This is an edited extract from an interview with Dermot Healy done by Paul McMahon, which was first published in The Sligo Weekender.
There’s not a writer I know who has not nearly finished his or her book first before bringing it into a publisher. Then editing can begin.
There are of course preliminaries. You may be lucky enough to have found a publisher before you begin. The key is the editor, and your relationship with them. You may talk to the editor about the proposed work, and as you go on you’ll keep in contact, maybe you might give a verbal outline of the novel and their interest may lift your confidence, you may hand over a few pages, but the thing to do is have to strength to hold off showing the entire work until it’s near done.
Doing that instills a sense of purpose.
The plot will grow through the process.
And another thing, if you show it to someone before it’s finished, this person you are showing it to has a bizarre way of turning up in the book itself. Criticism, from others en route on a novel, can send you up the wrong road, and provide you with a negative charge. But, on the other hand, there is always someone whose judgment you trust—it could be the editor, or a friend, and they can provide ballast on the journey in fiction.
The thing to do is work each day, and get the first draft finished. What appears to be bad writing in that attempt may well become the bed rock of the finished story. That first draft is the key, and that should be done as quickly as possible. Graham Greene used to type six hundred words a day, then stop—sometimes mid-sentence—so that he had a left a start for the next day.
Non-fiction appears to be a different story; you can tell the publisher or the agent what the story is about beforehand because it has already happened. But then it too has to happen on the page—the same as fiction. It’s the process gets you going. Writing a novel, you will never know what or who you will meet in the days ahead. You have a sense of what’s coming, for the unconscious is always at work, but the next day’s work is the challenge.
And in a memoir what you took as banal may be the key to the memory, and what you might have thought was the dramatic moment in your life may step to the sides. For plays the pen and notebook hears the voices best first, before they come up on a screen
The best writing will never be known beforehand. Suddenly, as you are writing, something that at first didn’t seem to have much importance can take over the direction of the book. Odd moments… If you have it all planned out beforehand for the publisher’s eye, then there is the possibility that this creative process, these odd moments, may be overlooked.
There are writers who write out their plot first, and then begin, and follow its narrative, but this is a personal decision, not tied into preparing an overview of an unwritten book for a publisher, but mainly for yourself as a guideline.
So there is nothing hard and fast. I often find myself beforehand drawing an image to guide me through the story, with names and places being added in as I go.
There’s a whole new theory out there now that a writer should send the first three chapters of their uncompleted book, all shined up, to a publisher, or more likely, to an agent, along with a synopsis, a plan, of the complete book. But the whole book can get consumed by these first three chapters. They will gleam, but the unwritten may suffer. After you have written the synopsis and given it to the agent you will feel obliged to stick to it. You might kill the novel.
I have done that.
But if you have the first draft done, then you could send on the three chapters, because you know where you’re going. And an editor can be a great one to see into the core of a just-finished novel.
I have had that experience, too, as have others in the trade.
Pat McCabe one day left in another new manuscript to his publisher. The editor later told Pat at a party, you see the boy in your book, when you got into his head, into the mind of the boy, then the book got interesting. Pat went off and rewrote the book, coming from the mind of the boy, in a very short time. That was The Butcher Boy.
Having someone there at the end of the road, and to talk to someone on the way is great. But the process itself is the spur—whatever process it is that suits you. The writing process gives us back this push to write further. When I get to the end of a page I have moved it all on that bit. When I’m working on a novel I write for two to three hours in the morning when the head is fresh and then come back to it again in the evening. Then I sleep on it; sleep is a great editor. But you are talking to a very slow writer. I have missed all the deadlines. I handed in a synopsis for the novel I’m writing at present, plus a few opening chapters, all of which have disappeared as the book continued. In my case, showing the work too early makes the novel arrive very late. Eight years too late, with it still unfinished, and the work has to begin all over again.
You go off to do other things, to avoid the promise you made.
So stick to the routine, and push the text to the extreme.