Helen Macdonald won the Costa Book of the Year this week, for H is For Hawk, a book I’ve not read yet but sounds brilliant. Out of the six books shortlisted, however, the one I’m most looking forward to reading is the one by Emma Healey, who won the First Novel of the Year prize for Elizabeth is Missing. It already sounded like it had a great premise, and reviews suggested, unlike a lot of other debuts, it actually delivered on it too. I was even willing to put the fact she is only 29 aside and maintain an open mind (the utter, utter cow*). Then even more promising was this interview. It’s with Nick Higham (for some reason) on the BBC website (which means I can't embed it), and in it she explained why it took her five years to write.
Five years! As someone four years into the same book, this is music to my ears.
She also says she doesn’t write chronologically, which as anyone who’s read any of my blog will know, is something I’ve struggled with. But most importantly she is clear on one thing: that her book didn’t just need five years (it was her first after all, and there’s so much to learn when you set out to write), it needed those five years with her alone.
This is one of the toughest aspects of writing for me; that you plough along the same furrow for years, without other people seeing much of it. So much goes on in your head, and I hope it’s maturing, I hope, despite the changes in direction and reversals and wrong turns and rewrites, the net effect is one of progress, however incremental (though, midway in a field of corn, you can never be sure).
In the video above she explains how she deliberately didn’t send it to agents until she thought it was ready.
“That time, when it’s just your baby, and you can ruin it if you like, and put it back together - that was really really important."
Albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, she recommends not jumping the gun and sending it to an agent until you’ve rewritten it at least 12 times. The temptation to send it out and get approval is overwhelming at times, but that’s the challenge: staying within your head and having the determination that it’s getting better.
I used to think that you were either a writer or an editor, but talking to other writers recently has made me think again. Everyone has a natural inclination to one or the other, it’s true. But what makes one writer better than another isn’t constant feedback, or regular publication and review, but the wherewithal to develop the other side - whether it’s becoming more free with your ideas, or being more critical - on your own. Teaching yourself to be ambidextrous, if you will.
And that takes time. Five years time, sometimes. Thank you Emma for saying it.
* I’ve never met Emma and I’m sure she’s lovely but I’m sure you’ll agree this is unacceptable.