THE END – the most elusive words in the novelist’s lexicon

So you have finished the first draft of your novel. This is a wonderful and exciting achievement. You know, now, that you CAN do it. You are ahead of 95% of people who ever declared, ‘I’m going to write a novel.’ The Muses are having a party on Mount Olympus in your honour, and if the whole thing has killed you, you can down a glass of ambrosia with them. As you type THE END in triumphant block capitals, remember that whatever happens now, you will never, ever, regret the time, the energy, the blood, the money, the tears this novel has cost you to write. (I know it has, unless you are a successful published author earning enough to support a lifestyle that makes you happy. And even then…well, if I’m ever in that position, I’ll let you know. Small steps.)

You are allowed to stop there. Really, you are. Open the champagne. You wanted to write a novel, you’ve written a novel. That really can be THE END.

But the chances are that it’s not. It’s not even the beginning of the end. When you reread it, you’ll realise that what you have done is work out what your novel is about. You’ve met the characters and shaken their hands; you’ve introduced them to each other and let them mingle in some interesting places. But you’ve also brought in someone who’s a real pain and keeps cropping up in the wrong places, and someone else who is absolutely fascinating but who sits in a corner saying nothing to anyone. There’s another one who disappeared half-way through, and another who wanders through the whole novel searching for something that you’ve got in your hand, but forgot to put down anywhere. And some of them want to be somewhere else, and some of them don’t want to be there at all, and another’s suddenly had a baby or turned out to be single when you need them in a relationship. Or not, whichever’s the most inconvenient for you.

So you give them all a hard talking-to and you sort them out. Banish them, or give them what they want. And there’s your second draft. It makes sense now. You’ve kept your best writing in, and you’ve kicked your ineffective characters out. The shape’s emerging, and the bits you’ve shown people are really, really good. There’s a sentence – a paragraph – a chapter, even, that could win the Man Booker (or the Golden Dagger, or the Romantic Novel of the Year Award) on its own.

And now – now you don’t even want this to be THE END. You can see how things tie together. Connections exist in there – ones you hadn’t even thought of. You start waking up in the middle of the night crying, ‘Of course!’ and start scribbling before you forget. Sometimes, you can even read your own handwriting in the morning. And your third draft is born. Your actual children, should you have any, may, of course, have starved by this point, not to mention what has happened to your day job, your relationship and your consumption of Rich Tea Finger biscuits, but that’s a topic for another post.

And then. Then comes a point where the part you have to cut is the part you’ve always thought was the best. The passage that you know reviewers will quote when they’re explaining why you won the Man Booker (or the Golden Dagger, or the Romantic Novel of the Year Award).  It’s brilliant – it is – and it’s survived draft after draft, because when you read it, you know that those sentences were the reason you wanted to write the novel in the first place. But the novel’s moved on. It’s found its form, the characters are living and breathing, and this section no longer brings what it did to the party. The cakes have been eaten, and the plate’s left, empty and covered with crumbs, at what’s become a banquet.

Let it go. You’re not killing your darlings – you’re thanking them for making your novel what it’s become. Let them go, and the next draft can happen. The one where your novel’s strong enough to spend some time with an agent. And then a publisher. And then – and then, of course, it all starts again, and you realise that THE END are the only two words in the dictionary you never actually got to write.

This Post is Dedicated to Maggie Gee

I was a teenager in the 1980s. I wrote to my friends on paper, with a pen, and posted the letters in stamped envelopes. The charts came out on a Sunday afternoon, and I hovered by the radio with a blank tape cassette in the tape deck. There was no way of knowing what was at Number One until the countdown was over, and if you wanted to buy the seven inch vinyl singles upon which the charts were based, you had to wait, because the shops weren’t open on Sundays. We ate Bernard Matthew’s turkey roll, Arctic roll and Swiss roll, and a rollover week meant that someone had eaten the last slice. Oh, and there was the threat of nuclear war. And AIDS.

I wasn’t sexually active when AIDS came in and the fact that suddenly sex could kill you came as something of a relief. But nuclear war? Oh boy, was I the right age to be scared witless by the prospect of nuclear war. My grown-ups gave me Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells, a novel whose ending is so bleak that in 1994 it was republished with a new one. But this was 1984. I was twelve. Raymond Briggs followed up Father Christmas and The Snowman with When the Wind Blows, with no respect for the sensibilities of his younger readers. And my parents, after almost two decades of waiting for the other to rescue them from their own bitterly unhappy childhoods, let rip with an apocalyptic divorce, which put to bed any lingering hope that regrowth might follow annihilation. I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four that year too. I thought it was an instruction manual.

