All you have to do is cross out the wrong words

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” – Mark Twain

Friday afternoon, mid-December, London. I’m walking to the tube on my way to meet a friend in Shoreditch. Most of the city has pretty much given up working and is sliding into merry, if Covid-muted, Christmas celebrations. Knots of people stand outside my London local, in dark wool work coats and silly paper hats, chatting awkwardly to colleagues while nursing a pint or a glass of steaming mulled wine. On the tube, girls in flesh-coloured stockings and short skirts giggle over canned cocktails, then totter arm-in-arm out of the station and down Shoreditch High Street. 

I cross the High Street and swing the heavy door into Shoreditch House. I’m late and my friend is waiting by the fire in the lobby. I grovel an apology, she waves it away, and we head upstairs, where we find seats on a sofa in the sitting room. There’s an air of semi-dligent decadence around the room: glasses of champagne twinkle beside silver laptops while lanky people in baseball hats and shiny sportswear talk Christmas plans, Covid-travel rules, airport lounges. I’m not a natural urbanite; these glamorous people strike me as exotic birds.

It’s an exciting day for me and my writer friend because we’ve agreed to swap novels, read each other’s pages over Christmas, and give each other feedback in the new year. We’ve both worked furiously to this deadline to be sure we’d finish before the holiday fog descends, and to give each other ample time to read through each other’s entire manuscript over the break.

It’s also a terrifying day, at least for me. When my children were born, I felt like I was suddenly walking around with my heart on the outside. Now that my novel is being read – even by an amiable fellow writer – I feel as if I’ve lost an outer layer of skin. For the past year, I’ve mostly been living in an imaginary world with imaginary friends – and I have no idea if the result is an entertaining novel or a stumble into madness or – worse – boredom. There’s also a niggling worry about this friendship. I like to think my friend and I are both workmanlike about our writing – and yet – giving feedback can be a prickly, treacherous business. 

But it has to be done. The thing is, when a person finishes their novel, it’s not the end. For a moment it feels like the end, yes, but in fact it’s only the beginning of the critical feedback and revision process. Very little happens quickly or easily in novel-writing, and the revision process can go on for years, sometimes longer – much longer – than it took to compose the first draft. It’s an exacting process requiring patience, humility, and precision.

When I was very young, I attended Breadloaf Writer’s Conference in Vermont. I’d won a scholarship to the conference, which meant I was to take part in a reading to the many accomplished writers there. The reading was held over two days. I was to read on the second. At the first reading, the wood-walled room was packed, warm and fuggy against the broad black Vermont night. The writers listened with piercing attention. 

After it was over, I went to my room and looked in heart-stammering panic at the material I’d planned to read. It wasn’t good enough. Not by a long shot. I spent a mostly sleepless night trying to fix it and finally fell into a restless sleep. 

The next morning, Tim O’Brien offered to help me. Tim is a National Book Award winner, best known for The Things They Carried. He’s a master. He writes like Michelangelo sculpted, with absolute accuracy and illumination. We found a quiet place, and he read my little piece aloud, very quietly and intently. He read every sentence many times over, sometimes shifting the emphasis, sometimes lingering over a sound. Then he scratched words out with his pencil. Occasionally he added something, but mostly he took things out. And – truly – he shaped my awkward juvenile piece into something elegant, touching, beautiful. I read the pages to the audience that night with confidence, and as I did a deep silence fell over the crowd. At the end there was applause, and after that, many people congratulated me, while others made sly comments (“I heard the rest of the piece gets very weird”), which seemed almost more congratulatory.

The revision process can make a book, make a writer. The legendary Maxwell Perkins, agent and editor to F Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, was famous for this. In 1922, Wolfe delivered a million-word manuscript to Perkins (the ‘average’ novel is 80-100,000 words). For a year, Perkins and Wolfe worked almost every single day on the manuscript. “I’m engaged in a kind of life and death struggled with Mr Thomas Wolfe”, Perkins wrote to Hemingway. Perkins read through each page, red pencil in hand, slashing many from corner to corner. Eventually, Of Time and the River was published to commercial and critical success.

