The Man Booker at 50

So to the South Bank yesterday where the three-day Man Booker at 50 Festival was in full swing. Sixty speakers, including most Man Booker winners, were taking part in a series of literary debates, discussions and masterclasses to celebrate fifty years of the finest fiction. The full line-up was remarkable and I would have loved to see some of the great names, but I went along to a small workshop on editing the novel.

Hosted by Guardian journalist Alex Clark, the panel consisted of Booker alumnus Eleanor Catton, ( she won with The Luminaries and is the youngest winner, at 28, to date ), editor Sally Orson Jones and agent Sam Copeland of literary agency Rogers, Coleridge and White (RCW). The focus was on the text of the novel and the writing process, though the questions ranged more widely.

Catton was particularly interesting on her first novel The Rehearsal, which she wrote as her thesis on a creative writing degree course in her native New Zealand and which was read by her course group at different stages in its development. She stressed the importance of having fellow writers look at and discuss your work, though she also warned against substituting them for ‘the reader’. As Zadie Smith says, the novelist must remember to ‘take down the scaffolding’ and this is part of the editing process which peers can help with, but they aren’t the untutored reader who simply picks up your books and reads it.

She was also insightful when it came to casting a critical eye over her draft. She imagines one of her writing heroes reading the manuscript.  Think what Tolstoy might make of your words, she said.  The other trick she used was to imagine someone who hates her reading the novel – they would be searching for faults, inconsistencies and stylistic infelicities – then rectify these.  I confess that I have undertaken a similar process to this, imagining the most derisory of critiques of my work, then doing something about those elements which are identified as weak. It helps (fear is a great motivator).

One issue was how much the writer should take all the ‘good advice’ from peers, editors or agents. Catton rejected her agent’s first suggestion, giving an impassioned defence of her novel’s ending, which her agent had said needed change and her agent accepted this. Orson Jones said that her advice was usually taken, though there were instances when it hadn’t been (to the detriment of the final novel, she thought).  She was very interesting on working closely with Sarah Waters on Tipping the Velvet. Copeland said that his clients often said his advice often chimed with their own feeling, This I can attest to, that an editor often identifies errors or weaknesses which the author already knows, in their heart of hearts, are ‘wrong’ in some way, but they need to be told.

There was discussion of the length of novels and the sometimes strict criteria which publishers attach (see To Cut a Short Story Long ) to genre or children’s fiction. Also, the need to check your character’s names, especially in a novel with a wide cast (this was something I was already alive to).  The agent/editor as therapist was an oft-used metaphor.

Did I learn much?  Not really.  Did I enjoy listening?  Yes, very much, especially to Catton and Orson when they were describing the nuts and bolts of the writing and editing process.  The Royal Festival Hall is, as always, a wonderful Thames-side venue and it was full of happy folk going to the various events on a sunny July weekend to celebrate fiction.  How could one not like it? Thanks to my friend Katie from Claret Press for the ticket and congratulations to Michael Ondaatje for winning the Golden Booker last night.

For more on the writing process see                Warp and Weft                   Editing

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