So, the week’s writing adventure at the Arvon centre in The Hurst, John Osborne’s house in Shropshire, is done.
Monday to Saturday, five days of thinking and writing and talking and sharing, and cooking and washing up. And very enjoyable it was too. Two well-prepared and interesting tutors – Chibundu Onuzo and Lucy Hughes-Hallett – and a great group of writers. Ages in the group ranged from early twenties to myself; three blokes, the rest women. I was impressed by the quality of what we produced in fast writing exercises, and the diversity of experience we brought. Really enjoyable, and only slightly marred by the responsibility of producing an evening meal for fifteen people on one of the nights. I was relieved when my turn was behind me. The food was delicious, and too much of it!
I wish I had copies of some of the short pieces we produced. Re-workings of the Cinderella story generated some great laughs, I remember, At one point, Lucy asked to write about a person from our childhoods, which turned out to be very emotional. And how many words could we find as an alternative to ‘nice’? What might the choice of word indicate about the character who would choose it? All sorts of activities reminded me of the basics of writing a great story.
For me, the purpose of the experience was to clear my head about whether, when and what I want to write in the future. And the main thing I came away with is that I should relax, slow down and not commit to anything until I’m ready. I’m leaving my options open, and not succumbing to pressure from myself or anyone else to a deadline for another book, if there’s going to be one.
So, there we are. For the time being my future plans are inside my head and not to be shared. Does that sound curmudgeonly? Perhaps, but never mind. At my time of life, I can do as I please. Watch this space.
For what seems like the first time in decades, I have nothing much to do, think about or worry about, or plan for, or worry about not planning for – you know how it goes. No matter how many things you’re juggling, there’s still the worry that you’ve missed something vital that will scupper everything and it will all be your fault. Not familiar with that feeling? You are truly blessed.
Maybe it’s something to do with the weather, which has been unusually consistent, and not consistently grey and wet as it often is here. Day after day of dry, sometimes windy, sometimes a little cloud, but no rain. Not for weeks. The current daily routine consists of exercise, watching sport on the tv – cricket, World Cup football and now Wimbledon – occasionally seeing friends and relatives, and watering the garden evening after warm evening.
I do have the odd commitment, and ‘engagements’ will arrive quite regularly over the next few weeks as I do the usual round of libraries, bookshops and groups talking about the new book, and hopefully selling some. That means getting in the dusty car and driving, meeting people, talking to them, answering questions, signing and selling – all of which I enjoy. Once the routine is established I’m prepared, and it doesn’t take much effort.
Inevitably, people ask about my writing, what am I planning, when the next book will come out, and my answer is now always the same – ‘I’ll think about that after the summer.’ And I will. Maybe when the weather finally breaks, which will probably be just when the kids finish school, I’ll get twitchy and start thinking about the next big project. That could be writing, or it could be something else.
I have a perpetual urge to be doing, creating something, but there are other ways to scratch that itch. I’ll just wait a while and see what turns up.
Yesterday morning a strange feeling came over me, a sense of loss and uncertainty, a long way from the delight and celebration I’d anticipated at ‘The End’, the final words of the new novel. In the final week, for six days straight from first thing in the morning until it was dark I’d tapped away furiously, stopping only to gaze at the wall while I found a way through a barrier. The concentration was intense: it spilled over into those times when I wasn’t sitting at the laptop, and unfortunately haunted the night too. I would sleep for a couple of hours and then wake with dialogue or a plot twist in my head.The only way to break its hold on my mind was to play Solitaire on the ipad, which meant more screens, more eye strain and was probably not conducive to getting back to sleep. When I’m writing, the usual habit of reading before sleep doesn’t seem to work.
When ”The End’ finally came it took me by surprise, and more surprising was that I felt so flat. Maybe it had happened before, but if it did I’d forgotten. Living alone, there was no one to turn to in triumph. Friends are very patient, but listening to someone banging on about the details of a fictional conversation or the way out of a plot puzzle is enough to make your eyes roll back.
I was ahead of schedule, but worried that I’d been too driven by the deadline and should have taken more time. I’d resolved a big plotting problem, but it still felt too cerebral, too subtle, not enough action. I’m working with a new editor and chose her for her experience and ‘hard-nosed’ straight-forwardness, but I don’t know how she’ll react to the first draft of mine she’s ever seen. Worry, worry, worry.
And of course, the ever-present question: why do I put myself through this? I’ve retired from ‘work’ and should be pleasing myself, sauntering through the days, going on little jaunts, planning big jaunts, seeing people, having fun. And instead of that I’m spending most of time on research, planning, writing, re-writing, and worrying.
I tell myself that the rewards are worth the painful gestation and birth. It’s undoubtedly true that you have to keep writing if you want to maintain people’s interest in your work and the sales that go with it. Every new books boosts sales of the previous ones. If you want press interest or access to speaking at book events and festivals you have to have a new book to showcase.
If all goes well, the new book should be out in June, and then what? I have a choice: pack it in and have an easy life, or keep going and endure the lows as well as the highs, all over again.
