How many drafts before I can call myself a writer? #amwriting

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.


Happily Ever After

Some years ago, I fell out with a friend over whether Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces is a redemptive novel. I tell you this not to demonstrate that I take these things far too seriously – we eventually made up – but to show that people find redemption in strange places.

The reaction to my first novel was a case in point: some readers thought Being Someone lacked a happy ending, or at least an insufficiently unhappy one for a certain character; but even so, I maintain that it is a wholly redemptive story. True, all the characters end the book considerably worse off than at its start; a couple of them end up dead. But none the less, the seeds are sown for some kind of future happiness.

This seems particularly relevant to contemporary fiction: all fiction tells us something about the human condition but unlike some other genres contemporary fiction floats in unknowable transience: there can be no happy ending, because there is no ending. The characters, should they survive, will wake up tomorrow, beyond the reach of either the author or the reader, where any number of calamities lie in wait. We just don’t know.

We may tell ourselves that we want fairy tale endings, precisely because they are not possible in the world we inhabit. In real life, we’re all too familiar with things going wrong, with good people being brought low. In our fiction, we want to see how sometimes, maybe, the dice can fall kindly for characters for whom we have come to care. Show us their miseries for sure, but let us also see their salvation. For all the injustice piled upon her, Cinderella must been redeemed.

But, princess or not, we all know that the day after the wedding will bring its own challenges. Happy endings are impossible not because happiness is rare, but because (except for one) all endings are simply beginnings; all success the precursor of failure; each joy, the counterpoint to sadness. I can’t be the only person to have watched the end of the film Logan’s Run, as the bright young people emerge into the light from their banal captivity, and wondered how many forest nights they’re going to survive, dressed like that.

Speaking at the London Literary Festival earlier this month, Margaret Atwood made the incontrovertible observation that fiction set in a dystopian future is inherently optimistic, regardless of its miseries, simply because it implies a future. This I think is the heart of redemption in literature: that in telling stories of human endurance, we learn something of our own resilience. That there are humans struggling against almost impossible odds in the far flung future of HG Wells’ The Time Machine is a reason for optimism, not despair.

In my new book, The Cursing Stone, once again most characters end up ostensibly worse off (although this time only one of them actually dies) and again I see it as a redemptive book. The characters endure (apart from one, naturally) and in so doing they set themselves towards a future of possible happiness, greater than that promised by their original certainties. As an author, I do not seek to rescue any of them, but nor do I condemn them (OK, apart from one).

Stories about bad things happening to good people might not seem like ideal holiday diversion, but it is the core of pretty much all fiction, contemporary or otherwise. We seem drawn to it, perhaps because it seems to say more to our lives than relentless happiness. Living through adversity, even if the sunny uplands are never quite attained within the book itself but only hinted at as a future possibility, is enough. Maybe the word ‘happily’ is not the most important part of the promise contained in the ending, ‘happily ever after’.


This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.