What books are really made of
The things I know and don't know about writing them
Briefly: Báyò Akómoláfé and Amy Jeffs on How We Live Now | Members can watch the replay of my book club with The Shift’s Sam Baker, discussing Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica | Edinburgh Festival appearances on 15th August with Sam Baker and 16th August with Kerri ní Dochartaigh
When I first started to write, my greatest concern was whether I could produce enough words to fill a book. After a couple of years, I understood the scope of a short story, that narrative arc that spans three or four thousand words, give or take. But a whole novel? I had my doubts. I couldn’t quite get my head around the scope of the thing.
Nevertheless, a novel was what I wanted to write, and so I decided to make an attempt. I sat down at my desk each morning before I went to work, and I wrote a minimum of two pages - by hand - towards the story. Careful calculations were made: those two pages, if I wrote at a consistent size, represented about 450 words. My only task, it seemed to me, was to move my hand across the page, and to try to keep my script at consistent size. In that way, my word count would build and build at a satisfying pace.
After about a year, I had a draft. I was fairly sure it was terrible, but I had read Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott, and they had both persuaded me that terrible was exactly what was necessary to get this far. So I sat down and, over several weeks, typed the whole manuscript into a Word document that glitched and stuttered after I passed the hundredth page. I tried very hard not to edit, but just to get to know the thing. I hoped against hope that it would pass the magic threshold of 80,000 words, which would make it, in my view, a novel.
The draft I ended up with was 140,000 words (my handwriting must have got smaller as I went along), and the slow act of absorbing my own sentences as I typed revealed not so much a novel as an exercise in numerical paranoia. My fervour for length had resulted in a strange doubling of my narrative, with everything told twice. I had layered on words, constructing descriptions from lists of synonyms, all in the service of increasing the volume of the text. My book was a thesaurus, a grand act of repeating myself. Cowering beneath it all, swathed in syllables, was my story. I had to peel back layers of padding to find it again.
Back then, I thought that writing was a numbers game. Now, I know that it’s something else entirely.
The time has come again to sit down and write a book. I’d love to say I know how it works now, but honestly, I don’t. I still can’t claim to have a technique that is guaranteed to get me to the end; I still feel completely daunted by this unknowable process.
What I do know now, which I didn’t know 20 years ago, is that it’s possible for me to write a full-length manuscript. I know that I can break it down into chunks that take me through days and weeks and months until I have something that could fit into a book. That helps. I also know that the story itself is more important than the number of words in which it’s told; that, if you write something good enough (and are stubborn enough to stand behind it), you can find a niche in any number of words. Mine seems to be about 50,000.
I know that it will feel a lot like trying to scale a vast edifice at first, but that in a matter of months, I will have written the first third. At that stage, I will go back and edit, feeling contempt for my lack of talent. Then, with a renewed sense of conviction, I will tackle the middle third, which will feel roughly like dragging a corpse uphill. But the final third will seemingly be work of a few moments, flowing out of my fingers as if the manuscript has taken on a life of its own. This last section of prose will be rushed and shoddy when I read it back, but that doesn’t matter, because I have to create my block of clay before I can sculpt it.
I know that I will edit and edit and edit, and that it will take months, and that the whole time the manuscript will feel imperceptible as a whole. I will only ever be able to see parts of it. The rest will glower in my peripheral vision.
I know that, however much I work on it, my editor’s notes will only take it apart all over again. I know that I will be stung by this initially, only to see the truth in it three days later. I know, also, that I need to follow my own maxim here, which is to accept the spirit of the edits but never the specifics. The fixes must be my own.
I know that the book, however long I work on it, will always feel like a pale imitation of the glorious technicolour version that existed so perfectly in my head before I tried to put it onto paper. I have come to see this as a good thing, because it always urges me to write the next book, just to see if I can get it right this time.
All of that is yet to come. But what I know most of all - what I know right now - is that a book is made of neither numbers nor words. It is, instead, a feeling. It is a persistent pull on consciousness. It is an irresistible cluster of ideas that seem to magnetically attract everything you encounter towards them. They grow and grow until you think they might engulf you. They become a space that you are compelled to enter, a secret room that is yours alone. You cannot help but to spend time in this place. Only when you have written it can you close the door again, and return to normal life. Until then, you will always be suspended between two worlds.
But what gets me there eventually - whatever the process - is simple faith. I now know that I can write enough words to fill a book. As it turns out, that’s the least important bit.
(It’s hard to make that sound exciting, sorry)
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Coming up at The Clearing
Events for paid subscribers
Next live Hangout: Tuesday 18th July, 7pm UK
My guest this month is Carissa Potter Carlson
Artist, illustrator and writer Carissa explores our yearning, untidy interior lives with a rare honesty and grace. Her artwork hits home in a way that words never can. She’s also an extraordinary community-builder and gatherer of like-minded people. I can’t wait to hear about her current interests and fascinations.
Next Creative Questions: Monday 21st August, 7pm UK
Put the date in your diary for now and start thinking of any questions I can tackle!
Next True Stories Book Club: Thursday 28th September, 7pm UK
I’m delighted to announce that September’s book club guest will be Erica Berry, talking about her book Wolfish: the stories we tell about fear, ferocity and freedom, which explores our fascination with wolves, and asks: 'What does it mean to want to embody the same creature from which you are supposed to be running?'
We’ll send links and passwords for subscribers in the chat.
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