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How to Unwrite a Novel (AKA lessons from a mollusc)



When I was young, I assumed my life was a novel. Like that man in ‘Stranger than fiction’, I could always hear some authorial voice narrating my story, commenting with admiration or disgust on my exploits, finding meaty metaphors for my state of mind, rewriting unsatisfactory dialogues. Over time I became annoyed with the Author of Me for being such a poor planner – the plot was meandering, with tedious passages about going to the dentist or learning for geography tests. The characters were improbable, and the main protagonist had markedly few moments of heroic distinction.

     As I grew older my rational mind told me that I couldn’t be a character in someone’s novel, (although  part of me still wonders). But this long-standing delusion made me realise that I’d be forced to write a novel. If only to show that hopeless Author of Me a thing or two about how to do the job properly.

     So I sat down after lunch one day and dashed off a novel, more or less, and when I’d finished I said smugly to the Author of Me, ‘There, that wasn’t so difficult’. This novel found a publisher promptly, garnered a few favourable reviews, and was a modest success although the proceeds would keep me alive for a few months only if I didn’t mind living in a bus shelter and eating dog food.

The second novel is an altogether different animal

    First novels often fall quite spontaneously out of their authors, which is why they are seldom published, although there have been some notable first novel wunderkinds. When I failed to win the Booker prize with mine I consoled myself with examples of people whose first book is such a success that they never manage to pull off another one, and sat down to write Novel #2.A Second Novel is an altogether different animal. The pressure surrounding a second novel is enough to drive any creative thought right out of your brain.

     It began with the intention to write an ‘ecological thriller’.  But I soon realised that the force that was pinning me to my computer was something far less tangible: something about grief, forgiveness, and regret, and the healing power of landscapes, and the odd tapestries that these forces weave in human relationships.

This idea was  elusive but  insistent. And the long and often painful process of tracking it down taught me an important lesson: the idea that breathes life into a novel is not necessarily the most brilliant, or fashionable, or commercially viable, but it is the most tenacious. It may be a story, or a gesture of a passing stranger, or something that catches your eye on a train or an odd thought that occurs to you when watching the bathwater run out of the plug hole. Or, if you are Franz Kafka, when watching a cockroach squirming on its back.

     It doesn’t really matter what idea starts the story, what matters is it’s tenacity. Like an oyster producing a pearl, some bit of grit has to get under your skin and bug you until you turn it into something lustrous and nuanced with no ragged edges. (At least, you hope that with luck and hard work, your effort creates a pearl and not a lump of  organic grunge).

    My later novels have benefitted hugely from this lesson. But I didn’t know it when I wrote The Unseen Leopard. I failed to pin down the idea, and thus lost sight of it.  I did masses of research around genetic engineering, and tried to cram it all into the book. The setting clamoured for attention instead of hovering subtly in the background. Minor characters seduced me into rambling engagements with their dramas. Back stories demanded to be heralded as main events.

    I was like the sorcerer’s apprentice. I had wielded the wand of authorship with little sense of responsibility, and  had no idea of how to rein it in. My story  self-seeded into an impenetrable forest which engulfed the Idea, and as I wandered hopelessly through its tangled thickets I heard the Author of Me snickering somewhere in the dark.

     My publishers were kind but firm.

   ‘Cut.’ They said, when I staggered into their office with a 700 page manuscript.

     I picked myself up, dusted down my bruised ego, came to terms with the fact that not every growth I had sprouted was a precious flower to be preserved at all costs, chopped out a few hundred thousand words and one or two family sagas and took it back.

     ‘Cut,’ they said again. But where? I wailed. And this was the problem. The  editors were in dispute. Some loved this character, others hated her. Some thought one aspect of the story was the most compelling, others thought that was a side-show and something else should be shoved to the fore.

     Finally, as I lay awake one night  deranged by contradictory advice, the light broke through. The story I had to focus on was the one that I felt most compelled to tell, and the voice I needed to narrate it had to offer the prism that offered me the most compelling view of that story.

     It did not matter that this editor liked it and that one didn’t. What mattered was my own passion for it – not because I know better than everyone else, but because if I lacked the conviction and passion, the story would be dead before I’d written a word.

     And so, I went into the forest to unearth the story I wanted to tell, and to identify the characters I wanted to tell it. The story was pretty much the original idea; but the one narrator was a surprise. In my early versions, I tell Melissa’s story through a diary. The breakthrough came when I realised that her story needed to be narrated through her self-confessed killer, James.

     What a lot of unwriting I had to do! And rewriting. And unwriting again. This was when I discovered how important unwriting is to a novel – both in the sense of knowing what to delete, and of knowing what not to write in the first place. And this means recognising the soul of your story early in the process, and keeping it always within your sights.

So the best advice I can offer aspiring authors is to recognise the stories that are given to you, and to honour them in whatever humble form they arrive. If a goblin comes knocking at your door demanding to have his story told, don’t try to dress him up as a vampire just because vampires are all the rage these days. It won’t work – you’ll just end up with some sad wannabe vampire that’s lost all his authentic goblinness.

Writing a novel is a very long, very lonely endeavour. Your only friend in this process may be that goblin who wants his story told, so you had better learn to love him, warts and all. He needs to be so real that you converse with him constantly in you head, and expect to bump into him in the street. If he isn’t, you can be sure that your readers will toss him aside after page one with no compunction whatsoever. At the same time, however lonely you are and however much you love your goblin, don’t let him invite his extended family, unless they are critical part of his story. And if they do come, don’t let them steal his thunder – the more you write, the more you’ll have to unwrite.

I sometimes get annoyed with the stories that blow my way because they lack murders or mayhem or flashy contemporary chic. But I have learnt to treat them with tremendous respect. And yes, I’m also a lot less cocky nowadays with the Author of Me. Because that Author, poor thing, does not have luxury of the delete key, and has to faithfully record every numbing detail of my life – no wonder he/she/it/ has come up with such a clumsy effort…Now, if only we could unwrite some of that novel!

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