At first, I thought the answer was obvious. The editing, the revising, the scrutinising, reviewing and reconsidering – well, easiest isn’t the right word, but they’re probably my most liked. Twenty-plus of editing just about any kind of text almost certainly helps. Reading the story aloud helps too: if the sentence feels clumsy to say, or there’s that one word you always thought probably wasn’t quite right? It wasn’t. Do something about it.
Editing needs a certain mindset though. Don’t do it for reassurance, or tell yourself you’re ‘good at this’. You’re editing it because it needs work, so get on with it. Leave it alone for a long time if you can: wait till forgotten how the story goes. As far as you can, imagine it’s the work of someone you want to help but making the story clearer, the characters better drawn. A certain aggressiveness – an attitude to the text that says ‘no, this won’t do’ – helps. But editing has a joyous side too: the satisfaction of leaving something better than you found it.
And writing? The first draft? Touch and go. Automatic writing might work for some, but not for me. I have the wrong kind of head. A legacy of copywriting to timescales, perhaps? Of typing and wincing in equal measure as on sentence follows another, the alleged killer of ‘editing as you write’. But then a story is not an article or a case study. Its structure, its argument are meant to be in the sub-text, not the sub-headings.
If there’s a structure, it’s the output of the deranged spiders who leave their scrawlings in bedside notebooks at 1am, who leave solitary sentences or phrases on the back of train tickets or on a post-it note slapped on a splattered cookbook by the hob of the oven.
It has to dwell in my head long enough to know how I’m going to write it before I can. The alternative is a sea of abandoned beginnings, of two or three page fragments where returning to them feels like trying to time-travel. A hopeless attempt to climb back into a version of your own head that time has since erased. There will some fine sentences, perhaps, but it’s like that game we’ve all played when we try to find the end of the sellotape. No point trying to kill your darlings later if they were already stillborn.
But that’s not the hardest thing, even if it feels like it at the time. Nor is knowing that any story could always be revised, that as time goes by you will recognise different, better ways of part of their telling. The hardest part is being able to tell yourself – not with proud bravado or with chest-thumping assertion, but with enough conviction to think there possibly be some truth in it after all – that you are a writer. And believing it long enough to get a draft completed. That’s the most difficult part. And it not only comes before the first draft, it comes before every first draft.
Want to help a writer friend? Have more faith in them than they have in themselves, for they will be their own hardest critics. Not uncritically, not unreservedly, but aware that they are harsher critics than you might ever be and that someone else might be what they need if they’re not going to stop trying. And that’s the unhappiest story of all.
But that, as David Frost would have advised, is enough about me. More reading reactions and soundtracks shortly, life allowing…