I’d heard it said that when your book first arrives in the post you won’t be able to stop yourself from staring lovingly at the cover for hours. “That will never be me,” said I, not being of emotional or vainglorious mind. After approximately an hour of doing just that, I finally checked the interior. Even then, I half expected that the text wouldn’t be what I’d written; it couldn’t be. Of course, it was. And it was fascinating – never have I read anything with such a smile, which, I confess, might have had secreted traces of vainglory. But today I am not going to talk about the book: I’d like to tell you how I did it. Once you’re comfortable . . .
The Atomic Element
I was at friend’s house. We’d been discussing Stephen King’s ‘Lisey’s Story’, where Lisey can ‘flip’ from reality to a place called Booya Moon. Thereafter, we kept dropping the word ‘Booya’ – probably annoyingly; we have a similar sense of humour – into every other sentence. Driving home that night, an embryonic idea began to form: what about having Booya as a character’s name? I’d wanted to write a novel based on a blues singer’s life . . . how about naming him Booya?
The Hunter / Gatherer
Once I have an idea for a story, I don’t like for anything to get away: a thought, a line of dialogue, a character’s appearance, a setting . . . So I jot the idea down on any scrap of paper I can find – the backs of envelopes and utility bills are all fair game. To plot a story, once I have enough of these strange snippets of jabbering, I simply order them, number them, and set out building a story around them – but with the beginning and end already planned. (For characters, I create an in-depth summary, using the spider web method of building around the name; I’ll address that at another time). It’s such a simple way to evolve an idea, that all-consuming beast that means the mind is constantly turned on, as the story starts to tell me what it wants to do; where it wants to go. It also means that, even when trying to get to sleep, at any and all inconvenient times – like driving – random ideas “arrive like butterflies” (to quote Eddie Vedder); don’t ever let them get away. What seems insignificant one moment might be perfect for a character later. Or you’ve got up out of bed for no reason other than to scribble ‘his childhood pet rabbit was called Boris’ *and then, 10 minutes later* ‘No, his rabbit was called Maurice!’ when he probably ends up not ever having had a rabbit at all. But never let go of an idea, however insignificant it might seem. (The character might have a hamster, instead, all because of that early morning scribble.)
“We’ll rise at dawn, to battle at 9. Maybe 9:30”
I remember the first time I sat down to write a novel. All scraps of paper puddled into an organised pile, characters well-formed on paper and in my head, a plot outline laid out in a timeline, a cup of sugary tea and a blank page in front of me. I couldn’t wait to get going. I knew the first line (which I ended up cutting, along with the first two paragraphs) I knew where I wanted the story to go . . . but how can one blank page ever end up being a novel? One chapter at a time, my friends.
When writing, I like to start as early in the day as I (as I)can, always by 9am. Let’s say that the average chapter is 2000-2500 words, so you’re done by lunchtime. I know as well as you that many authors use this process – although I once went to see Martina Cole at a discussion and she said that she writes from 11pm to 5am! – and it definitely works best for me. For then you have the afternoon and evening to fine-hone, grinning to yourself on a long walk as you think of an idea. And scribbling any further ideas on the nearest napkin. The next morning can never come soon enough; the next chapter, having festered, ready to have life breathed into its soul.
“Step Away From That Word Count, Son”
I don’t think that writing a novel can fairly be described as a process; to do so is to make it sound like a mundane exercise. Whipping egg whites to a stiff peak is a process. Searching for a new job is a process. Collins English Dictionary uses the example of digestion as a process. Writing is something that, once you discover that you can do it, and believe in what you’re trying to accomplish, you should look forward to doing. Once that first draft is done, and you’re thinking over the flaws of your story, it might feel a bit more process-like. Once you’ve been through your book for the tenth time – just a stack of A4 paper, or a busy screen – editing can definitely begin to feel like a process. But writing is pleasure. Once you have typed in the last line – carefully copied from the scrap of paper at the bottom of the pile -, the buzz, the long and heavy exhaled breath of finality . . . there’s nothing that quite matches that experience. And after the process of patiently waiting for the finished paper back to arrive, you’ll want to gaze your completed, bound novel for a very long time. Just like I said I would never do.