Anyway, this begins with a delightful afternoon tea I had with my editor Francesca last week. When she asked in passing how the writing was going, I replied with an enthusiastic ‘Great, thanks!’
It might have been more accurate to have answered with Achilles’ words in the Iliad: ‘I have passed many sleepless nights and bloody days in battle.’
The drafting process can be violent and grim.
I’ve been working on my second novel for about nine months and have already lost count of the number of times I’ve taken the book apart and put it back together like an inventive but inept kid going wild with Lego. I’m not sure if it’s accurate for me to say I’ve done five or six drafts, because I never made it to the end of any of them. I sort of think of it as one draft, which constantly mutates like a crazed shape-shifter as I write and rewrite the first half. A shame, in some ways, because it would have been nice to get to a point where I could sit back, pour myself a large gin and tonic and say smugly, ‘First draft complete.’ I’ve never had that. In a sense, I’m still stuck on my first draft whilst feeling that everyone else is on their third or fourth. Now I know how my friend Helen felt when she had to repeat Year 8.
But I like to think that at any rate it’s a very advanced first draft. I suspect that I couldn’t write the second half of the novel anyway without fixing what’s weak or broken in the first half. And, as I’ve discovered, that can take many months. Months of chopping things up, moving things about, cutting many thousands of words, altering time frames, shifting focus. (The alternative, I suppose, would be to start with a clearer idea of where you’re going in the first place; though even that isn’t a cast-iron guarantee of smooth, linear progress.)
It would be better, I think, to have a whole first draft under my belt before I start on the drastic cuts and extravagant re-structuring – having some kind of finished version banked might make the whole process feel less like a terrifying leap off a cliff. There are certainly desolate days where I ask myself what on earth I’m doing. And there are euphoric days when I feel like I’ve stumbled upon the greatest idea ever. Neither is an accurate reflection of reality. On the most ‘normal’ days, I just bumble along and sort of hope it’ll turn out OK.
But the one thing I have learnt is that there’s more than one way to write a novel. With my first book, The View on the Way Down, I had a fairly clear idea of the book’s direction before I started, and everything else fell into place naturally. My writing process was quite neat and systematic. It was a tame book. I now look back on that as a golden, prelapsarian time. The second book resembles a particularly recalcitrant wildcat I’ve mistakenly invited into my home under the impression it’s a house pet, constantly hissing at me and peeing all over the carpet. But at this stage I’m starting to think that might be OK. Some books are born out of a clear plan, and others are born out of trial and error. And anyway, I think I’ve more or less broken its spirit by now. So that’s good.