This week the belated writer has once again put off finishing the second draft of the long-awaited novel. Nevertheless it’s now becoming clear to me what I need to put in the revised chapters of Part 1 and what isn’t relevant at all, e.g. those poetically written passages of childhood reminiscence which definitely don’t belong there. I get these ‘Aha!’ moments first thing in the morning when I know exactly how it should all go and, if I’m lucky, can still remember them later in the day. I’m cutting and pasting the redundant bits into a document called ‘Offcuts’, which appeals to the recyclist in me. It always pains me to throw away something that could be recycled or reused. Gradually whittling down the word count is not too painful, though. There are always sentences that can be neatened, unnecessary adverbs, shapely phrases that don’t add anything to what’s already been said, well-observed descriptions of things too insignificant to be described etc etc. I gloat every time the word count goes down by another 1000 but of course it’s not that simple – there are also places where more needs to be put in. What’s harder than the language edits is steeling myself to cut out whole sections or chapters which don’t move the novel forward. I need to have someone else telling me to do that, otherwise I shrink from taking the knife to all those precious paragraphs I’ve laboured over with such care.
Courage, O cowardly writer! You don’t have to press the delete button and you can always reinstate the offcuts if the book seems too naked without them. And you want your novel to be well-crafted, gripping, the kind of book that people wish had gone on longer rather than the sort that may be good but would have been better with 100 pages less. And you want to get it off your hands (don’t you?) and into the hands of those friends who have promised to read through it and are eagerly waiting to tell you exactly what’s wrong with it. (You see what I mean? Two adverbs beginning with ‘e’ in one sentence.) Whenever I’ve come near the end of writing anything there’s always been this double feeling: wanting to get it finished and done with, and hanging on to it because it’s been with me for so long and the characters are part of my life – not to mention the fact that part of my life is in the characters. And yet it’s so satisfying to make something and see the finished product in front of you, knowing you’ve designed and shaped it to the best of your ability. What comes after that is the really difficult bit: sending out the poor little thing to agents who may well take six months to tell you that this is not something they could market with any measure of success and will make you feel as though what you’ve created is the literary equivalent of a sunken cake or a badly hung door. Courage again – the only remedy is to keep trying.
Like most of my fellow-students from last year’s MA course, I’ve just submitted my synopsis and first three chapters to a firm of agents who award a prize for the one they like best and may (at their discretion) offer to take it on. I know my novel won’t stand a chance – ‘quiet’ books are out of fashion and don’t sell in big quantities – but I couldn’t bear not to have a go. At least this time I know I’m going about it properly, whereas in the past my submissions to agents and publishers have always had ‘Amateur’ written all over them in six-inch-high letters visible to everyone except me. And because I know I’m not going to win I’ve allowed myself the luxury of writing a skit about the competition – with thanks and apologies to Dickens. I enjoy sending things up and have been doing it for too long to stop just because I’m trying to be a proper writer. Anyway, here is the skit:
In their narrow, high-ceilinged, cobweb-draped office in a forgotten corner behind Chancery Lane, Messrs Blanklow and Niblett, literary agents, were opening the day’s delivery of manuscripts. Every morning brought the same dizzy hopes of success and fortune, the same dread of finding yet another well-crafted literary novel that would sell, if fortunate, a mere few thousand copies.
Mr Blanklow and Mr Niblett sat facing one another at their battered desks, which had been pushed close together so that the agents could more easily pass an interesting work, should such a thing appear, from one to the other. In the grate to one side of them a sullen fire billowed smoke but begrudged them anything more than a few meagre flames. From time to time Juggins, their young clerk, got up and fanned the flames vigorously, his innocent freckled face flushed with the exertion. To their other side a pile of manuscripts the height of a six-year-old child was shored up by the legs of the desks. It grew higher each day until, every few months, either Mr Blanklow or Mr Niblett would grow tired of it and tell young Juggins to feed the unfortunate works of genius into the fire’s ungrateful maw.
Mr Blanklow leafed through the first of the day’s offerings with his spidery hands. He was tall, thin and uncommonly flexible and contorted himself on his high wooden stool into positions that a circus acrobat might have envied. He had sparse hair the colour of sacking and in all weathers wore round his neck a muffler of indeterminate hue and such inordinate length that it trailed on the floor as he sat.
“We’ve got some promising ones here,” he said, cracking his fingers loudly in delight. “Look at these. Atapattu – that’s At-a-pat-tu – a real corker of a name. You can’t get more eye-catching than that. And Shemilt – you don’t get many of those either.”
“Was that Shemilt or Shemilt?” asked Mr Niblett, not without interest. He was as stocky and compact as his partner was loose and extended. He had close-cropped dark hair, a beefy complexion and small, withering dark eyes. His absence of neck was so marked that one might have thought his head had been hammered on to his body with a pile driver. “Yes, it might do well. And what else have we got? Geen? That’s damned unusual too.”
“Yes, but of course it could be a misspelling of Green,” said Mr Blanklow mistrustfully. He wrapped his right arm round his head and with the other hand lifted his right foot to his left hip.
“If it’s Green, it goes there.” Mr Niblett casually indicated the pile of manuscripts with his thumb. “No time for Greens.”
“Now here’s another,” said Mr Blanklow, unwrapping himself. “Reason. What about that? I wonder if he’s got a good one.”
“Reason. For writing his book. He-he-he.” His laugh was like the panting of a steam engine.
“Never mind that. It’s a good enough name.”
Mr Blanklow nodded, then sighed. “And after that we’ve got the ordinary names – Vaughan, McGovern, Jordan… Not too ordinary, though. We may have to read some of those.” He passed the manuscripts one at a time to Mr Niblett, holding each of them by the corner as if grasping them would indicate too close a relationship.
“Hey, wait a minute,” said Mr Niblett, glancing at the last of the three. “This one, Jordan, wants to be known by a pseudonym.”
Mr Blanklow sucked his teeth and tutted loudly. “I can’t abide pseudonyms,” he said. “Nasty, low, deceitful things. And what’s more it’s dashed common – Taylor. I think we know where that one goes.”
Mr Niblett carelessly threw the manuscript at the pile. It caught the papers on the top and started an avalanche that Juggins rushed to contain. When Juggins saw that the pile was beyond saving, he picked up the papers in armfuls and shoved them into the fire, happily sacrificing all the Smiths, Browns and Joneses for the sake of a few minutes’ warmth.