My friend and I order wine. We raise a toast. Then I begin a stream of excuses. I’d already shown a few pages to another friend, a surgically intelligent reader and writer. She’d replied with, among other things, “I do hate an adjective before the word silence”, and, “How do you feel about the word ‘that?”. Gulp.  “This is only a first draft”, I say now, over the pinot noir. “It gets pretty rough toward the end. Just tell me if you find it confusing. Or boring. Or weird… “ 

Who wants to write a novel

My friend Dylan always wanted to write a novel. He savoured puns, told off-colour jokes, and spun stories peopled with characters you can’t get out of your mind. He also read widely and knew about all kinds of obsessive, shadowy communities and strange, unsettling wrinkles in history. He would have been a wonderful novelist. But then a few years ago he died, suddenly, of brain cancer, before he got round to that novel. 

A lot of people have always wanted to write a novel, and I was one of them. Not so long after Dylan’s funeral, when the first lockdown came in early 2020, my PR work slowed right down, and I thought, well, if not now, when. 

I’d tried writing a novel before and it hadn’t gone so well. When I was in my twenties and thirties, at home with young children (and, yes, horses), life seemed always to be interrupting writing, so that when I did sit down to write, I couldn’t sustain anything longer than a short article or longish poem. Unfortunately, I’m not a very good poet, so the poems never came to much more than practice scales on a piano. And maybe I was lazy, or scared. There were no deadlines. I didn’t have to finish anything, not really, and as long as I hadn’t finished, I hadn’t failed. 

Then, when I was in my forties, a brutal divorce suddenly left me needing to build a career – fast – and the pressure of catching up on the decades I’d missed in the world of work left me no time for novels. I went to graduate school, wrangled part-time editing work and social media internships and finally, to my great relief, landed a decent job in public relations. As it happened, my PR work involved a lot of ghost writing for high profile clients, and this and the editing work taught me to write precisely, to deadline and word count, as well as in different voices.

But I was still a long way from a novel. I’d had an idea for a novel about Carl Jung, but set in Ireland, and had made several painful starts. I had maybe twenty pages, and they were dreadful. I needed help. So, locked down in a flat in London, with the great good fortune of a furlough payment and a hugely patient and supportive husband, I gathered my notes and applied to the Faber Writing a Novel Course

The course, for all you writers planning to someday write a novel, was the turning point for me, and I don’t believe I ever would have finished a novel without it. There was the support of a writing group, yes, but that can be found elsewhere. There was the supervision of a successful published novelist, but I’ve known a number of successful novelists who’d always been happy to look at my work. There were the weekly deadlines of 1000 words that couldn’t be missed without shame. Which was worth a lot. But most of all, there was a laser-like focus on the craft of novel writing. 

Like almost every occupation, novel writing is a craft. This is obvious, but I was slow to learn it. The time I spent in the Faber course learning about structure, dialogue, voice, etc brought it home. Each week there were readings and exercises focused on a single aspect of craft. We began with limbering up, getting-to-know-each-other exercises, then went quickly into pitching drills, which uncovered any flaws in our basic premise. As the weeks went on, we might, for example read some Sally Rooney and then write a scene in which a character is arguing with someone from behind a closed door. Or we might read a bit of Emily Fridlund and then write about a character’s secret, something crumpled and hidden away under the bed. The course ran for six months, and at the end of it I and everyone on the course had a manuscript of at least 15,000 words, as well as a pretty strong idea of where we were going. I wouldn’t say it was exactly downhill from there, but the skills I learned on the Faber course, and the momentum generated by those 15,000 words was enough to get me and many of my classmates through to the end. 

So I’m not one of those people who wants to write my first novel someday. I’ve done it, and I’m a more or less a writer. Turns out I don’t feel particularly different, except that I spend a lot more time in my bathrobe. I rarely see or even speak to another human being between 8 am and 6 pm, and it’s not unusual for me to look up after a particularly intense day and realise it’s five o’clock and I’m still in my pyjamas and haven’t had anything to eat or drink except coffee and a bowl of breakfast cereal, and that bowl and that coffee cup are still crusting away beside my keyboard. It’s a glamourous life.

It’s much, much harder to write a novel than I expected, and I’m a lot nicer about other people’s novels these days, now I understand the years it takes to even begin to learn the craft of novel writing, and the hours and hours of fiddly, lonely agonies that go into each one.