I seem to be in editing mode at the moment. I’ve just finished yet another draft of the novel I haven’t managed to find an agent for – though there’s still more that needs doing – and am awaiting feedback from my writing group. I’ve also started going through my poems – just a tweak for some of them, more radical changes for others. All of this is with a view to sending work out. Despite what all the rejections seem to have been telling me, I am going to have another try at getting an agent, and I want to submit a lot more poems to magazines as well as start working on a possible collection.
It all sounds very positive and efficient, and in a way it is. At last I seem to be finding ways to address the novel’s glaring flaws – unlikeable main character, too much irrelevant material – those detailed, carefully written descriptions of things that don’t need to be described – and consequent lack of narrative drive. But perhaps I’m only able to do it because I’ve realised how much less good a novelist I am than I thought I was – which in itself isn’t a negative thing. It means I can begin from the premise that the novel needs a lot of improving, rather than that it’s basically OK as it is. Over the past few months I’ve been able to see not only how much better the novels of other people in my writing group are – one of them is a bestseller and two are with prestigious publishers – but in what ways they are better. Those who are published have of course had input from agents and editors, but even without that other people in the group have put an enormous amount of time and effort into honing and rewriting. And it shows. That doesn’t mean I’ll end up writing novels that are like theirs – to paraphrase Walter de la Mare, ‘whatever Ms X writes turns into Ms X’ – but I do have a yardstick to measure my work against. So it’s back to the drawing-board again. And again.
It’s a different matter with poetry. I’ve known for a long time that writing a poem is about drafting and redrafting, refining and paring down, and being prepared to listen to other people’s suggestions. And also being able to stick to my own gut feeling about what seems right – which applies to the novel too. I can respect what people tell me but I can’t always take everything on board, especially when the things that are said are contradictory. I’d be lying if I said I never responded to feedback defensively, but I hope I’m learning to do that less. Again it’s easier with poems because I didn’t start out believing in myself as a poet the way that I believed in myself as a novelist. Some of my poems seem to come right quite quickly, while others need reworking a number of times – and then when I go back to them I usually want to tweak them again. The difference is that a poem – a short poem, at any rate – is small enough to be taken in as a whole: the rhythm and balance and structure are all immediately apparent. Whereas once you’re inside the world of a novel it’s much harder to maintain the overview and not simply be carried along by what’s already there.
I’d like to think that the training I’m getting in honing poems down to the essentials will have a knock-on effect on my approach to novel-writing. Whether it will, or already is, remains to be seen. An obstinate part of me does still believe this novel has some sort of potential, and at the same time I also know that however good I can make it there is no guarantee whatsoever of publication or even acceptance by an agent. For that reason I’m becoming a little more prepared to consider self-publishing. I’d hate the marketing side of it, but if I want to get the book out into the world then realistically that may be the best option. It’s interesting that to me self-publishing a novel still carries the stigma of failure (though I don’t like to use that word), whereas self-publishing a poetry collection is just something a poet may do en route to getting published in other ways. But then the poetry world is smaller and far less commercially-minded than the tough world of fiction.
So it’s back again to the painstaking task of keeping myself out of the way and trying to do what’s best for the piece of work in hand. There’s a clarity and even an exhilaration about it that I’m enjoying, and it’s all – though I may say it with gritted teeth – an exercise in humility: seeing things as they are rather than as I’d like them to be. And, in spite of everything I’ve said, I still think that some bits of my novel are really not too bad.