ago. I had expected to type up the story (which I only had in hard copy) and as I typed, to make the necessary alterations to bring it up to date, and perhaps to go back and revisit an earlier paragraph or two as I changed something material. In the end, the further into the story I progressed, the less I looked at the original – or rather, I looked at it for the storyline, and then whole chunks I re-wrote from scratch. And the thing I found most incredible? How much I bloody enjoyed doing it!
I mention this because sometimes it can seem that writing becomes a bit of a chore. Much like a rather rubbish relationship which you continue to cling to more in desperation than hope, about 80% of the writing life is feeling guilty about not writing, or doubting one’s ability, or hating what you’ve written, or making yourself write when you don’t really feel like it. When you have the unusual combination of both the time and the desire to write, it truly is the best feeling. And that was how I felt yesterday. As I already had the storyline and characters worked out, all I had to do was write the story. And as I wrote, lots of additional ideas popped into my head. So the whole process was a joy. (I’ve not re-read it yet though, so of course, I could be unpleasantly mistaken about the quality of yesterday’s output!)
Anyway, having gone through this re-writing process, I thought I’d share with you some observations about the types of changes I needed to make:
1) Technology: This was one of the things I was aware I’d need to amend before I started. Things have moved on in the last 20-odd years. It’s largely impossible to write a story (especially one with a 13 year old heroine) which doesn’t make some reference to mobile phones, or the internet. The whole way society works now owes an awful lot to the way we can share information quickly and easily via computers and phones. (One of the stories in the original version of the collection has a girl using a phone box. A phone box? What’s one of those?!) There are a whole host of plot devices that have been rendered useless by the ubiquitous mobile phone – and a whole host of (often unconvincing) methods writers have employed to get around the problem. Clearly, there are plenty of storylines where they are not relevant, but to ignore them completely risks your story seeming unconvincing.
2) Attitudes and legislation: Society’s attitudes to class, race, political correctness, health and safety, etc. continue to evolve almost without you noticing, so that it comes as a surprise when you re-read something from 20 or 30 years ago and find yourself thinking “Ooh, that wouldn’t happen nowadays.” In the horse world for instance, gone are the days when kids habitually hung about at stable yards and worked in exchange for rides (as I did when I was a kid) – the requirement for, and conditions of, public liability insurance has done for that! Horses need to have passports now – and whilst it’s far from a foolproof system, it’s more complicated to buy a pony from an auction and save it from the meat man (again, as I’ve done back in the day!). There have also been changes to the way equestrian competitions are run, and the safety measures put in place.
3) Speech: Partly this is linked to No 2 above in that what is acceptable to say changes over time. But language itself is constantly evolving, again, often without you noticing. More specifically, these are children’s stories. I’m acutely aware that as someone who is 40-something-mumble, I’m not going to be up to date with children’s speech patterns. And even if I wrote authentic speech for 2020, in a year or two it will already feel out of date. So I find myself writing fairly anodyne dialogue, which is a bit depressing for someone who generally loves this aspect of writing.
4) Decimalisation: OK, OK, you may laugh. Decimalisation was introduced in the UK before I was born, so how could it cause a problem in stories I wrote 20 years ago? Because I’m writing about the horse world, which was very slow to adopt decimal measurement. Despite the fact I’m the product of the decimal age, and would use metres and centimetres for other measurements, in all things equine-related, I’m feet and inches all the way. I know what a 2 foot 6 jump looks like. I know what a 14.2hh pony looks like. I can’t instinctively picture a pony measuring 148cms, or a show jump at 80cms. Decimalisation has definitely reached the top level of equestrian sport – show jump heights are listed in centimetres, except for things like the Puissance at Olympia (the equivalent of a horsy high jump!) where they have to tell you the imperial measurement too, else you can’t ooh and ahh at how close to the record they are! But the everyday rider has been slow to abandon imperial measurement. I worked at a riding school a few years back, and even then the kids were OK with feet and inches for jumps, and hands for measuring ponies, but I’m aware that this is likely to change over time.
5) Names: in fairness, the original names I’ve used in these stories don’t seem terribly inspired to me, but I’ll be careful to amend them to something more appropriate. Much like the speech patterns, the idea is to use something which rings true now but won’t seem too dated in another 20 years.
Of course, there’s one thing that hasn’t really changed: the love that pony-mad kids have for their ponies. I feel pretty confident that I’ll be able to write about that authentically forever. 😉