The spark of an idea… the rewrite… publication day. When is the best moment in a writer’s life?
26 May 2016
Talking to the New York Times in 1936, Cole Porter took an unsentimental view of his work when it was completed. ‘The moment the curtain rises on the opening night, I say to myself: “There she goes” and I’ve bid good-bye to my baby,’ he said. ‘ The minute that it is exposed to its premiere audience… I feel that it’s no longer mine.’
Novelists, from Flaubert to Sillitoe have taken a similar view. Once a book is published, the consensus seems to be, it has gone.
I am exactly a week away from that ‘There she goes’ moment. I have written a novel for young readers called Racing Manhattan. Because, in the messy, indirect way of fiction, it reaches back to an intense time in my youth when I was obsessed by riding racehorses, writing the story was an unusually heartfelt process, and so the farewell feels quite personal.
But it is a good moment, this window between the final reading of the proofs and publication. Right now, my still-to-be-published little book is throbbing with potential and possibility. No miserable, short-sighted, unimaginative bastard of a critic has blemished its flawless sheen with a dent, scratch or mudspot, all mysteriously impossible to remove.
Instead, a glorious future awaits: reviewers who somehow understand (possibly for the first time ever) what I am trying to do, stickers containing a few random quotes (‘masterpiece’, ‘a breathtaking tour de force’, ‘a modern classic’) falling like snowflakes on the many reprints, an American tour, perhaps even that long-awaited nomination for the Royal Society of Literature. Anything could happen.
Is this the best moment in the writing process? If not, what is? I’ve been keeping score.
The spark. It is the moment when, perhaps while you are out walking or lying in a bath or watching some crap TV, you see with blinding clarity the story you have to write next. The characters are there, and a narrative arc has a rainbow-like rightness to it. The perfect novel is there, in your mind, just waiting to be written. All you need now are the words. Creative pleasure factor 7/10.
The research. Martin Amis once said that he always means to research into prisons or children’s homes but in the end he makes it all up. He’s probably right. There are many perfectly good stories which have been googled down a blind alley, or crushed to death under an avalanche of fact in the British Library.
But research has the advantage of delaying things. It allows the story to marinate usefully in the brain. Facts should be put into a locked drawer once you start writing – anything worthwhile will have remained within you. Creative pleasure factor 3/10.
The start. If that first page is not terrifying, something is wrong. As soon as a few words are written, that perfect novel will be on its way to becoming real – that is, losing its perfection. The cake is set surprisingly early. Creative pleasure factor 5/10.
The glorious dash. Now we’re motoring… For days and weeks, words tumble out. Characters appear, vivid and colourful, promising all sorts of adventures in the future. At that moment, it feels as if your story will, in one of the most irritating clichés of creative life, “write itself”. You tell yourself and, if you are unwise, other people, that you skip to the desk these days. In fact, writing this novel is like being invited to watch a wonderful episodic film every day. Yes, this is what writing is all about. Creative pleasure factor 8/10.
The wall. It might be after three chapters. You may have just passed page 70. You become uncomfortably aware that your progress is slowing. The moment when you started feels like years ago and yet all you have to show for your work is this small pile of paper. The novel looms before you like a dark, gloomy mountain.
A terrible thought occurs. Could this be another false start – a doomed, misconceived project? The wall is a true test of your professionalism. You have to make a crucial decision. Is your story fatally flawed, or have you simply reached the first of those moments when you have to keep the faith and push on through?
Many would-be writers – probably the vast majority, in fact – reach the wall and, having discovered that writing was rather harder work than they had anticipated, give up. The professionals will know that sometimes a wall is indeed a wall, but sometimes it’s just another obstacle you have to chip your way through. No one can help you at times like these. Creative pleasure factor 2/10.
The slog. Every day, there is a new problem. Too fast, too slow. Your characters are unlikeable or, worse, dull. The story is absurd. You are betraying those you love. Hasn’t William Boyd written something like this? It is all a futile waste of time. But you’re still going, putting one foot in front of the other. Most writing is like this. Creative pleasure factor 7/10.
The finish. Suddenly you can see what needs to be done. The clouds clear. You can see your destination. The temptation (one which is perceptible in many published novels) is to run too fast towards the finish, betraying to the reader your desperation to get the damned thing off your desk. Creative pleasure factor 8/10.
The re-write. When first you see the terrible faultline – helped perhaps by an agent, editor or a recklessly brave spouse or lover – your heart sinks. You thought you were there, but now more torture awaits. Then, sometimes in a matter of seconds, something odd and miraculous happens. You see how it can work. The problems that were niggling at you as you wrote can now be resolved. It’s all going to be great. Let’s go! Creative pleasure factor 9/10 (but remove two points for every subsequent re-write).
Submission. Now you become the professional. Your story, once a fragile, personal, intimate little thing, has become a product. The editorial process, even when the editor is good, can be painful. Already your story is slipping away from you. Creative pleasure factor 7/10.
Publication. There was time in your life when this was the big moment. Now, ever since you realised that the world is not going to shift on its axis the day your book is published, the pleasure is tinged with melancholy. There she goes.
If you are lucky, a new spark will have been ignited by the time publication day arrives. Another perfect novel awaits you. This time it really will be different. Creative pleasure factor 5/10.
RACING MANHATTAN will be published by Andersen Press on 2 June.