The rather wonderful Sophia Tobin invited me to take part in this series of blogs where writers answer a few questions about their writing process. Sophie’s debut novel, The Silversmith’s Wife, was published by Simon & Schuster in January this year and has been earning some fantastic reviews. You can find her blog post on her writing process here.
Here are my answers…
1) What am I working on?
I don’t have as straightforward an answer to that question as I’d like. Since my first book came out, I’ve been entertaining a couple of ideas for a second novel. There’s one outlandish, brain-frying, unworkable idea and another comparatively straightforward one. To even attempt to write novels, you need a fairly sizable masochistic streak, so no prizes for guessing which idea has my attention. In between tentative forays into the scary swamp of ideas that may, or may not, be that difficult second novel, I’ve returned to my first love – short stories. I’m now in the final stages of putting together a collection. Deciding when the whole book is properly finished presents many of the same challenges as tying up a novel, but with the added dimension of trying to make all the separate parts work both independently and together. What the novel and the collection of stories have in common is a mixture of dark and light, tragedy and absurdity.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m not a big fan of putting books into genre boxes and most enjoy work that ignores or subverts genre conventions. My work tends to be very character driven, and in that respect would fall into the category of ‘literary’ fiction. However, it also contains elements of crime, thriller, romance (of a sort!), comedy and occasionally even a bit of sci-fi, but doesn’t fall squarely into any one of those categories. While I like to explore big, complex ideas, I’m always aware that the book needs to retain the reader’s interest and most importantly, actually be a pleasure to read. I’d like to think I have a foot in each camp – writing that engages the intellect while also taking the emotions out for a joyride.
3) Why do I write what I do?
Good question – and now the third in a row to which I don’t have a simple answer. Perhaps one of the reasons I keep writing is to find out why. I want to understand – the small everyday mysteries and big cosmic questions. I want answers, damn it! And although I know the chances of me finding anything definitive are slim, writing is my way of investigating, of probing for what are even the right questions to ask. Plus, I break out in an unpleasant mental rash if I don’t.
4) How does your writing process work?
I’m envious when I read about writers who are methodical and organised and have handy things called ‘plans’ and ‘outlines’. This whole writing game would be so much easier! Unfortunately, that’s not how it works for me. I find the process is different each time but there are some common elements:
- Be struck by an image, overheard conversation, idea, memory, news story, dream…something that niggles til I write it down.
- Forget which notebook I wrote the original thing in and write a few thousand words trying to recapture whatever it was.
- Find correct notebook. Laugh darkly into chasm between original thought and rough draft material.
- Either abandon ship and go back to 1, or realise there’s something worth pursuing.
- Write, doodle, write, follow long chain of really important related research on Wikipedia, read ‘possibly related’ books, write.
- Decide that it’s all massively stupid and I couldn’t write my way out of a wet paper bag.
- Get over myself and write.
- Repeat 7 and 8 for as many times as it takes until Final Perfect Thing falls into place. This may be days, months, or even years later and may happen anytime, anywhere. This can be inconvenient, embarrassing or downright dangerous, sometimes all three.
- Redraft obsessively.
- Seek feedback from trusted writing buddies.
- Redraft obsessively.
- Revisit 7 and 8 for kicks.
- Keep obsessively editing until 1 happens again.
- Rinse and repeat.
I’ve left out the drinking, comfort eating, playing with cats and procrastination – for the sake of argument, insert one of them between every point above, plus far too much caffeine. Every element is vital! Just the other day, I spent a happy hour blue-tacking small pictures of Indian holy cows into the middle of the forest of sticky notes representing my attempts to order my short story collection. Procrastination? Holy cow, Batman, I think it might be.
I’m handing over the blog-baton to the properly clever Pippa Goldschmidt – astronomer, novelist, short story writer and general awe-inspiring genius. Pippa’s debut novel, The Falling Sky, published in 2012 by Freight Books, was described by Stephen Fry as ‘A delicate and fascinating study of a life in which intellect and external microscopic and cosmic fields of force interact’. I loved it and would recommend it to anyone. Find out how she does it next week on Pippa’s Blog.