I killed 7,000 darlings
I thought I had it in the bag, I thought I was on a roll. Ploughing my way to two, three, four, five-thousand words of a new book, I giggled, “Jeez this is easier than I remember it! I’ll be done by Easter and I shall have a new bonnet to celebrate!” In spite of the cacophonous renovations on my new neighbour’s apartment, in spite of my own wobbling on the brink of a deep dose of SAD, in spite of the world outside my window patently coming completely off its hinges, and the constant distractions of contemporary life, I somehow managed, at lightning speed, to hit the 7k mark with a smile on my face and a Pet Shop Boys mp3 in my heart.
I felt invincible, at this pace I could’ve been in that most enviable positions, of being well on my way to a first draft of a new book, before my current one hit the shelves. People were already asking to read it asap, to line up meetings about it even. “Surely,” I said to myself, “You’ve cracked it!”
Alas it was not to be.
At a certain point I hit a wall. Not an unfamiliar situation, of course, part of the process, I didn’t panic, I just put it down and went for a coke. I picked up where I left off a few days later, tidied up any obvious errors and pushed on, with less enthusiasm though equal focus, but again, wall. So I took a few more days off to watch films, to read Hemingway and Isherwood, those writers who can be so rich and concise and clear, I got out of my own head and into theirs, but when I returned? Wall.
So I tried to get to know the wall, I said, “Wall, I can go over you, I can go under you, but should you force me, Wall, I will go through you!” The wall only frowned, so I sweetened my tone; “Wouldn’t you rather be a gorgeous supporting column in this new project, rather than the pulverised remains of an ineffectual barrier?” I said. The wall did not answer.
Or maybe she did.
I carried on, writing around the wall, so to speak, graffitiing the wall maybe, relentlessly lashing away, fingers to the bluetooth keyboard, chugging loose leaf teas and herbal infusions watching the word count rise, feeling my heart sink. You see, when I stopped to review it, it wasn’t that the writing was bad, some of it was actually pretty good; here and there were some very solid sentences, and many well-pitched chuckles. It was pacy, it was tightly plotted - it was ultimately somebody else’s idea of what a novel should be.
How this particular design had sauntered into my curly head I do not know, but once she had taken up lodgings there it was awfully hard to evict her. So I tried to make peace with another literary metaphor, and I asked my lodger how I could be a better landlady. She wanted me to bring her social satires and caricatures of various art world personalities on hot buttered toast, to run up and down the stairs in my slippers, fetching her clever little quips, and I did my best to keep her happy for a good while, only to realise that she and the wall were in cahoots.
Between the two of them, or rather between the three of us, we had fabricated a perfectly serviceable seven-thousands words, thirty-something amusing pages which ultimately said nothing and felt wholly phoney. It wasn’t just the wrong way to start a book, it was also, I realised, the wrong book to start. I have never been in this situation before, I have always had a pretty clear idea of the tone and techniques I am using, before I hit the page; in a way writing has always been for me, something of a jazz improv. This time, not knowing the voice (as it were) of the book it was more akin to going onstage to give a concert with an instrument I don’t play, like a pianist being given a harp for the evening. Perhaps I could’ve muddled through, but the words of St Joan of Sacramento rang too loudly in my head: “Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
So I deleted the lot.
Of course I know nothing is ever really destroyed (or for that matter, created) it just changes form. In all likelihood this will break down and nourish richer soil in which something really worthwhile can grow. I’m taking heart in Donna Tart saying that she scrapped six-months worth of “The Goldfinch” because it just didn’t work, because ultimately my goal here is not to become a faster writer, but to become a better one.
So, it’s back to the drawing board for me babes! I think I need to stop writing the book, and figure out how tune in to the book instead. I feel assured that it’ll be worth it though, how ever long it may take…
In the meantime my novel, At Certain Points We Touch, will be published in ONE MONTH on March 3rd! If you like that sort of thing, you can pre-order a copy now direct AND get a staggering £1.50 off the cover price, by clicking here.
Just don’t expect a follow up in 2023.