Written by Eleanor Anstruther
People ask me, what happened to the ring? The image that begins and ends Enid’s story in A Perfect Explanation, the engagement ring on her finger, was a motif stumbled upon because it was all I could see; a woman sitting at a window, her hand playing over diamond and sapphires as she stared at the garden beyond her room. It was a lucky accident, it gave a repeated image which landed the story safely at the end of the novel, and was symbolic of the themes – wealth, marriage and entrapment, hereditary power and an inheritance that glistened and bound.
Finding What’s Important In Your Story
Storytellers have an innate sense of what’s important, it’s an impulse that moves us. I have images, I hear voices, I see scenes which I write down. The craft is the act of turning these hallucinations into something readable. Writers are stymied by the constraints, and also propelled by them to learn how to take a tale that could go on forever and started who knows when, and tie it in bow that imitates life, but unlike life, has a beginning, a middle and an end. As Simone de Beauvoir said, we seek to create an exact reproduction of something that doesn’t exist. It’s a conundrum, and it’s for this reason that the craft of writing exists, and is so vital to learn. Without the scaffold of technique, the story collapses.
The first thing is, turn up. It sounds simple enough, but not turning up is the reason most books don’t get written. Turn up with regularity and consistency, set a low bar, something you can stick to, and stick to it until you have a complete, messy, haggard first draft in your hands. It doesn’t matter how bad it is; all first drafts are bad. That applies to Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and you. It’s the nature of them. They are raw ideas pulled from the heavens, clumped together into some sort of outline from which you can get to work.
The Importance Of Editing
From here on in, you’re writing and editing, turning the unformed clay into a thing of beauty, a narrative that makes sense, that hits the marks you felt when you first sat down to write, but which has a shape and a colour that everyone can see. Get feedback. Take advice. Be prepared to throw it again and again until it’s right. Your duty is to the story and let nothing stand in your way, not even that scene you love so much you can’t bear to delete it, even though you know in your heart it doesn’t fit anymore. Murder your darlings as my mentor would say. It isn’t about you anymore, it’s about this thing of wonder that has trusted you to tell it.
Be prepared to sit with it for hours, months, years. Read your sentences out loud so you can hear the rhythm and the snags. Expect despondency and breakthroughs. Ask for help.
What Is Your Story About?
What cannot be taught is the drive to see it to its end, the stubbornness that refuses to give up no matter what. The idea for A Perfect Explanation was born in 2005, it was published in 2019; a marathon fourteen years to get from kitchen table to table at Waterstones, encompassing multiple rewrites, countless drafts, tears, tantrums and no end of false starts, dead ends and wild goose chases. I was determined. I refused to let it die. I worried the story like a padlock in my hands, and at each failure to unlock it, I asked again, what is it about? The key lay in being able to answer that question in one sentence.
It’s about a woman who sells her son to her sister for £500. Of course that’s not all that it’s about, it’s about many things, but when it comes to understanding how to structure a story, a simple answer is what you need. It’s the sun about which your world orbits, the beating heart of the matter. It’s also useful for the millions of times you’ll be asked by people who want it summed up in one shot, from agents to friends to strangers you meet on the train. I’m writing a novel. Oh, yeah? What’s it about? That one-sentence answer will serve you.
Trust Your Writing Process To Professionals
I also turned up to events, workshops, seminars and festivals, anything to get my foot in the door; I got out there, talked to people and made connections and friends. Debuts are by definition written alone, while for subsequent novels, an agent, publicist and editor are with you. I cannot stress enough, the difference it makes working with professionals whose sole interest is in getting the work published. Friends and relatives are all very well, but they often do not know or cannot tell the truth of your book, while this glorious, fraught industry is full of people who can and do.
I look back and wonder how in hell I managed for so many years being all those things to my book, instead of just its author. So push hard, because the prize is a team and precious time to do the thing that you love best. That’s not to say the writing life becomes any easier once you’ve a debut under your belt, but at least you can wear one hat. At least you can concentrate and have people to talk to who truly understand what you’re going through.
No Artist Is Pleased
Lastly, look up the Martha Graham quote No artist is pleased…. and stick it above your desk. I am obsessed with its accuracy. I send it anyone who thinks they’re alone in their doubt, who needs reminding that uncertainty is not a symptom of failure but an integral part of success.
As for the ring on Enid’s finger, well, there’s a story there, one that I share with book groups and readers who message me. A Perfect Explanation had to end somewhere, but of course the real life story carried on…
More From Eleanor Anstruther:
A Perfect Explanation (Salt Books)