The Writing Process Blog Tour involves writers answering four questions about their creative process (funnily enough!) and Lorna Fergusson wrote a fabulous piece on her nocturnal writing habits and the perils of research at Literascribe before passing the baton to me, so it’s all a bit daunting, but here goes …
1) What am I working on?
Well, you’d think that would be a simple question, but my writing life currently resembles air traffic over Heathrow, with various projects hovering at different levels of completion.
Most of my creative energy right now is going into preparing to promote my first novel, Welcome to Sharonville, which is being published by Unthank Books on June 15th and is already available to pre-order on Amazon. Even writing those words after a decade of scribbling, editing and rejections makes me want to jump up and down!! Holding the proof copy in my hands – which I about to check over for the final time – was the fulfilment of a dream I’ve had since I was a little girl. All the work has been worthwhile and, even though I find marketing daunting as it’s a strange, new world for me, I’m having real fun sorting the novel website and new blog, arranging the book trailer to be made and sorting an author shoot in a 50’s diner! I am so lucky to be surrounded by talented artistic friends who have come forward to support me with this project. The novel has even been entered into the Booker Prize which is so exciting! It is rather like a Blackpool beach donkey running the National and I fully expect to fall at the Chair and need to be shot, but it’s still an incredible experience. [The book was ultimately longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award.]
So, anyway, what am I working on? I’m working on all this publication stuff – which is, whilst less lofty, a very important part of the writing process – perhaps the most important as it is when the whole purpose of all those years at the desk becomes real. I write because I love it, because I cannot imagine my life without doing it, but I also, ultimately, write to be read, to touch people’s lives in the way that writing of all kinds has touched mine. If this novel can do that for one person, then all the days slaving in a leopard print dressing gown, doubting myself and crying over being rejected by agents will all seem fair enough.
Okay, I am kind of dreading reviews – my friend had the word, ‘BORING’ (yes, in capitals) splashed over her (excellent) book’s Amazon wall – but that is also part of the writing process, I guess, and becoming a grown up at my ‘craft.’ (For want of a less pretentious way of putting it!)
Julia Cameron writes about creative projects having seasons and Welcome to Sharonville is, finally at the glorious summer point in the writing process where I skip through the waist-high grass, high on life (until someone calls the book ‘boring,’ at least). However, I have another novel at a different, more difficult stages of their development (the image of potty training comes to mind!). Emptiness/ The View from the Moon is at the part of the process when even the title is in flux [shakes head]. I researched this novel about two generations of female astronauts at NASA (nerd swoon!) and made a fair amount of progress, but then decided the literary thriller plot needed more pep, so I scrapped what I had and started over.
If two excerpts from it hadn’t already been published in magazines such as The New Writer, I would probably want to be exiled to space myself – without oxygen! – but the fact that other people enjoyed parts of it encourages me that this project is worth pursuing. I also feel very emotionally attached and even loyal to the achievements of women such as Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who perished on Challenger, and the Mercury 13 women who weren’t allowed to participate in the space program(me) in the 60s due to straight out sexism – these courageous and gifted people inspired the novel and remind me that I need to keep going even when things get tough.
I now think that scrapping stuff is probably part of my writing process and maybe a sign of things ‘working’ – although that could just be a desperate hope! I’d written 55,000 of Welcome to Sharonville when I went to a course on novel writing at the City Lit and realised I didn’t have a plot (gulp). I hadn’t lost the plot, I just didn’t have one in the first place! I had a Ph.D. in English and had taught Critical Theory at master’s level and still had no idea how to plot a novel. (I say nothing at this point about the content of most Creative Writing postgrad courses!) My tutor, Leone Ross, kept pushing me until I saw that someone crying by the bed of a woman in a coma really wasn’t going to fly for a whole book and I came home and replanned the whole thing.
Originally, I think I’d wanted a connection of short stories – and the novel still has lots of viewpoint characters and little vignettes – but, after taking that class, I looked seriously at Evan Marshall’s novel writing schemas and realised that storytelling had laws which you could break, but were useful to adhere to, especially as a rookie. If I’m honest too, I was raised in a German-Brazilian family, so planning a novel as if you were building a bridge really appeals to my anal side! And it seems to work – at least, once I get the plan right. Some people can gush out a whole masterpiece and then go back and rewrite and rejig the structure, but I like the bones underneath to be sturdy as I find the whole notion of endless do-overs utterly exhausting! Luckily, after Welcome to Sharonville was remapped and I cut about 25,000 of loose flesh, the fundamental structure was strong, so I thankfully didn’t need to redo much except the beginning (I lost count on how many versions I went through!) and endless line edits.
I wrote and completed my second novel, The Red Umbrella, by more organic principles, cocky now I had one book under my belt – and it’s been, er, resting ever since. I could never get it to gel – maybe it’s something which I can revisit later, but it’s not a tragedy if I don’t use that material as I (re)learned the crucial lesson that others might be able to pull stuff out of their sleeves with a magician’s flourish, but I need to plan like a general going to war.
