There’s a mysticism that surrounds writing fiction. It’s tempting to feel like writers have some sort of special, unique connection to a well of creativity – everyone else can look in and make a wish, but writers go down on the chain and dive, and the water turns them to something extraordinary. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a reason writing is surrounded by words like workshop and wordsmith and playwright: carpentry, bolt-it-together words. Writing is just cabinet-making with language.
The Romans knew that. The terminology of their rhetorical glossaries — asyndeton, epizeuxis, chiasmus — is an almost exhaustive list of anything you can possibly do with a sentence. These are linguistic craft techniques. Particular kinds of joint, different finishes and veneers.
Writing is treated differently to carpentry, pottery, pattern cutting, even fine art, because you can’t see it. It’s obvious, what a carpenter does. The wood and the chisels are in front of you. But it would be very hard to watch a writer write a novel. You could certainly say, and here’s Dickens, adjusting three words on page one hundred to tie into an image on page four, thereby smoothing the whole shape of the novel very slightly. But you can’t see at a glance what that image does to the book, not in the same way you can watch a carpenter turn a pattern on a table leg. To see the shape of the book, you need to spend a few days reading it, and to see how that shape changes under construction, you’d need to read it several times, at different stages. It’s a difficult thing to show someone clearly, and therefore easy to shroud in mystery.
But, for me at least, making a book is exactly the same as making anything else, whether it’s a table or a pot or a dress. Writers are surrounded by tools and techniques, shelves and shelves of them, and novels have shapes. Fashion designers make a first draft in calico and then chuck it, and so do a lot of writers, including me. If styles were stitching techniques there would be just as many as you’d find in a fashion studio, and apprentices have to learn them all.
That very simple truth, though, comes as a shock to a lot of writers who are just starting out. It shocked me too. Until I was signed by a publishing house, I had no idea how much writing has to happen before you finish a book. Nor do many students. I always say now that for every ten thousand words I write, I keep one thousand, at a conservative estimate. That this construction process isn’t obvious is a problem unique to writing. What you throw away and the amount of work you do is clear for tailors, carpenters, potters, painters, but a lot of fledgling writers go into the profession blind, simply because they’ve never seen the process start to end — only the finished product.
It can quickly become a problem, because it means you don’t know when to think you’re done. A lot of self-published e-books fail because people publish online four drafts before they would ever be allowed to do so at a traditional house. Some first-time writers experience something almost like shell-shock upon being exposed to the full force of a professional editor. The stories where half the manuscript gets cut and you have to rewrite everything are often handed down as cautionary tales against the industry, with horror.
And it happens. Of course it does. My editor took out a third of my last book and another third had to be rewritten in consequence. But nobody should be horrified by it. That’s just the job. That’s the same as lathing down beams and remaking joints because the old ones were clumsy.
There’s no mystique to it. There’s no well. Writing is carpentry. Learning the craft takes a long time, but we can all learn it, though we all certainly start out writing varying shades of rubbish. An awful lot of people who might be stupendous writers are put off by the idea that you must be an innate genius, and that either you get it right and perfect the first time or the industry crushes you. You don’t, and it doesn’t. If you think you’d be all right being a cabinet-maker, you could be a writer too.
The Bedlam Stacks is published on 13 July 2017 by Bloomsbury Circus.