Working on a novel? You don't know what you have or how to fix it until you've got the whole thing down.
– Lauren Beukes
I’m always fascinated by what writers have to say, and, because they tend to be very good communicators, they drop pearls of wisdom in abundance.
Now, I like Lauren Beukes. I like her work (go read “Zoo City” if you haven’t already, it won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2011, and it’s fab!) and I like her personally. She’s one of the most hardworking writers I know, and she’s very accessible and endlessly interesting. (If you’re on Twitter follow her @laurenbeukes).
The quote above was a tweet... You know Twitter, right? Initially, I disagreed with it. Of course, being fewer than 140 characters long, it didn’t seek to clarify it’s position; it was simply a bald statement, and one that I was tempted to take issue with...
... But Lauren is much cleverer than that.
My instinct was to say, again, that I don’t write like that. I begin a novel with an empty mind and write with my gut, but I also fact-check and research as I go along. I do not know the end of the story when I begin it.
This statement, then, should jibe very well with what I do, but my practice differs, critically from what Lauren might, on the surface, be talking about. It differs because I edit as I go along.
At the beginning of writing a book, I read back everything I’ve written, every day. This isn’t a big deal when there are only a few thousand words, but I keep doing it until I have about half a book. At this point, I very much know what I’ve got and where I’m going with it. I also begin to have an idea of any weaknesses and I know how I’m going to deal with them.
Lots of novelists that I know have quite detailed outlines of their novels before they begin, and a great many of them also do all the research they think they’ll need before they set to work writing. Does it not follow, then, that they know exactly what they’ve got on their hands? It would seem so, wouldn’t it?
This is where Lauren has been clever.
Firstly, this is an exhortation to finish a book! And it is an antidote to the fear that sometimes comes with writing. I suspect that Lauren is talking to the first time writer, or the keen amateur, that she is giving them permission to finish their novel, whatever it’s worth in the long run. She’s right; unless a novel is finished it doesn’t qualify as a novel, and it has no intrinsic value. Unless we finish a novel, we have no way to know that we can.
Secondly, this is a comment on practice. No one, not a single writer I know, simply puts the last full-stop at the end of a novel, and knows that the work is done. Strictly speaking, I haven’t ever written a second draft of a book, but that’s because I edit as I work, and because I haven’t had a book published yet. No agent or publisher is going to take on a book without wanting changes, and all books are better for the input. I know this because agents and publishers know their markets and want the best possible book from you. That’s their job.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this is a statement about magic. Writing is special because it is one of few occupations that involves the intangible. If we are very lucky, as writers, something happens to the words on the page that makes them greater than the sum of their parts.
When I read “Naming Names” for the first time after it was finished, I had the very great pleasure of being truly amazed by what I had done. Only that distance, that month between finishing the manuscript and reading it, showed me what I had, and I was thrilled. I am now working on the fixes, because, as happy as I was with the end result, there were fixes to be made.
So, thanks Lauren, for your wise words. I can’t believe I doubted you... even for a moment.