editing · Favourite writers · work-in-progress · writing life

The Trouble With One Direction

No, not the boy band. I’m talking about stationery. I used to be obsessed with the mechanics of writing – ball point or fountain pen; manual typewriter or laptop. Didn’t Iris Murdoch deliver her handwritten manuscripts in plastic carrier bags for her publisher to type up?

In search of sensible advice, a lot of people turn to Hilary Mantel. So I shall too.


Heed Hilary’s warning: ‘The hard-spined notebook is death to free thought. Pocket-size or desk-size, it drives the narrative in one direction, one only, and its relentless linearity oppresses you, so you seal off your narrative options early.’

Go loose-leaf, Hilary suggests. Keep your options open.

I’d been working on my novel, Ready to Love, for 18 months – at which point I thought the home run was in sight. Then I realised I had to see the story through the lenses of both main characters – Minna and Jeff – rather than just Minna. It made sense to give them half the book each. A radical shake-up of all my narrative options – and material – was required.

I knew that it might be a huge book, but that was OK because I was into huge books, having read We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I loved the idea of the large canvas.

Then again, I really like short books, and they were in vogue at around the same time. Academy Street by Mary Costello. The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I’d just discovered Penelope Fitzgerald, and was already a massive fan of Muriel Spark.

So maybe I’d do Minna’s story, and then a sequel. A pair of novels, like Happenstance by Carol Shields, which I’d recently reread and admired all over again.

(This isn’t a blog post. It’s a reading list. Sorry.)

It took another 18 months to rework the book – to consider all the options, and try them (and reject many of them). For much of that time, the ultimate shape of the book eluded me. I revised, ditched, rewrote from different perspectives, different time frames. A lot of that work didn’t feel particularly creative, but it was necessary trial and error. Eventually, I got there. I hope the solution I chose succeeds.

These days, the tyranny of stationery doesn’t bother me at all. I wonder if it’s a mixed blessing, however, to be influenced by other writers? Was I distracted by too many books that offered such diverse rewards that I wanted to try to emulate them? Maybe, but is that really such a bad thing?


Hilary Mantel had a regular column in The Guardian Review supplement as part of their ‘How I Write’ series. Someone – 4th Estate, Guardian Books – should compile her hilarious and insightful comments into a book for writers and readers everywhere.

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