Writing in the dark

2 12 2012


When I first set out to write, I had no map. I put my mind into gear and lurched down the road, wobbling all over the place like the learner driver I was. Over months of practice I learned how to steer without mounting the kerb and stop at junctions and reverse round corners. Sometimes when approaching roundabouts I even remembered to give way to the right. When I felt pleased with my progress, I wound down the window and had a cigarette, usually while driving home down the dual-carriageway.

It took me four times to pass my test, though. Four novels: three published, one still in waiting for the right publisher and the right moment. Each one taught me something essential about going the distance.

Four novels equates to nearly half a million words. If as a teenager I had been told that I would spend most of my adult life sitting at a typewriter or in front of a screen searching for the right words, sometimes spending ten minutes or more on a single sentence, I would have taken a long walk, and not stopped until I had outpaced those demanding words. I was keen to get places fast, and using words properly would only slow me down.

Using words properly meant that I would have to think. I would have to organise some of the contents of my free-wheeling imagination. So much easier to let it cruise around in my head spinning nonsense.

I know. A lot of let’s-just -fling -words- around -for- the -hell-of -it writing is fun. It paints sparkles in the dark and doesn’t feel like ‘work.’ I used to doodle with words, but now I take notes. I suppose I’ve wasted too much time staring out of the window, and now I want to get on with it.

So, I try to have some idea of where I’m going before I set out. I have a plan, usually consisting of weeks of notes. These aren’t neat, underlined, colour-coded or useful to anyone else. You wouldn’t be able to look at my notes and see a blueprint of a novel or a piece of non-fiction in the making. You would think that they were scrappy and speculative. You would be puzzled as to how this writer ever gets to say what she is trying is say.

You wouldn’t be alone.

But these preliminaries are where it begins. I have grown to love making these notes. The first link, the first series of connections, the first surprise, and it all begins to snap into place. The notes give me the impetus to really begin.

Working with a map is about creating a frame. There is no picture inside, nothing except potential ideas. As it gets filled up, the frame may alter its dimensions. It may even change its style completely. Some years into a book a comment from an agent made me radically shift the frame from clean, modern and pared down to baroque gilt. All it took was for him to say: ‘I see this as grand opera.’ In that moment I saw how limiting was the frame I’d put around the book.

It took me another three years to pull off the grand opera, but that’s another story, possibly for my next post.  I’m interested in exploring how long books take to write because they always seem to take so much longer than I think.

Pretty much like all my journeys.

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