How does a novel happen?
In theory, it is a pretty simple process. First find something to say. Then – to paraphrase Coleridge – put the best words in the best order. And boom. Hello, Booker.
But for a first time novelist sat in front of their laptop, this simple process quickly takes on a paralysing complexity. How to plot; even whether to plot. Where to find ‘your voice’ and how to recognise it when it appears. Whether to revise as you go or plough unjudgementally through the first draft. When to share; who to consult; what instincts to trust. When your oeuvre to date consists solely of articles, poems and short stories, writing a full-length novel can feel like attempting to run the Marathon des Sables in a pair of flip-flops.
It doesn’t help that the writing process is couched in myths, superstitions and euphemisms. Still in thrall to the classical concept of a creative ‘daemon’ or ‘genius’, not to mention that fickle bitch Muse, we are encouraged to believe that truly great prose is bestowed from without; cue generations of hacks watching Jeremy Kyle in their pyjamas while waiting for the elusive ‘inspiration’ to strike.
A linked narrative is that of the writer as tortured genius, in which transcendent talent can only be found through a legacy of childhood abuse, extreme pallor and a copious supply of Jim Beam. Sitting through Bruce Robinson’s recent film adaptation of The Rum Diary, watching Johnny Depp stagger from typewriter to moonshine and back again, I found myself wishing that it were in fact that easy. Kubla Khan has a lot to answer for.