Why am I always in a hurry?

The last blog post was all about slowing down, taking things easy, enjoying the unusually lovely weather, and yet here I am, only a few days later, reflecting on my default attitude to life which seems to be ‘Life is short, don’t hang around, make decisions, get things done, move on.’ unnamed

I’m pretty sure I know why this is so: most of my immediate family members have died prematurely. Father went out to work one day when he was 45, died at work and never came home. Mother declined into Alzheimers in her mid-60s and died four years later. One of my older sisters died at 37 and another at 65. I think it was Dad’s sudden disappearance when I was nine that had the most profound effect. Suddenly my certainty about the future was fractured. If he could go without warning and with such effect, anything could happen, and the future could not be relied upon. If there was something I wanted to do, or to become, don’t wait. Just go for it. It may not be planned to perfection, but that’s OK.

Sometimes you need to ‘Ready, fire, aim’. If you think and dither around for too long it becomes ‘Ready, ready, ready.’

I was listening this morning to Michael Ondaatje, unnamedauthor of ‘The English Patient’, talking about his writing approach which involves twenty edits before he commits to print. The first draft is just a sketch, and it goes from there. What patience, I thought to myself. How does he slow down enough to let such snail’s pace iteration happen? Could I ever work like that?

Probably not! I’m 70 now, and enjoying every aspect of my life. I have many things to do and to learn, not just my writing. Worse, as soon as I start thinking about writing another book I start planning deadlines and put time pressure on myself. The urge to write too quickly is so strong that my first response now is to avoid that pressure altogether by not writing at all. There must be another way, surely, somewhere between Ondatjee’s caution and my usual recklessness.

The next step could be, consciously and deliberately, to dawdle. Just mess around for a while. I have some characters I’d like to play with, and I have a setting – it has to be Cumbria, nowhere else provides the same inspiration. Now what I need is a story, a real character-driven story, not just a series of twists and turns choreographed by some formulaic notion of ‘tension’. The story needs to intrigue me, and move me. The central character might be a police person but it’s not going to be a ‘police procedural’ or a forensic puzzle, both of which in the modern era require tedious technical research.

Maybe I should abandon even the pretence of ‘crime fiction’ and just tell a story about a person and a crisis. Above all, I need to drift and learn to use the first draft as a mere sketch. Only then will I know whether I’ve got something worth spending time on. ‘Ready, fire, aim.’

Me and my editor

In the world of self-publishing there’s always talk about the importance of a good editor, and what editors can do to improve the quality of your work. Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate to work with an editor who is also a long-standing friend. You might say that having a friend as an editor is as potentially damaging to the relationship as having a friend teach you to drive. Writing a novel is a stressful business, which can cause friction between you as the writer and the editor who might want you to ‘murder your darlings’ – the bits of deathless prose that you want to keep at all costs, even if they don’t work. Or if you are of a more anal disposition you could argue for weeks over the placing of a semi-colon or where to make two paragraphs out of one.

In my case, disagreements between my editor and myself have been mercifully rare. We’ve talked books for a couple of decades so we know each other’s likes and dislikes, and I trust her judgement about what makes a story effective. She knows I’m fairly robust and can take criticism where necessary without flouncing out or getting depressed.

Her role is two-fold. She will be the first person beyond my partner Mick with whom I’ll share the outline of a new book. She’ll see past the messiness and think about the structure and the characters and whether it makes sense and rings true. She’ll point out discontinuities, misplaced scenes, unconvincing plot twists, and she’s usually right. As the writer I can see the action in my head but sometimes I don’t capture it well enough on the page and she speaks on behalf of my future readers, asking for more detail, or less. I need that: otherwise I can make too many assumptions about the readers’ response.

That’s the stage we’re at now with the new book that’s emerging. Starting with a basic idea I’ve been fleshing it out for several weeks now, adding key scenes, fragments of dialogue, expanding from a few hundred words to a few thousand. Currently the draft outline stands at 12,000 words and still I haven’t written any of the substantive manuscript. I’ve learned to be patient, avoiding the first full draft until I’ve a pretty good idea that the basic structure is ready. Of course things will change: it’s only when you delve deeper into the characters and the story that you realise exactly how things might develop. But at this stage talking with my editor about character, structure, and plot development will be invaluable. I sent the draft outline a week or so ago and have come to London for our first meeting about it. Apprehensive? Yes, a little, but that feeling is diminishing as the number of books increases. Now I’m feeling excited, to learn what she thinks and what suggestions she will make.

After these conversations I’ll head home keen to complete the outline, break it down into chunks, re-consider the order and the chapter breaks, do any remaining necessary research and finally get started on Chapter 1. From then on, if my planning and research have been good enough, the chapters should roll on, tweaking the outline as needed as we go. This is the joy of the process, when the blurry image begins to sharpen and fizz with colour and life. This is when I’ll laugh out loud sometimes, or have to stop because the tears are getting in the way. At this stage I try to read everything out loud, listening for the rhythm of the words and the authenticity of the dialogue.

When the first draft is done, back it goes to the editor for further scrutiny, ‘tooing and froing’ between us as the glitches are ironed out. Thank heaven for word-processing and email to speed up the process. Finally after more iterations than I care to envisage right now, the penultimate ms. will be ready for the editor’s line by line scrutiny, to find and correct the miniscule errors that hide in the text. This is when I need to print out to spot the errors more easily than reading on the screen.

That’s how my editor and I work together. Others may do things differently. Professional editing, I believe, is essential. The author is simply too close to see what needs to be seen. My luck is to have found someone with all the necessary skills and who can deal with someone who doesn’t like being told what to do!