From time to time, when I can be bothered to clear the table and bring out the boxes of beads, I make jewellery. Over the past couple of years I’ve become reasonably good at it. And I’ve come to notice that I don’t just see jewellery any more.
What I mean is something like this. I’m going to cheat slightly and use a pair of earrings that I made myself, because it feels a bit off to take someone else’s work and say ‘I could do that’ – though my point is that I could do that… Anyway, I happen to have a photo of these earrings. Just imagine that I’m looking at them on a market stall or something.
I look at these, and I think, ‘ooh, earrings’, and I see something like ‘red + amber; long’, but I also see the component parts and how they were put together. I see that five beads have been threaded on a length of wire (not a headpin, though the photo almost gives that impression) and that a loop has been made with round-nosed pliers to attach the commercially made earwires. I see what works (it’s a fabulous colour scheme) and what doesn’t (the long beads don’t quite match). And this isn’t a conscious action; it all happens in about a second as I look at the earrings. Every pair of earrings I look at now, I see how it’s done, and I can’t stop seeing how it’s done.
That doesn’t mean that I can’t admire the craftsmanship, or the choice of beads, or the way the wearer has put them together with that rather fabulous shawl. Indeed, it makes me more likely to appreciate a really good piece of work, when I see how something’s done and know that I would find it very difficult to do something as good.
Something similar has happened to the way I read. I still read, and I still love reading, but there’s a part of my brain that won’t shut up any more. These days I always see how it’s done. I’m always aware that someone, somewhere, has put these words on the page in this particular way, has given a character this attribute rather than this one, has made choices (consciously or unconsciously) that I might not have done. I’m aware of the piece itself, but also of the work that has gone into making it be this way, not that.
The hours I’ve spent reading my own work, moving scenes, paragraphs, phrases or words from one place to another, deleting duplications, have got me into the habit of doing the same with other people’s. I talk to other authors as equals – in my head, at least.
Why didn’t you, I ask, put all that ‘what happened to the minor characters’ stuff in an epilogue, or cut it altogether, and keep the reader interested until your big twist? Or, But did anyone actually talk about ‘choral evensong’ in the forties? Shouldn’t it just be ‘evensong’? Or, I don’t believe for one moment that this character would have said this thing in this way. I don’t believe she’d even have thought this thing in this way. But also – lest this seem one long display of nitpicking – That’s good, or, You magnificent bastard, I can’t believe you pulled that off, or, sometimes, simply, Wow.
Of course, writing a book was not the only cause of this (apart from anything else, I would hope the English Literature degree had something to do with it), but it’s a big one. A very big one. I don’t altogether regret this change in process, which is just as well. I can’t give it back now.