Writing a novel is easy. You just need a bit of time, a good idea and considerable curiosity. Re-writing a novel, now that’s the hard part. And it’s where I am right now, working on the second draft of a new novel. By ‘working on’, I mean agonising over each and every one of 80,000 words, wondering why I ever thought this was a good story to tell, or why I thought that these characters could carry it.
I started writing fiction because I wanted to write freely, and at length. My professional life has always contained a huge amount of writing, and people have always very kindly said that I do it well. But I had always written for someone else – an organisation, a manager, a publication – and to a brief defined for me, not by me.
Writing fiction provides the space in which to write without constraint, to think about the audience only once the first draft is nailed onto the page; only then do I have to think as if someone else is in the room, trimming the long florid passages about food and landscape to serve the needs of plot and character: my study floor is littered with the remains of darlings that have been killed.
Well that’s the idea, anyhow. It is perhaps the most cited piece of writing advice of the last hundred years: kill your darlings. But its glibness belies its brutality in action. A phrase, an image, a scene of which you are immensely proud does not advance the pipeline of narrative or character: no matter how fondly it is held, it must be put to the sword. You can kid yourself that you’ll store it away for future use, but unless your filing system allows for remarkable cross-referencing, it will in fact go the way of countless beloved words from my current manuscript: forgotten and lost forever.
I work according to three maxims: writing is laying pipe; don’t get it right, get it written; and be ruthless in the rewriting. The first two are easier to pull off than the last, and that is why the process of turning a first draft into a second is so much less joyful than the initial outpouring. In part, this is because it is the first time that the ‘Reader’ has been in the room, judging my attempts to make a world. But there is something more: I am in no way as heartless in the face of a well-turned phrase as I like to pretend.
I love words: it’s why I do what I do. I can play with their concatenation for hours, turning over their sound and savour like wine in my mouth. One of the characters in my second book, The Cursing Stone, is largely as he is because I wanted to use the word muculent. And when I stumble on a beautiful combination of them, I am a little too pleased with myself to let them slip away unused. I have to work hard to resist the temptation to break the pipework of my plot to jemmy in a beloved, fleeting phrase.
I have been here twice before. Perhaps this stage of the process is why I still find it hard to describe myself as a writer. This is where the work lies, beyond the fun, and I’m still not very good at it. To pronounce myself a Writer seems too much of a claim. I doubt dentists have the same engulfing sense of charlatanism when asked at parties what do they do for a living; I doubt they mumble something about teeth and pain while staring at their shoes.
But this will pass. I will eventually pull these 80,000 words into something that is fit to be seen by other eyes and then I will share them with the lovely people who tell me what works and what doesn’t, and then I’ll agonise again for a while, but for less time and in less agony. And maybe, maybe, these words will become a book that will stumble into the light and I will feel able to say, without embarrassment, that I write.
This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.