I’ve been talking to Jane Davis – fellow author, and the winner of the 2016 Self-Published Book of the Year Award – about my writing process, why I hate having to come up with titles for things, and why I love walking. It’s all over here.
For some people, writing a novel is like knitting. You begin at the beginning, and you go on until you get to the end, and then you stop.
Personally, I’m very glad that I was born into the age of the word processor, because I absolutely cannot do that. Oh, I’ve tried. But if a scene, a moment, a phrase, from chapter thirty-two is dancing around in my head, then I can’t settle down to write chapter one.
For me, it’s more like patchwork. Or one particular project, anyway, which was more of a freehand effort than most of my quilts. Let me demonstrate:
You have a general idea of what you want to create, and you start with an idea that takes your fancy. In this case, it was the four seasons, and I thought I’d begin with a jolly yellow sun for summer.
You might want to incorporate something that wouldn’t quite fit into a previous project. (I made more of those blue flowers than I needed. Never mind! The spares will do for spring!)
(This is a bit meta. Any patches in here which are in English, as opposed to gobbledegook, are from the now-deleted first chapter of Speak Its Name.)
You get all your ideas down and then move them around a bit, seeing how they fit best, what needs to come after what.
As you go along joining things together, you see where things can be tightened up.
You see where the gaps are, and you start filling them…
… until you get something that’s more like the right shape.
At that point, you can start tidying it up, taking out the things that were only there to hold it in shape during construction.
Now comes the backing and the pinning and the quilting, the crawling around on the floor and swearing a lot. You feel like you’re nearly there, but there’s still a frustrating amount left to do. (This is where the analogy falls down a bit. This is, oh, I don’t know, the proofreading. And waiting for people to get back to you to tell you where you’ve got things wrong.)
But once you’ve done that then there’s just the finishing off. And then you can feel rather pleased with yourself. Because the thing’s done, and while it doesn’t perhaps look exactly the way you once envisioned it, it’s not nearly as bad as you once thought it was going to be.
Thursday was Candlemas, which means several things:
I’m pleased with what it’s done during that year. It’s sold. It’s sold to people I don’t know. It’s had excellent reviews, from people I don’t know and from people whose judgement I trust.
I, meanwhile, have become much more confident. These days I admit to writing! These days I think nothing of contacting random bloggers and offering review copies or guest posts.
And I’ve got the first draft of the next book down. That’s not bad going for a year’s work.
In the interests of honesty I have to admit that I’m just coming out of a gigantic wibble about the next book.
It was a twofold wibble:
Maybe I’ll get over my gigantic wibbles with experience, or maybe the occasional gigantic wibble is just part and parcel of writing.
Or maybe it was just the end of the flu.
For me, the new year came in with a whimper, not with a bang. I was in bed long before the bangs started, knocked flat by this virus that everyone’s been getting. And it’s taken me a while to get up and running. There’s a lot to catch up with, or, at least, there could be, if I were thinking in terms of needing to catch up with things.
The crib should have gone away. It didn’t. It’s going to have to stay up until Candlemas now, and for once the Magi get to stay by the manger for more than a day. (The parrots were a present from a friend, who’d seen this crib and got ideas about how to improve mine.)
The printer is out of toner. Which means that I haven’t printed off the current draft of A Spoke in the Wheel. Which means that I haven’t read the current draft of A Spoke in the Wheel. And I’m aware that there’s more to it than the simple fact that the printer’s out of toner.
The snag is the usual one. I am scared of reading it because I am worried that I will come across a problem that is unfixable. Perhaps I have failed to do some essential bit of research and have made a mistake that’s going to kill the whole plot. Perhaps I have managed to be unintentionally yet monumentally offensive. It’s always a variation on one of those two. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.
There are two potential ways to deal with this. The first is to wait it out. I’ve lived with myself long enough to know that I do get things finished, eventually, and that if the book and I want to spend two months hiding for each other then perhaps that’s just what we need to do, and we’ll find each other in good time. The second is to get somebody else to read it for me. Sooner or later I would anyway, but this is a much earlier stage in the process, and I find myself reluctant to pass it out before it’s as good as I can get it unaided.
At the moment, while I’m still getting over this illness and blessed with a contented lack of urgency, I’m going with the first option. I spent far too much of last year worrying that I hadn’t done enough, that I wasn’t writing fast enough, and, now that feeling’s a long way off, I’m going to enjoy its absence. The book can wait.
Here’s a meme that’s been annoying me:
I have never written any blue curtains, so I can’t comment on those. In fact, I think I’ve only written two pairs of curtains, and specified the colour of one of those pairs. They were yellow.
This is what my English teacher told me:
Every word on that page is there because the author wanted it to be there.
The curtains are only in the book at all because the author wanted them to be there. If they described every item of furniture, every fixture and fitting, in a room, then the reader would die of boredom long before any action could begin. Instead, the author has to trust that the reader will fill in the background details subconsciously. This can cause problems for someone trying to convert a textual work into a visual one. In fact, it’s called the Jane Austen’s curtains problem.
Given that, why mention the curtains at all? Why make them blue, if not some other colour? There’s probably a reason, and it’s worth thinking about what it might be.
Colette’s room looked out over the back garden, down towards the railway and across the town. The terraces ran in neat russet lines down the hill; on the other side of the river, the beech trees in the park were vivid amber, and the yellow-grey stone of the old town glowed gold in the October light.
‘Wow,’ Lydia said, ‘you get a lovely view of the cathedral from here.’
‘I know; I’m very lucky. It’s my reward for having the smallest bedroom.’
The window was open, a cool breeze stirring the yellow curtains. Down in the garden they could hear Peter bellowing, ‘Fa-ac me-e te-e-cu-um plangere!’ as he put his laundry up on the clothesline.
