5th July 2017
The Orkney based writer Duncan Maclean once told me that the best job he'd ever had was as a caretaker. Not much to do and no creative thought required, so plenty of time to think about writing, and indeed to write. My best job was as a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in a small town. If nobody was born, got married or died, and my minimal paperwork was up to date, I had nothing to do. I wrote a whole novel in the fifteen months I was in that job.
Now I'm an editor, a job many people might imagine is ideal for a writer. Lots of practice in editing – my own work must be perfect!
I've certainly learned a huge amount about writing through editing. I'm much harder on myself as I redraft, refine and polish. Editing is crucial: the best novels are as tight as a good short story – not a word wasted or superfluous.
As a creative writing tutor, as fiction editor for a literary magazine, and eventually as Editorial Director of Sandstone Press, I've been assessing, supporting and editing other writers' work for more than twenty years. It's only since Sandstone became established and recognised as a literary publisher that I've been doing this almost full time, without another 'day job' too. The focus of my working life is other people's writing.
On a daily basis I assess authors' ideas and the quality of their writing. This makes you think hard about what constitutes 'good writing' or a 'good novel'. Once we've accepted a text, my aim is to help the author make it as excellent as it possibly can be. Close discussion and exchange of edited versions of the novel are particularly helpful for debut authors, but it's also a process to which I submit my own work when it goes out to my trusted readers and then my editor. I bear this in mind when I speak to any author about changing their work – it's not easy to have someone else tell you what's wrong! Editing means keeping an open mind: you can't impose your own ideas, though I'd not be doing my job if I let something go that was weakening a book.
I'm not sorry I have a job in addition to being a writer. Writers who do nothing else are at risk of losing touch with the kind of life everyone else lives, so that they end up writing about writers – a subject of limited interest. However, I can't pretend it's easy to keep going when I'm dealing daily with other people's work, when there are meetings and emails, book fairs and launches, the rights list to bring up to date and blurbs to write; when there are designers, agents, and many others to communicate with, with whom it's essential to build good relationships.
If your head is full of someone else's novel, you can't write your own. It's not finding time to write that's difficult, it's having a dreaming space in your mind for the slow, organic growth of characters and narrative. Despite these constraints, I'm just about to publish another, A Message from the Other Side, whose characters talked to each other in my head for nearly two years. Now I'm in that uneasy space between novels, while getting anxious about how this one will be received, I feel a bit lost. However committed I am as an editor, having no work of my own on the go means something is missing that is still, after all these years, important and necessary.