At one of the first residential writing courses I went on, many years ago, the special guest one evening was a published author – one novel – who was invited to talk to us about his writing process. He seemed quite grumpy and I wondered if he’d been having a bad day. From what he told us, however, it sounded as if every day was a bad day. ‘Writing is hell’ was the main headline of his remarks. ‘I don’t why I do it. Once the first book was out they were badgering me for another one, and it’s like pulling teeth.’ This is not verbatim, but that was the gist. I wasn’t the only one who wished he had stayed at home.
This miserable bloke’s writing process was as follows. Every day he would write a sentence or two, struggling over every word until he was satisfied with it. Then he would stop, presumably exhausted. The next day he would read over what ever he’d written so far, agonise over it again, and write another sentence. And so on until he’d finished. Really? To this day I suspect he was making that up. But maybe that’s truly the way some people write: intensive and painfully slow, as if they were writing a poem.
On the sixth novel now, if I have a preferred writing process it has probably by now established itself. Needless to say, my process differs somewhat from that described above. The bloke appeared to have lost the will to live, unless that too was a wind up, and I would have felt the same if that was my daily routine.
I’ve talked before about the planning process, but let’s assume that I have a rough idea about each chapter, the key points and scenes, and what it contributes to the whole story. (By the way, if the chapter doesn’t contribute anything, then what’s the point of it?) With a few pointers to the shape and focus of the chapter I’ll start to write, quite fast. Sometimes I correct typos etc as I go along, sometimes I leave them and correct them all on the second reading. If the ideas are clear I can rattle along for quite a while, several hundred words. Something will halt the flow and I’ll stop and go back. This is the first edit, checking for continuity and consistency, improving poor phrasing, finding better words, correcting obvious errors.
At this point I often go back to the plan for the current chapter, or possibly previous ones, noting that something will need changing. Or I look at future chapters which are now taking a slightly different direction. If there are past pieces to change, I tend to do them straight away, before I lose the detailed focus. That done, on we go, more fast writing and then stop, go back, adjust, edit. A four thousand word chapter might be written in sections like this, one after the other, and pretty fast. When it’s going well I can write a chapter in a day.
There’s a very strong tendency to feel dissatisfied with the whole thing as you get beyond Act 1, when the setting is established and the story should be driving forward. I always ask myself at this point, is this story worth telling? If I wallow in this indecision for too long, or try to get feedback too early, the enterprise could quickly grind to a halt. It’s all about confidence: without confidence there’s no energy, and without energy there’s no progress. So I tell myself to stop worrying too much at this early stage and just keep going. The time for serious reflection, feedback and discussion with ones-self and others is when this first fast draft is finished. In terms of painting a picture it’s ‘once over lightly’ and then stand back and look hard at the emerging work.
The fine detail can be added, in what is now the third, or even fourth edit. If greater depth is needed for a character this can be provided with just a few more or different words or actions. A potentially confusing piece of plot can be fixed with a sentence or two. Once the whole work is ‘visible’ all sorts of extra touches, colour, fine tuning – call it what you will – can be added. Details of weather, prevailing atmosphere, smells, details, all of these can be added, so long as they don’t affect the storyline too much. When all that is done, the work is clearly an improvement on what you started with, and probably pretty close to the final version, although more polishing will continue until the set deadline is upon you. Without a deadline, you could polish for ever and drive yourself nuts, or at least I could. Part of the art of editing is knowing when to stop.
The contrast with the painstaking misery of our guest writer could hardly be greater. I wonder if he ever finished that novel?
Things can certainly change pretty fast, especially when you fall down the stairs.
At around 1.45am on August 15th I was bouncing backwards down the steep staircase in my house. By the time I’d stopped moving and was lying in a heap at the bottom I’d torn my right shoulder ligaments and ruptured my left Achilles tendon, plus bruising and friction burns. The past week has been a blur of tests and visits to hospital and now I have a large boot, very like a long ski boot, wrapped tightly round my left calf, ankle and foot, where it will stay for several weeks.
I cannot imagine how someone without health insurance in a less enlightened society would access the expertise and care that has been so quickly been available to me at no cost, through the NHS.
The shoulder is improving, but using the keyboard can be painful and the physio recommends only 30 minutes maximum without a rest. And mobility will be an issue for 6-8 weeks while the big boot remains in place.
Being partially immobilised is – at its most objective – an interesting experience. Every movement has to be considered and planned cognitively, to find the most efficient and painless way of getting from A to B while protecting the damaged bits of your body. The processing as much as the physical constraints slow you down. Nothing can be taken for granted and done fast or automatically.
Clothes are an issue: getting trousers over the big boot is almost impossible, I hardly ever wear skirts or dresses, and the top half garments have to be donned without too much pressure on the shoulder. Even underwear takes time and care. And the key criterion is that all these necessary daily functions must be done without help. I have lived alone for most of the past 35 years and value being able to do so.
I know that many people have far harder challenges this to deal with all the time. My accident has brought temporary inconvenience and I understand how fortunate I am by comparison. Much of the necessary adjustment is in my head, to stay practical and positive and not sit around feeling helpless and old. And I’ll have to learn to ask for help when I need it, at least for the next few weeks, and not to demand too much of myself. I have no doubt I will make a full recovery. Being retired I have no work considerations or responsibilities to worry about.
Things happen. Unexpected events make you think, and jolt you out of assumptions and habits. In that sense dealing with the unexpected is probably a useful part of our human existence, as long as it’s not unbearably painful.