Starting from Scratch (again)

I was brushing my teeth this morning, a mundane activity that doesn’t usually involve much thought, when I had the sudden realisation the book I spent half a year writing and had already redrafted twice was – in fact – the wrong book, and I needed to rewrite it entirely.

Despite what you might expect, this didn’t fill me with dread (not entirely). Instead I was excited because along with the understanding that the book I had written was not the story I wanted to tell, came the simultaneous insight that I knew what the story was meant to be.

Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park once said that ‘Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten’ and I now understand that until I wrote my 2020 book Letting Go, I would never understand why my 2019 book Behind Closed Doors wasn’t working. More on that later.

Behind Closed Doors was inspired by the true story of an American couple who stayed together after the wife discovered her husband’s secret. In real life, the secret was known very early on in the marriage, in my fictionalised version, it was discovered after many years. I also took the liberty of jumping continents and moving the story 50 years into past, because why else become a writer if not to manipulate the world into how you want it to be?

I wrote the book in a mad dash to the finish line, without ever asking myself what I was trying to write. This is one disadvantage of being a pantser, and just blundering ahead through the dense forest of story, without so much as a literary map or even a torch so you can see what’s ahead of you.

I have since learned my lesson.

After doing the Cut, Shape, Polish self-editing course through the AWC I kept butting against the queries: ‘what is the story question?’ and ‘what is your theme?’. Turns out I had confused both of these with my title. Rookie mistake.

And while I want to explore the notion ‘that you never really know what goes on behind closed doors…’ it wasn’t quite the question I wanted to answer. As a result, the book has always sat uncomfortably with me, a bit like the awkward cousin that sits silently at Christmas lunch then makes inappropriate jokes.

But the book I wrote this year seemed to avoid those problems. Letting Go flowed from the first moment I picked up the pen. For a start, I knew my themes, I knew what I wanted to put on the page, and I had six characters I loved and stories I wanted to tell. They grew together like a vine; and while they all have their own voices, they wrap around each other, a balance of support and inter-dependence.

Behind Closed Doors on the other hand, focussed entirely on one couple over thirty years of marriage, while only touching on the people around them. When I realised that my question was actually: ‘are there different ways of being married and loving each other?’ I understood that the book I really needed to write was not just about one couple, but all five couples.

I need to completely rewrite my book from the ground up.

Bernard Malamud, author of The Fixer said: ‘I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times – once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.’

I’m hoping that the first version of Behind Closed Doors (which clocked in at 99,900 words) and the second version (a slimmed down 82,000 words) covers at least some of that process, but I am also realistic enough to know that I will probably only use 30-40% for this new book.

But I love the idea of compelling a book to say what it must say, and this time, I will be planning and plotting to make sure the words on the page match the vision in my mind.

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