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Lies, manuscripts and icebergs: how I’ve written two novels

Writers block? Sharon Drummond, CC BY-NC-SA

Writing is something of a lawless place. Lawless, because there’s no clear indication that your effort will bring success; or that an answer will ever emerge from the mud; or that the most insane, most unpromising idea won’t reward you eventually.

Writing, especially in the drafting stage, can get very swampy indeed. In the first drafts I write to see what’s going to happen. I don’t know anything until I’ve begun to probe the life of the character. Is there someone at the door? A piece of unexpected news in the post? Weevils in the flour which means the cake is ruined?

I find first drafts scary and hard to do. I will do lots of other things instead of writing this draft. Scrubbing mould from the bathroom’s grouting. My laundry. My marking. Even my tax return, with its eminently calculable results …

What I do to get it done is lie to myself. I tell myself I’m writing short-stories, not a novel. If I take baby-steps I know I can get there, but if I knew it was a marathon, I’d never begin.

This self-deception goes further. I’ve even made up quotes about my writing to keep me going when I’m feeling low. “This book [insert title here] is a tour de force” was the quote written on my whiteboard from the Financial Times about my (unpublished) debut.

During the first draft I can’t spend longer than three hours writing a day. After that I want to do what Hemingway did – give up at noon and go sailing on my nonexistent boat, fishing for marlin with a daiquiri by my side. Plus, it usually reads awfully – the language is all over the place, the metaphors in thickets, the plotting heavy-handed as if done by a child. All I’m doing is telling, not showing, because I don’t know yet what I’m even telling, so how can I begin to represent that through showing?

F Scott Fitzgerald gently criticised Hemingway’s ‘elephantine facetiousness’.

If I’m feeling particularly bummed at this stage I sometimes cast my eye over some photocopies I have of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises manuscript. What I love is all the crossings-out, the bruise of the pen across the page, the margins packed with stuff that came later. It reminds me that no-one got it right the first time around; that books are built from accretions of drafts. Its final effortlessness betrays effort.

And if it’s a really bum day I might flip back to the first three chapters, which Fitzgerald said should go, and which, eventually, did. Fitzgerald wrote to Hemingway:

From p.20 I began to like the novel but Ernest I can’t tell you the sense of disappointment that beginning with its elephantine facetiousness gave me. Please do what you can about it in proof. And my advice is not to do it by mere paring but to take out the worst of the scenes.

Elephantine facetiousness! What a bold phrase. But if Hem had waited for the perfect start, he would never have begun; so I go onwards, onwards …

Then maybe, if I can thank my lucky stars, I have a first draft after a year or so. Now comes the editing. I have to say I love editing and redrafting. With the safety net of a first draft around me, I like refining the language so that the cadence falls right. I like cutting out all the bits that don’t work. I like burying the bottom of the story and leaving more to inference. As Hemingway wrote: “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” In Papa’s parlance, I like making it more icebergy.

On good days, writing feels luxurious. It’s shaping up! It’s going to be all right. On bad days it feels like the ideal situation would be to cut the text into non-existence – the perfect postmodern novel. Usually, though, it’s neither very good nor very bad, but a feeling of quiet, and quite pleasurable, workmanship.

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