I did my O and A levels, went to university, and later trained as a teacher, putting off the writing I’d always wanted to do in order to earn the money I needed to be independent. In those few short years, the nuclear threat receded, leaving me washed up and soaked through with a fear that seemed to be mine alone; my teenage students, although only a few years younger than me, weren’t frightened. Not of nuclear war, at any rate. And judging by the numbers of divorced parents who attended parents’ evenings together without throwing things at each other, divorce had changed too. What to do with my nameless fear, in a world that no longer recognized it?

It was at this time I came across Maggie Gee’s novel The Burning Book. Here was nuclear war – but here was something else. A voice. A voice that said, Somewhere in all this fear, there are stories only you can tell. It was just a voice then. I was in love with teaching, and the need to write was balanced by the need to pay the hefty mortgage for which I alone was responsible. It took me a lot more time, and a marriage, and children, to really listen. I know now that telling stories means throwing yourself into a void with no guarantee of finding your way out. I know that being a writer means much, much more than writing your story down. I know how delicate is the balance between living life and fearing it, and that you cannot do one without doing the other. That fear is productive and vigorous and vital, as well as life-sapping and stultifiying. That we cannot control when, where or to whom we are born, but that we have some say after that if we choose.

A few short months ago, I was on a writing course when the tutor announced a guest speaker. I hadn’t known a guest was coming. Maggie Gee. I thought I’d misheard. But no. In she came, and she taught a session about taking your reader through the middle section of your novel as though she hadn’t, two decades previously, written a novel that had changed my life.

The Burning Book is out of print now, although you can still find it on Amazon Marketplace and Abe Books. Maggie Gee has written a great many more novels – all as aware, all as insightful as the relatively early one for which I was so grateful. I expect she’d say they were better. But how do you measure the value of a novel? Sales? Popularity? The Burning Book gave me something that Maggie Gee cannot possibly have planned or predicted as she was writing it. She threw her story into the void, where it found me. If I had been its only reader, it would have been worth what it cost its author to write.

The world has moved on again, to a place where books are more of a commodity than they have ever been. Writers strive for an audience, for sales, for Twitter followers and royalties and exposure. But as we engage with those very real realities, may we never lose sight of the reader who may, twenty years later, find us with an out-of-print paperback, spine worn thin.

Maggie Gee is appearing at the Little Missenden Festival at 2:45 pm on Saturday 12th October 2013. For tickets and further information, please go to http://www.little-missenden.org

The Man Booker Announcement, due at 14:30

Dear Everyone

We’ve read Antonia Honeywell’s list of the 10 things she learned from reading the Man Booker longlist (read it here), and have made particular note of point 5, namely the superiority of America and Americans in All Things.  We are shocked – SHOCKED – to find that for years and years and years, we have been denying our long list the edifying presence of American writers (America! God shed his grace on thee!). It is no longer acceptable to us that writers who have won Pulitzers and National Book Awards should have to compromise their American-ness in order to be decorated with a Man Booker nomination. After all, half the shortlisted authors already live and work there. There must be something in the water, and we’re not going to miss out on it Any More. We want to play with the big boys! We can teach them some really good new games and they’ll be our friends.

We are sorry for Antonia Honeywell, and any other little British citizens who’ve spent significant proportions of their island lives dreaming of being nominated for the Man Booker (or the Booker, as it once was, when nuclear war loomed large on the horizon and a playlist was a C60 of songs recorded from the radio). But we gave you Eve Harris this year, and really, that’ll just have to keep you going for a bit. We want lovely big juicy authors, and how are we going to know who they are if we don’t let the Americans in? The world is becoming smaller and more homogenous, JUST in case you hadn’t noticed, and it’s important that we keep up with the times and create ONE literary author who wins Absolutely Everything. That way, we can all agree on how good they are. There are too many wars in the world as it is.

With lots and lots of peace and love, and may Ramona Quimby’s Dawnzer Lee Light shine upon you all.

The Man Booker Committee.

To All the Man Booker Nominees as the Shortlist is Announced

So the Man Booker shortlist has been announced. Jim Crace (no surprise there), Colm Toibin (for the third time), Eleanor Catton (why not? Thought they might), NoViolet Bulawayo, Ruth Ozeki and Jhumpa Lahiri (*checks again, slightly taken aback*).

While I am extremely pleased that the list includes four women, I think some excellent, original writing has been elbowed out by vast, sometimes sensational, plots. Every year I find myself somewhat mystified by the choices that are made. Wonderful novels aren’t even shortlisted, some fairly mediocre ones make the cut. Some glorious ones make the cut too. But not in any way that makes quantifiable sense.

I’ve often read the Booker shortlist, but this is the first year I’ve read the entire longlist. I’m so glad I did. Fancy missing out on The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, or Unexploded. My arms might have thanked me for missing out on Richard House’s The Kills – boy was that a heavy hardback – but it has been so interesting to see the rise of digital books, and to note the different reactions to The Kills from those who read the enhanced digital version and those who (like me) stuck to the traditional paper (for paper read brick) format.