Hence I studied how to write literary thrillers and then redid my NASA novel – and have also meticulously planned out my other current project, Low Tide. It’s a mystery set in a rundown seaside town, so it needs carefully Bethany thought out to ensure the clues are as well laid as Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, but I must admit I did dash out the first chapter without much thought about what was to come. Books resemble falling in love in that way and I let myself have that first flush of imagination to fuel the project, before then letting the control freak get hold of it.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I write literary fiction which is a broad genre, allowing all kinds of variations. I’m increasingly finding myself drawn to a thriller/mystery element – probably because I do enjoy plotting so much! – and even have aspects of alternative timelines/histories in my NASA novel, both of which probably set me apart from classical literary fiction. Even so, I think that compared to a lot of literary work, mine is a quite quirky.
I was raised in a family who were essentially novel characters masquerading as people, so I am drawn to create figures who are eccentric and live outside the bounds of ‘normal’ life. It was nothing for my grandmother to tell my dead grandfather how I was doing at school, or for me to learn of the regrets and unsatisfied passions of the generations which went before me, so I find the magical aspects of life, as well as the heartbreak of the misfit, all good grist for the creative mill.
It’s only now my novel is coming out and my publisher called my work ‘a masterpiece of psychological nuance’ (the M word – shocker!) that I have realised how much our emotional life – flawed and lost and beautiful and hopeful as it is – fascinates me (that may be why I write such long books as we’re a complex subject!). I have always worshipped writers such as Richard Ford who excel at capturing the inner workings of humanity – I couldn’t hope to ever be in his league, but it seems that this psychological aspect is something which makes my work differ from others [clutches at straws and tries to sound like she knows what she’s on about].
|3. Why do I write what I do?
Well, it ain’t for the money! Ha, ha.
I write because I have since I was a little girl who made the top step of the stairs in our house my ‘desk’ and it’s part of me, but I think I write my particular stuff because the life I have lived and the kind of person I am has lead to me being enthralled by why I and others do what they do, how we hurt and how we heal. I guess I found literature helped me so much from the time of being a messed up teenager forward that I have always been interested in ways in which writing can affect change in people. Literature models emotional closure and presents the possibilities of redemption in significant ways and allows us to feel less alone with our muddled, bittersweet humanness.
I was particularly interested in the issue of how we learn to love and forgive ourselves and others when I was writing Welcome to Sharonville – it wasn’t like I set out to deliberately build a book around that theme (for all my planning, so much remains subconscious), but it’s there and is exhibited in nearly all the book’s characters, much in the way that the struggle for self-esteem is there for most of us. I guess I write to give people hope that we are all in this mad world together and there are roads out of the insanity. My new literary thrillers are necessarily a tad darker by reason of their genre, but the notion of allowing people to find more palatable answers to some of life’s crueler questions is still there. I’ve had way too much therapy, read far too much self-help and had a lot of spiritual training – it makes you a softie.
4) How does my writing process work?
By fits and starts. Binges on words and then lost months. Massive progress and then pulling teeth. Mistakes and then making it over. Much like life really!
I would like to say I write daily, but my current promotional work and my health issues (I am recovering from M.E. and Fibromyalgia) mean that I often go long stretches without writing – but then, when I am well, I produce a lot at one go. I wrote the first draft of Welcome to Sharonville before I got sick and so I managed to bang out 80,000 words of it in six weeks, knowing I would be hemmed in by my academic job after the summer was over. I look back at those halcyon days of massive productivity with envy and wonder and I think the mind does work so much better in terms of making connections and keeping your style consistent when you write consistently, but my present life (and body) really doesn’t allow for that. Hence I aim to do three afternoons a week and really crack out the words then – I don’t even want to leave my desk to drink or go to the loo as I go into a kind of trance! – but I try to be patient with myself when I’m too ill to even manage that much. Weeks often pass without me writing due to some reason or another.
What consoles me is that I think much of the writing process happens when you’re not technically writing – the heart of creativity is in daydreaming, wondering, taking time for the various jigsaw pieces of plot to find their place. Billy Collins has a poem (‘Monday’- watch him read it here ) where he talks about windows being invented for poets to stare out of – and it’s true of all writers.
Staring out of windows is a crucial part of the writing process – we may not seem like we’re working, but we are! (Ahem.) I find that having had time away from my work, I do need to read over and catch up with the action and current tone of the piece which is hard, but it is also very helpful to have had that preparatory time – I tend to visualise scenes in my mind before writing, including the setting and even much of the dialogue, so if I haven’t had much down time between sessions, the writing itself can be harder.
To be honest, it is challenging for me write in a more relaxed, intermittent way and to not be able to keep to the breakneck pace which I think is probably my natural state, but it may well be healthier and more sustainable. Novel writing is a lifetime pursuit, after all. We are not ballerinas.[This interview was originally published in 2014.]