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    On this, the official publication day of my first book, I was reminded of John Steinbeck’s quote, which I will have to paraphrase as I haven’t seen it in print for over thirty years. It runs something like this: “On the day I was praised for my work, I looked back over what I had done; that day, I made nothing new.”

    For some reason, that quote has stuck in my head for the whole of my writing career – if you dwell on the good writing already accomplished, you aren’t creating, you’re smugging.

    Well, that’s no good. So today, I was determined to do something creative, and, thanks to a revelatory conversation with my daughter Harriet, achieved an immensely therapeutic, giant step forward for the writing of my current Work in Progress (WIP).

    This book has been in the making, on and off – mostly off, to tell the truth - for eleven years now. The main problem, throughout all the writing, has been the structure. Chatting with Harriet this afternoon, we agreed that the problem with the structure was a single element of the content, which seemed to go off at a tangent to the rest of the book. In the face of this diagnosis, I hesitated; to remove this element would be to murder several warped, weird darlings who worked rather well together.

    How long is that section? Harriet asked. Hang on, I said, I’ll block it and check the word count. I was expecting it to be around 20K words, but it was actually almost 40K – almost half a book in its own right, and almost a third of the current WIP’s 140K length.

    There’s your problem, Harriet said. It’s another book. It shouldn’t be there!

    When I cut and pasted the text to a new document, my WIP shrank to 101K – but there was a newborn next to it, already half-grown. So I didn’t exactly murder my darlings, just put them on ice. Performing major surgery turned a book with two heads into two books with a head apiece.

    There is nothing so slippery as a WIP – it’s a large, unpredictable organism with many arms, legs and working parts, and can sprawl in all directions, or slither out of your grasp altogether  if you haven’t got a good grip on it. That grip is the structure. Today, I remembered a valuable lesson – pick up the red pen, or sharpen your delete button, and regularly subject your WIP to a good, hard-eyed hack. Writing a book is not a sentimental process of creation, it’s a ruthless act of ensuring the survival of the fittest - the best characters, the best storylines, the best language – while anything lame, boring, repetitive or not working, gets the chop. Sometimes, a writer has to create with one hand, and be a bit of a serial killer with the other.



    Back in January 1985, I gave my husband Mike a special birthday present – Hugh Falkus’ huge tome on Salmon Fishing. Before wrapping it, I wrote on the flyleaf, adding the affectionate joke, don’t drop this one in the river!  He managed not to drop it in the river, but instead managed the less picturesque feat of dropping it in the toilet – it having been positioned on a small shelf above at an unfortunate angle. We interleaved it with kitchen paper and dried out carefully over several weeks in warm, dry corners.

    For Christmas 2004, I gave him David Hockney’s magnificent book on art; he had borrowed it from the library and instantly wanted it to keep. The book arrived and I wrote on the flyleaf before I wrapped it, avoiding jokes about water-related accidents. No need – fate intervened in the form of a tornado on January 11th. The book was in the office, and the office was one of the rooms which was unceremoniously divested of its roof that wild and dramatic night. As we had also lost the back roof in its entirety and the roof over both kitchens, we had to move out into an empty holiday cottage at the bottom of the hill and I remember sitting at the kitchen table with the sopping volume, carefully interleaving the pages with kitchen paper and drying it carefully over several weeks in warm, dry corners.

    For Christmas 2014, I tracked down a fairly rare book by T.C. Kingsmill Moore, A Man May Fish. It appeared to be the only copy left in the British Isles, at the excellent Cochy-Bondhu Books in Wales, and I went to great lengths to ensure that when the package arrived, it would not be covered with their trademark bright yellow stickers which would have given the game away. Before I even got to writing on the flyleaf, the postie delivered it and left it in the microwave at the bottom of the hill – the trusty Hebridean solution to an airtight mailbox. A treacherous gust of wind blew the door open, it rained … and well, you can guess the result – yet another special book with the packaging soaked through.

    Luckily, when I took a closer look, the book had been wrapped in bubblewrap and it was only the cardboard casing that had got soggy. In the past week of hurricanes, hail, rain and snow I have been careful to ensure that it has not been left anywhere where it might be dunked or dripped on. Perhaps this is Mike’s last wet book!