Come on now, drop the knife...
In praise of the long sentence

Roll up your sleeves again, and stir

Writers spend a lot of time trying to get away from their work: trying to stand away from the individual words and see it whole - the woods-for-the-trees problem - and then to stand outside it all over again to see it as others would see it - the Rabbie Burns problem. Whether you write the whole first draft without reconsidering a single word, or you don't move on from a single sentence till you're as sure as you can be that it's right, you're still having produce the novel sentence by sentence, or even word by word. You can't easily tell if it 'works' in the way that you hope it will, or fear it won't, for a reader coming to it for the first time. And what will your writing buddie/tutor/agent/editor/reviewers think?

As writers we develop all sorts of strategies for putting distance between ourselves and our work. I've got to the point where I can't put a note out for the milkman without leaving it on the kitchen table overnight, in case I have second thoughts. But it can be that there's too much distance between us and our work. I know it can happen after I've finished the work on a novel, in the long, draughty days before I see it in print. And I was reminded of this again recently, when a writing acquaintance talked about how disheartened he was with the project that his agent was keen on. After six weeks away from writing, thanks to the school holidays, his every thought about the novel was depressed: it was too clichéd, too obscure, too unmarketable, too ordinary, too like the one the agent couldn't sell, too like everything else on the market...

You know how someone who doesn't like a book - however great the book is - can make it sound silly? 'All that fuss about how he was a bit rude to her at the dance,' they say. 'All those fancy words - and how could anyone mistake a boy twin for a girl twin?' or 'Well, she shouldn't have fallen for Vronsky, should she, let alone take 700 pages to do it,' or 'All those neurotics wandering around on the moors angsting, I can't be bothered with it.'* Well, unless you have your Inner Critic not only gagged but documentedly at the bottom of the Hudson with a crushed car tied to its neck, it's quite capable of saying that kind of thing about your own work, and most writers are all too capable of believing it. It's the externalness (is there a better word?) of this kind of thinking which is so lethal: the judgement which refuses to engage with what the novel's trying to do, which refuses to give it a chance to work.

As we all know, there are only seven basic plots, and whether or not your novel works is not much to do with what happens, and everything to do with how it's done: with whether readers are lured into letting it work on them. It's one of the reasons writers find it so agonisingly difficult to write synopses - bald facts of plot and nothing else - of their own work, and why no 100-word blurb will ever quite satisfy us as writers, even if as marketers of our work we think it's brilliant. And when the school holidays strike, when it's a long time since you actually read how you did it, as it were, you lose touch with the real, breathing world of the novel which you went to so much trouble to create. You don't have the flavour of the language on your tongue, you no longer feel the gradual, carefully-constructed winding-up of the tension, you forget the odd holes and corners of characterisation, the peculiar intriguing textures, the hilarious cameos, the pain which grips to the end. So boy meets girl and boy loses girl: so what? It's not Romeo and Juliet, so why did I bother?

"How thick should my sauce be?" I used to yell to my mother, who was upstairs marking A Level essays. "I don't know," she'd yell back (it was one of those tall, thin houses), "I can't tell you." This, in a family for whom articulateness is next to godliness, or possibly higher. Then she'd come downstairs to the kitchen and put on her apron, and take saucepan and spoon from me. And she'd stir, and feel the resistance, and see how the surface moved and the sauce curled and rolled round the spoon, and she'd say, "No, two minutes longer. And a drop more stock."

To stick with the cooking analogy, sometimes you've tasted too much and too often: you need to put things in the fridge and leave them. Other times, you need to put on your apron, roll up your sleeves, and stir.


*Actually, I have a bit of sympathy with this one, preferring Charlotte to Emily and Jane to either. I still have a grin on my face every time I think of Jasper Fforde's suggestion that one of the routine events in the world of The Well of Lost Plots is the weekly anger management therapy session for the cast of Wuthering Heights.