The Myth of Creative Genius

I always say now that for every ten thousand words I write, I keep one thousand, at a conservative estimate. Writing is just cabinet-making with language. Particular kinds of joint, different finishes and veneers. 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. Of course it does. Fashion designers make a first draft in calico and then chuck it, and so do a lot of writers, including me. You don’t, and it doesn’t. 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. 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. 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. 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 shocked me too. It’s a difficult thing to show someone clearly, and therefore easy to shroud in mystery.  
The Bedlam Stacks   is published on 13 July 2017 by Bloomsbury Circus. 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. 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. 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. That’s just the job. The terminology of their rhetorical glossaries — asyndeton, epizeuxis, chiasmus — is an almost exhaustive list of anything you can possibly do with a sentence. Nor do many students. There’s no well. Learning the craft takes a long time, but we can all learn it, though we all certainly start out writing varying shades of rubbish. It can quickly become a problem, because it means you don’t know when to think you’re done. But nobody should be horrified by it. And it happens. If you think you’d be all right being a cabinet-maker, you could be a writer too. That this construction process isn’t obvious is a problem unique to writing. Some first-time writers experience something almost like shell-shock upon being exposed to the full force of a professional editor. Writing is carpentry. There’s a reason writing is surrounded by words like workshop and wordsmith and playwright: carpentry, bolt-it-together words. But it would be very hard to watch a writer write a novel. 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. 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. The Romans knew that. There’s no mystique to it. My editor took out a third of my last book and another third had to be rewritten in consequence. 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. There’s a mysticism that surrounds writing fiction. These are linguistic craft techniques. Until I was signed by a publishing house, I had no idea how much writing has to happen before you finish a book. The wood and the chisels are in front of you. Writers are surrounded by tools and techniques, shelves and shelves of them, and novels have shapes. That’s the same as lathing down beams and remaking joints because the old ones were clumsy. That couldn’t be further from the truth.