I’m in the middle of the first draft of a new novel. I had forgotten how wonderful it is to be so deeply involved in the lives of others. It’s why I write. But it’s been a while since I wrote a novel. Not Always To Plan was launched in April last year, which entailed months of professional editing before its release (and thankfully I enjoy that process). Before that, there were my own further drafts and rewrites and all the constant refinements. And yet here I am again, sitting before a blank screen knowing that what I am about to write is totally new. And it’s just wonderful.
So I thought I’d share a few thoughts on my writing process:
- The space
I used to be so precious about where I wrote. Everything had to be right – a clear desk, a quiet space or at least the right background music. Now I can write and get interrupted by the phone or my partner or having to go out to buy groceries and that’s all fine. I don’t need to inhabit a monk’s cell. I suppose it’s about experience, knowing that I can write in all kinds of situations.
I find music can be helpful sometimes – I love Mahler although I’ve found myself writing rather purple prose when he’s cranking up the symphonic drama. I find film soundtracks are the perfect background music for writing as they tend not to dominate. My current novel is set in France in the early 20th century and I’ve been playing chansons from the 1930s in the background. Sometimes it’s just what I need. Other times I don’t want anything to interrupt my thoughts, especially if it’s a particularly emotional scene.
(A comfy chair is essential, of course, as is remembering to stand up now and then otherwise you’ll kill your legs.)
- Being in the mood
Julia Cameron is famous for The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write and she talks about turning up at the page each day. Sounds simple but procrastination is equally simple to do. I used to think I had to be in the right mood to write but experience has taught me that I can’t trust that. What is the right mood? As soon as I start writing then I know where I am: sometimes it’s the veins of gold that Cameron talks about, other times it’s pure crap. But as someone said, if you haven’t written anything then you can’t edit anything. Writing anything often acts as a springboard for new ideas.
I’ve always liked the story of Picasso being asked why, in old age, he still painted every day. He replied that if genius walked in, he wanted it to find him working.
It took me a long time to start this current novel. Last year I was feeling rather depressed that I didn’t have a plot that I wanted to explore. I would think about characters, issues, ideas and nothing would really grab me. I knew I wanted to write about architecture but wondered if I should write a non-fiction book. And then an idea slowly began to form, and over the following months it took shape. I let it sit there for weeks, not paying it too much attention, and then suddenly I knew I had to write this story. And that’s what I’m doing now. It’s all a process. I don’t talk about it to anyone, just let it sit there in my mind until I’m more certain about what it is I want to do with it.
In the past, I always enjoyed having a brisk walk in the evening, reflecting on the day gone by. But when I started writing this novel, I found it more helpful to walk first thing in the morning. It’s a different energy. Instead of reflecting on what’s just happened, I prepare myself for the day ahead. I think about the chapter I’m about to write. Actually, sometimes I intend thinking about the novel but I find myself thinking about everything but the novel. And yet, when I sit down to write that morning, the writing seems stronger than usual. That daily walk feels like such a gift.
Obviously I’m writing a historical novel (we don’t say an history any more, do we?) so I’ve had to do a lot of reading around the subject. I thought this would be a real chore but it’s been a total pleasure. Along with the non-negotiable stuff, I’ve read biographies of people who had no contact with ‘my’ people but whose lives give me an insight into the social mores of that period or that country. The circle of people around ‘my’ people are so fascinating that I keep thinking of other novels to come.
When I first started writing seriously, I would stop reading any other novels that I thought would influence me. Now I don’t. I have confidence in my own style so I don’t worry about influences. Like all writers, I enjoy analysing why I have enjoyed a particular book. Every book you read teaches you something (even if it’s how not to do something).
- Guarding the treasure
The gestation period of a novel can be delicate and I need to feel clear about what exactly I’m writing about so I keep my thoughts to myself. Stage 2 is to start talking to a few trusted friends about what I’m doing and I ask for their feedback: basically asking if the novel sounds interesting to them. Often someone will ask me something amazingly simple and I think: ooh yes, what is the true premise of this book? Down the track, when the book is finished, then everyone will give their opinions – agents, publishers and (hopefully) editors.
So what’s this novel about? Well, it’s still at that secret stage. But I will drop one name: Le Corbusier. Oh, so that must mean Stage 2 has arrived…