I feel slighted on behalf of the novels that weren’t shortlisted, even though they didn’t all appeal to me personally. My criticism of Macleod’s Unexploded was that its historical setting felt apart from the themes and concerns of the plot and characters. But she’d have been brilliant on the shortlist. It’ll all be about Eleanor Catton now, who is young and beautiful and whose novel is long and clever and all twisty-turny. Is that what we are looking for in our literature now? I’m pleased for her, as I am for all the shortlisted novelists. But as we now start lionizing the shortlisted novelists, let’s not forget those who got themselves all prepared for the South Bank event tonight, whose novels are the product of just as much love, talent and blood as the ones whose writers will be on the stage.

May the shortlisted show as much humility as the out-of-the-running longlisted have shown grace. And thank you all for writing. 

My Man Booker Shortlist Predictions

Unfortunately I can only select writers from the official Man Booker long list for my imagined shortlist. So I can’t feature Maggie Gee or Evie Wyld or Patrick Ness.

So, a drumroll please… the shortlist will consist of…Crace (because he’s going to win), Toibin (to prove that short novels can be vast and important, and that we’re all grown up enough not to take offence), Mendelson (because we British need to prove we’re able to laugh at ourselves), McCann (because he is a Serious Writer of Great Themes and of course we’re not bitter that he’s American to all intents and purposes), Macleod (because the writing itself is wonderful and we’re all a bit WW2 fixated currently, what with austerity and The Great British Bake Off and all) and a rogue.

My rogue would be Eve Harris for The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, because it’s a spark of joy in a fairly joyless list. The long list features impressive sentences a-plenty, but very few laughs and precious little good-humoured human warmth. Literature with a capital L is a very earnest business – but as Lord Peter Wimsey once said, we either have to laugh or break our hearts in this damnable world. Not everyone is out to get or belittle everyone else.

I suspect the rogue will be Catton, who does interesting things with star charts and far more interesting things with characters. Also, if you’ve carried the hardback around for long enough to finish it, you want to feel it was to some purpose.

Congratulations to all the novelists – the fact that I was reading all but five them for the first time shows the value of the Man Booker in bringing writers to the attention of readers. And gaining readers is the real prize, after all.

Ten things I have learned by reading the Man Booker Longlist 2013

I spent this summer reading the Booker longlist. All thirteen novels. Every word, cover to cover. The shortlist will be announced tomorrow. Mine will be announced before midnight tonight. In the meantime, here are ten things I have learned from my reading.

  1. A book doesn’t have to be published to be shortlisted. I expect everyone knew this except me. But my life largely consists of discovering things everyone else already knew, and they mostly make my life easier. For example, there is a little arrow next to the petrol pump icon on the petrol gauge of most cars. It tells you which side the filling cap is on. (You’re welcome.)
  2. People who work in publishing seem to be very, very lovely. They send you copies of books that aren’t out yet if you’ve set yourself a reading challenge and explain nicely. Thank you, Granta, Sandstone Press, Random House and Penguin.
  3. An author doesn’t have to be resident in the British Isles to be longlisted. Ozeki, McCann, Lahiri and Bulawayo all live and work from their permanent homes in America, and Catton’s resident in New Zealand.
  4. America is a really good country where really good things happen for people who have been forced by circumstances to leave really bad countries that aren’t America. But people seem to need new names if their birth names aren’t sufficiently reflective of the country they’re writing about, don’t they, NoViolet Bulawayo and Ruth Ozeki?
  5. America is such a good country that, when Americans leave home, they can sort out, through their patience and statesmanship, terrible impasses between warring factions in other countries that aren’t America.
  6. The happiest happiness in the British Isles can be found in the Orthodox Jewish communities of North London.
  7. The Second World War isn’t over yet.
  8. Not everyone has read Jim Crace’s observation that historical fiction needs contemporary resonance.
  9. Patrick Ness said that one of the novels on the shortlist was so badly written that he couldn’t get past the first page. I think I know which one he meant, but can’t imagine the consequences of saying so in writing and being wrong. So I won’t admit it.
  10. To be a gripping read, a novel needs a solid foundation , so the reader knows where they are, and enough uncertainty to create tension. Therefore, to show I’ve learned something, I hereby commit to committing to my shortlist before the Man Booker committee commit to theirs. However, in order to maintain some suspense, I shall give away one thing – it won’t be the same as Philip Hensher’s.

A Cautionary Tale for Justin Welby

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, featured in a recent Guardian report (28th August), concerned that his vote against gay marriage in the Church of England could be viewed as ‘wicked, ‘akin to ‘racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice,’ particularly by people under 35. However, he also added that he would not change his vote. Here is why he should – because here is what happens when we sit on our happily heterosexual behinds, watching our happy heterosexual-to-be children walking the heterosexual animals into the toy Noah’s Ark, comforting ourselves that everyone’s welcome, it’s just that no one here is gay, so it’s not an issue.