When I gave Colette a pair of yellow curtains – and, almost more importantly, when I didn’t take them out again during editing – there were various things in my mind.
I don’t have a particularly visual imagination, and find that inventing objects doesn’t come naturally to me. Consequently, I do tend to appropriate real life objects. The horrible red leather sofa at Balton Street, for example, is real; it was an eyesore in a university friend’s flat. Colette’s curtains belonged to one of my own housemates. (No, that doesn’t mean that she’s the model for Colette. If it comes to that, the friend with the red leather sofa is nothing like anybody at Balton Street.)
The yellow curtains call back to the first paragraph in that extract, where there’s already a lot of colour. Russet, amber, yellow-grey, gold: Stancester in autumn. Autumn is traditionally associated with decay, but this is the beginning of the academic year and the beginning of the story. I had to make it all glow very brightly. And yellow can be autumnal but it’s also strongly associated with spring: jasmine, daffodils, primroses, and so on. The beginning of the year. Things awakening.
In the Church (not Lydia’s church, but she doesn’t need to know this) yellow equals gold equals white: the colour of rejoicing, the colour for feasts, for Christmas and Easter, for weddings and baptisms. In most of the rest of the book the dominant colour is purple. Partly because I like purple, yes, but partly because it’s associated with waiting, penitence, mourning, fasting. Colette, the out bisexual character, could very well have purple curtains. But she doesn’t. She isn’t waiting or penitent or mourning or fasting at the moment, though she’ll do all of those things over the course of the book. She’s content in who and what she is in a way that Lydia can’t understand yet. And the curtains are yellow.
Did I do all that consciously, deliberately? I doubt it, at least in the first draft. As best I can remember, my thought process went something like:
looking out of the window – oh, better have some curtains, then – any particular curtains? – A’s curtains – yellow curtains
That’s not really the point. The point is that they remained yellow. This mention of yellow was a lot less deliberate than any mention of purple, but I kept it because it worked.
Later, when Lydia recalls the incident, the curtains are mentioned again, but their colour isn’t:
And the clear autumn breeze lifting the hem of the curtain, and Peter singing in the garden, and her soul standing on the threshold of its self-made prison, not yet ready to step out, but knowing for the first time that there was a world outside it.
Because their colour isn’t relevant here. The point now is that the window’s open.
It’s always worth thinking about the curtains.
And this approach goes for any detail. Why is Peter singing that particular line? Because it’s a lot of fun to sing, and I know that because I’ve sung tenor in the Dvorak Stabat Mater myself. Because it does sound a bit dirty if you don’t immediately realise that it’s not in English, and this scene needed to go a little way beyond Lydia’s comfort zone.
One could also say that the meaning of the Latin is relevant. Make me weep with you. The speaker is asking to enter more fully into the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God, and there is certainly a sense in which the book is about expanding one’s spiritual experience.
But that’s a bit of a stretch. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t thinking of that when I put it in. So I don’t know, maybe the maker of that meme has a point after all.
Yes, the curtains were fucking yellow. But if there hadn’t been a reason for that then they wouldn’t have existed at all.
Five people I am:
They’re not on the table any more. They have been for the last several months; now, with a week off work, I’ve finally got round to turning up and pinning the bottom 55cm of these curtains.
My mother made these to hang in the sitting room of the house where I grew up, a rambling Victorian pile in the depths of the Marches. Two pairs: one to close off the big bay (creating a fantastic den), and the other for the other window. I commandeered that second pair when I moved into an awful bedsit in Guildford; which was also a rambling Victorian pile.
The curtains cheered it up considerably, though they didn’t do much about the dodgy light fitting, the leaking wall, or the mice.
Now I’m adapting them to shut the draught out from two pairs of french windows. Our current flat is about a century newer, and has fewer pretensions of grandeur.
I’ve persuaded myself that I don’t need to cut anything off the bottom; a metre would, I think, be my cut-off (ha ha) point for that. If I ever find myself living in a decaying Victorian mansion again I’ll be grateful for those couple of feet. I’m still a bit worried that they’ll pull the whole curtain rail down, but I think that if there’s a serious danger of that happening then it’ll happen regardless of whether I cut anything off.
Also on the table, metaphorically speaking: a quilt for my godson – which is why Voyages of the Celtic Saints is there with a pencil marking the page with a picture of a Romano-Celtic trading ship, which I’ve adapted for the design. (He’s called Joseph. I’ve put the Glastonbury thorn in there, as well. And some saw-tooth. And a pyramid. And the whole thing is very bright, riffing off the ‘coat of many colours’ theme. I’m not sure which Biblical Joseph he’s named after.) Various pre-Christmas tasks, none of which I’ve really started yet, because it feels a bit early.
And, of course, A Spoke In The Wheel. I’ve finished the first draft and I’m keeping out of its way until January. It’s been an interesting experience, going from zero to 68,000 words in the course of a year, and I’m not sure that I would choose to repeat it. At times it’s felt a bit joyless, nose-to-the-grindstone, arse-in-chair, duty-writing. And that’s even with my fortnights of not-writing in between my fortnights of writing. The next one, I tell myself, I’ll do differently. No, I’m not sure how. Yes, there’ll be a next one. Probably the sequel to Speak Its Name, though I have a few other ideas bouncing around. Whatever it is, I won’t dive straight into it – or, if I do, I’ll give myself more meaningful breaks in the middle of it.
After I finished the first draft of A Spoke In The Wheel mid-way through November I turned my attention to some shorter, light-hearted, frivolous pieces – some of which you may see here at some point – and have enjoyed widening my focus. Because if I’m writing for fun, I want it actually to, you know, be fun.