I’ve just finished a book that’s taken me six years to complete. The idea was a simple one, but it grew out of control. It got messy and took over my life. I spent six years trying to find its shape. Six years looking for characters, their voices, their motives. I did other things too. My children went through high school. I got progressively worse at my day job. I shall not talk about that here.
I loved my book so much I didn’t want to finish it. It was always going so well. People would ask me when it was coming out and I’d say, well, I don’t know, we’ll see, the market is tough at the moment. But a couple of months ago, or thereabouts, I realised it was reaching its end. I always knew what was going to happen in the final chapters, so it was quite exciting to actually get there. Not so exciting to realise it was almost 120,000 words long. There are examples of longer works for younger people. Who was counting?
I read it through. It seemed magnificent. It also seemed long. Ah well.
I sent it to my agent. She liked it, was very encouraging, but asked me to cut it down. I got out the scalpel. I redrafted. I sent it back. She asked me to cut more. I was happy to do so. I took out the carving knife. I went through it again and again. I sent it back. She asked me to cut more. I took out the chainsaw.
(Health and Safety advice: always use protective clothing when using a chainsaw. They are dangerous. Especially inside the house. Don’t use a chainsaw close to furniture. Or pets. Or people.)
The book, along with my kitchen table, and a chest of drawers, was cut it in half. All those years of espresso fuelled mania cut away. All those deliriously beautifully crafted chapters gone.
Most of them in which next to nothing happens.
I loved the book so much I had taken every plotline too far, every digression along a meandering path to nowhere. It was like a maze of very decorative topiary. Plenty to look at along the way, but you haven’t a clue where you’re going.
But by cutting and cutting and cutting I found my way through the maze. I found the book that was in there. The book inside.
I should have been able to find it in the first draft, but I couldn’t. I was far too immersed in it. I was lost in the dream of my own book. It became a parallel reality. The ejected chapter that takes place on a Normandy beach - was that real? Didn’t it actually happen? I wasn’t just cutting away words; I was cutting memories.
It’s like discarding the keepsakes of an infant's years: locks of hair, milk teeth, silly drawings, the ‘I LOV U DADDY’ post it notes. They mean a lot to me, but I don’t think the rest of the world would be interested.
But without them my book wouldn’t have grown, wouldn’t have enjoyed the normal, stable upbringing it needed.
Even now I know it might not get published. I’ve sent it out into the world, my darling little book, so trim and tailored. I hope it doesn’t come back in a few weeks asking for a room.