Come back with me to March 2012. The vote on women bishops is on the horizon – a positive outcome is inevitable – and Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’m in church – my husband is playing quietly in the vestry with our four small children – a guest is about to ask the congregations’ prayers for ‘something important.’ It’s not very exciting. But it’s reassuring and stable and calm and predictable. It’s how I like it.

Enter the guest. A Lesley Pilkington, who had been invited – or who has asked, it’s not clear – to request the congregation’s prayers for something important. She introduces herself as a Christian psychotherapist/counsellor (slight alarm bells there, but nothing too noisy), and begins her tale.

It went like this: At a conference in London, a young man had approached her. He was gay and didn’t want to be; could she help him to change? But of course she could. A couple of ‘very successful’ sessions in, the young man told her that he was a journalist, that this was a sting and that he was reporting her to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. She had duly been struck off, had appealed, and the appeal was due to be heard the following Wednesday, hence the need for prayers.

But she didn’t stop there. No. We had to offer these prayers because we, the congregation, didn’t realize how widespread this evil is becoming, how insidious its hold, how terrible in its consequences. We have to use the power of prayer to fight for what we believe. As Christians, we have to open our eyes to what is happening in society. Satan is at work and we have to resist him. Homosexuality is not only contrary to everything we believe, it undermines everything we believe, and the consequences of sitting by and allowing it to run rampant in society are too terrible to contemplate. We are already seeing them.

Are we? I thought. I am a woman, happily married to a man, with whom I have children. We married in church, our children are all christened, I believe in God. I am also a human being. I like living on a planet with other human beings, many of whom are not the same as me. And so, with my heart pounding horribly and my breath very shallow and my head very light, I accepted that I was going to do something I have never done before. I stood up. I apologised for interrupting. I apologised for the fact that the children had been running around before my husband had taken them out. I said how much we love going to church, how much we value its place in our lives. And  then – shaking and on the verge of tears – I said that I could no longer sit and hear people I love being called evil. People I respect and admire; people who are my friends. People who love my children. People whose lives – Christian or not – are happy and constructive. I said that I had no idea of the paths my children’s lives would take, and that I could not bring them into an environment where their paths – whatever they may be – would not be celebrated.

By this time the vicar was inviting me to sit down. And Lesley Pilkington – calm, beautifully coiffeured and tailored and looking so sure of herself– pointed at me with a shrug and said, ‘You see, this is how Satan works.’

I wish I could say that the service ended in uproar. I wish I could say that the congregation rose in a body and threw one or the other of us out. At least I’d know where I was. But no. I sat down. Mrs. Pilkington had the last word – that God is love, and we have to show that love – and sat down. Those would have been my last words too.

That was the last I heard from church until it came to time to do the Christmas choir (open to all comers, and the fact that there were two takers last year, both three score years and ten plus, is an accurate reflection of the size and age of the congregation). I couldn’t do it again, I told the vicar, until we’d talked. I won the battle, in that Mrs Pilkington had apparently left the church with a vow never to darken its doors again. But I lost the war. Homosexuality, I was told, is not God’s best plan. They meet in bars, you know, and they’re not really committed to each other.

Really? Really? Tell that to Yotem Ottolengi, who recently wrote a very moving article for the Guardian about his journey to fatherhood, with his male partner. To Patrick Ness, whose award-winning novels inspire countless young adult readers, just returned from his honeymoon. To a woman I count as one of my best friends, who was with her partner for twenty years before civil partnerships. To Claire Balding. To Mary Portas. To Jeanette Winterson. To millions of people, quietly living their lives (where they are allowed to) all around the world.

God’s best plan? Who knows a thing about God’s best plan? Isn’t that just to love our neighbours as ourselves? To judge not, lest we be judged? If we do anything other than that, we are buying into the very discrimination and bigotry we claim to abhor. Help me out here, Justin Welby. I want to go to church. To your church. I want to run my choir, and sing, and let my son have a go on the organ after the service. I can’t enjoy the peace and community I used to love, because I can no longer ignore the ugly morass that was revealed when the charming façade was peeled away. I could stick it back down. Except I can’t. I’ve stood up now. Thank God.

And so I offer this. By excluding couples who love each other, who elect to make an exclusive commitment to each other in church, the Church of England is signing up to every argument that has ever been made in favour of apartheid. They’re not like us. They’re different, their relationships aren’t as valid, God forbid we should allow them to breed. They can come in, but they can’t join in.

Listen to me, Justin Welby. I’m your everywoman. Women bishops, please, and gay marriage.  It’s time. Truly, and with great respect, it’s time.