Starting from scratch

I’ve written before on how the practice of writing can help with editing. (On respecting the author, and a writer’s perspective on editing.) I’ve now been writing properly, regularly, for a little over two years. All along, I’ve kind of lazily assumed that twenty years of working as an editor would be a definite help when it came to writing. But lately, I’ve revised my opinion on this.

Perhaps because I finally picked up my pen relatively late, I’ve been writing furiously to make up for ‘lost’ time – positively churning stuff out. But I see now that it’s not necessarily the right way for me to approach things in the long term.

When I was twenty-two, and wondering what to do after deciding not to pursue architecture as a career, I first thought seriously of being a writer. I’d enjoyed it as a teenager, and had done a lot of writing in the year I’d been working for an architect in Malaysia. About 80,000 words of what I thought was simply brilliant travel writing, about parties in abandoned prisons, things I observed on my drenched Saturday forays into Kuala Lumpur by bike, many descriptions of food (I seemed convinced no one had ever noticed the great food in Southeast Asia before, or the furious pace of development, or the pink minibuses, or the daily thunderstorms). I showed the outpourings to my boyfriend at the time, and he politely read it all, then gently told me it was fine, but that it didn’t seem to be much about people, and consequently it all came across as a bit cold.

I decided he was right, and binned the whole thing. His words have haunted me ever since.

On return to the UK, I urgently needed to find a job and somewhere to live, and although I wanted to pursue the writing thing, I decided I needed to find a ‘proper’ job to pay the bills, and see if I could find time to write on the side. I’ll never know if that was the right decision. It certainly wasn’t the worst decision I made in my twenties.

How much do you think a writer needs to live on?

That year (1998) I bought a great book, which I still enjoy flicking through now, called ‘How much do you think a writer needs to live on?’, published by W magazine in association with The Arts Council of England. It contains a series of interviews with writers in 1998 and 1946, answering the same six questions on the subject of money. One of the questions the writers were asked was what a suitable second occupation for a writer might be, and I perused these answers with particular interest. I think none of them said ‘editor’, and at least one or two of them actively counselled against it as a career choice. (A. S. Byatt, for instance, said that working in publishing would make one ‘end up inhibited and writing narcissistic media narratives’.) Still, I decided that as I was interested in books, and writing, the most sensible thing for me to do was to disregard any of the advice I’d so enjoyed reading, and find a job in publishing. And so, to cut a long story short, I became an editorial assistant for a children’s book packager, and worked my way up from there.

For a long time I managed to combine the editorial work with voracious reading, especially in the years when I commuted by train. But I simply couldn’t summon the motivation to write. Constant house moves and relationship upheaval going on in the background didn’t help, either. By the time I was more settled and turned freelance, the creative side of things took a further nosedive. I was so tired from reading non-fiction books all day, and working long hours to get established on my own, that I couldn’t even bear to read myself to sleep. I stopped reading novels for pleasure almost entirely, for several years.

The thing that got me back into the reading for fun was having children. I sat up reading novels in the middle of the night while feeding my daughter, and realised how much I’d been missing it. Still, I was playing at reading, and not reading enough, and certainly not writing, but it was something. A glimmer of hope. I finally came back to writing at the age of forty after completely stopping drinking. At last I had the mental energy to think of doing it on top of running an editorial business, and doing my share of the childcare, and I have stuck to it almost every day ever since.

In this way, I’ve written about three novels (more of which in a moment), plus lots of short stories. Some of this output I am very proud of, though I think deep down I know that a lot of it simply isn’t good enough yet to be published. And I’ve been figuring out what I need to do (apart from keeping on doing it) to make it better.

The problem I see now is that editing, especially freelance editing, has a great deal to do with pragmatism. If you’re running an editorial business, the way to make it viable in the long term is to do the very best job you can, in the time available, and within budget. As an editor, I do care about the books I work on, and yet I can’t deny that there’s an element of the production line about it all. I send out an average of 100 invoices per year, for amounts ranging from £20 to £2000, so you begin to get a picture of the sheer volume of work it’s necessary to turn over to make a good living. The number of projects that fly across my desk. I work hard on them, but then (no matter how interesting they are in the moment) they’re gone, and I rarely think of them again. (A few still plague my nightmares, but that’s another story.)

While this super-disciplined, almost machine-like approach to my editorial work has served me well, it’s not helpful if I try and apply the same thing to creative writing. It might be good to be able to sit down every day and work for half an hour or an hour on writing before I start paid work. But I’m finally realising that creative projects, for me at least, simply can’t be treated in the same way as finite editorial commissions. I can’t decide beforehand how long it’s going to take me to write a short story, or a novel, and then stick to that, and rely on it being any good at all. It’s going to take as long as it takes. And, crucially, it’s not going to be possible to simply get it off the desk and move on to the next thing in the inbox. It’s going to linger. It’s going to take a lot of thought after it appears to be done. And – in the case of my third novel, which I was at a loss with – it’s going to need to be revisited, picked apart and probably completely rewritten to make it say what it’s actually meant to say. I have realised over the course of the past few days that there is a thumping great elephant in the room in that third book, not being acknowledged, and that as a result the whole thing is quite likely not to make any sense to anyone without the privilege of being inside my head.

The essential problem, I now see, with being a non-fiction editor trying to write fiction, is that I am extremely proficient at making a bunch of disparate words look like a real book. I do this for clients all the time! But you simply can’t do that when you’re writing a novel. It’s not enough to be able to write 80,000 words that contain maybe five typos. It’s not enough to be able to write 99 coherent sentences out of a hundred, to order, every time. It’s not enough for it to look like a book. It has to be something more, something much deeper. It is going to have to be a longer, messier, more frustrating and possibly more humiliating process than I’ve been allowing it to be. I need to learn to relinquish control.

My final lightbulb moment came at an event I attended on Saturday (called How to Get Published; short answer = Write A Good Book). There were three excellent authors speaking – all with quite different approaches – and in the afternoon one fleeting exercise during an agent Q&A involved writing a three-sentence pitch for your book. I struggled with this, although I have been trying to write pitches for the thing for months. Anyway I wrote my pitch, which clumsily covered what the book is ostensibly ‘about’, as in what the characters do and the setting in which they do it, but it was also frankly unclear and basically a bit rubbish. After all, the point of a good pitch is not to have to explain bits of it retrospectively for it to make any kind of sense, like a six-year-old’s joke. As one agent said when I muttered defensively about something crucial that I’d left out – why not put that in the pitch? Yes indeed, I thought. Excellent advice! And while I’m at it, I also thought, why not go back and actually put it in the book?

And so I am going back under the bonnet of my ‘finished’ third novel, and I may be some time …

Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She’s currently trying to forget everything she knows. (But not if you’re paying her to edit, of course!)




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