writing process

WHO’D BE A WRITER?!

I’m a writer.

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m only a writer because I am utterly crap at everything else. Everything else. I have been many other things and failed miserably. I was a bank teller briefly but I harboured a sneaky desire to be a bank robber and that wasn’t going to work so I quit before the inevitable happened. I was a cleaner but I’m quite hyperactive and never took the time to do the job very well – a bit of spit and polish and a spray of air freshener and that was it. I never managed a Savoy corner on the bed-sheets or a completely smudge-free mirror. I taught kindergarten kids but I really don’t like small children unless they share some of my DNA and I often laughed when they fell off swings. I did a law degree and nearly died of boredom. The thought of being an actual lawyer made me break out in life-threatening hives. I almost got a job writing dating profiles for people looking for love  but I did not impress with my sarcastic and slightly offensive trial sample-profiles.

I always wrote stories at school and spent a life living in a world of make-believe. The nuns called me a day-dreamer. I could string a sentence together and liked writing and developed a weird fantasy about being Jackie Collins or Judith Krantz because they wrote wonderful smut that was banned from the school library and they made bucketloads of money and looked frightfully glamorous on their book sleeves while I was then a pimply teenager with a libido going haywire. But somewhere along the way, the fantasy fell flat because after many futile attempts, I realised that it was actually hard work to write a whole book.

But, after living a life like a headless chicken, trying a bit of this and a bit of that, and pretty much exhausting every other avenue, I decided to have a stab at being a writer and forced myself to write a book-ful of words in some semblance of order and started sharing it about….

Only to discover that the heady world of publishing that had routinely doled out six figure advances to writers and built them up into glossy celebrities…..had died and been replaced by some austere fortress being guarded by accountants. I learned that in the cold hard real world of ‘now’,  writers have to compete like beggars for a low four-figure advance and will be lucky to ever make a cent past it and will be forgotten and chucked in a bargain bin in the blink of a teary eye. No amount of bouffed up hair and eyeliner is going to make you a literary star…you have to write brilliantly and yet still make it something that people want to read en masse.

I don’t think I’m a particularly good writer. Every time I read a book by someone else, I wish until it hurts that I’d written it. Other writers weave words together so effortlessly, spinning humour and suspense while keeping the reader spell-bound and transported to other worlds and times and places. I love books. The look of them. The smell of them. The way they suspend belief and reality. How they sculpt my mind and emotions. I even love how they sit on book-shelves, upright, sideways or all in a pile. I’m a bibliophile. I love books more than cake. Every single book.

No. I lie. I actually really hate anything written by Neville Shute. I know that sounds mean and a little bit blasphemous. But I was forced to read one of his books as a school-kid and it felt like water torture and I’ve never forgiven him for writing it and can’t bring myself to try another. Like that time I got food poisoning from a fish-burger and can’t even look at another or Dimple Scotch which bruised me permanently with my very first hangover. I’m sure Neville’s books are wonderful but the childhood trauma won’t leave me, so it is what it is. Everyone has a favourite writer (mine is Emily Bronte because she writes like a mad-woman) and I suspect everyone also has a least favourite. Oh, I also hate Beatrix Potter. Another sacrilege. But it’s more about the illustrations. I don’t trust those small water-coloured animals and I keep reading between the lines of her text looking for something really nasty and sinister and I always end up disappointed and faintly nervous.

So I’m a writer. It has its up side…I never get out of pyjamas. I work in bed. I am thirteen paces from the kitchen pantry. I don’t have to speak to other humans. I can kill people and have wild affairs…on the page.

The down side is that I think my butt cheek has died. No, really. I think my gluteus maximus has atrophied from sitting in the same spot day in day out, tapping words into a laptop. Also three of my fingers (the ones that hit the most popular vowels and consonants like a and t on the keyboard) are showing signs of deteriotive erosion. I’m not even making this shit up although I’m a writer so I’d forgive you for thinking so.

Also, being a writer is very, very bad for your self-esteem, your ablity to get along with other flesh and blood people and your general mental health…and your body parts. You will pour your heart onto the page and send it full of good cheer and hope and wishes to those living in the impenetrable fortresses via the wire and you will wait and wait and wait and wait and wait…..ad infinitum….until maybe….someone tells you that your work is CRAP. They rarely use that word. Usually they will say something like ‘good luck but not for us’. Most politely pretend they never saw your words and you will just wither forever waiting for that never-coming response. Rejection will become so common that you stop being disappointed when one comes pinging into your inbox like a fart-bomb and you’ll throw your head back and laugh like Jim Carrey and scream ALRIGHTY THEN!

Or….rarely….like once in a polka dot moon….someone will like what you wrote and contract it and then change it to be more like what they want and less what you thought it was and you will end up with a book that is loosely what you started but with the fingerprints of many others on it and you will look at it and sigh….’I’m a real writer now’ and then you will discover GOODREADS and learn that you only think you’re a writer and anonymous people with profile photos of cats have realised immediately that your book is a sham and it sucks and you should go back to writing dating profiles for losers that no-one could ever love.

But maybe I’m just being cynical.

It is all worth it. The dead bum. The gnarled fingers. The abject poverty. The smell of my week-old pyjamas that are gunked into my crevices and will need to be showered off, leaving raw patches of skin.

I have a new book coming out and I am so, so excited. This one. Maybe this one will be it. I’ll puff up my hair and slap on some lippy and put on real clothes and go out and flog it to the masses. I’ll pretend I don’t read the bad reviews while using the reviewer’s name as a character in my next novel, the character who has their entrails unraveled by the dashing serial killer….and I’ll walk past the bargain bin the very next week and pull my leftover books out and buy them all and give them as gifts to family members for the next few years.

No…I’m sorry. I seem to be painting this picture of being a writer all wrong. It’s actually a dream come true. My name on an actual book. In a book store. A library. It is a thrill. An incredible thrill, to hold your very own book in your hands. All the words came out of your heart, your head, your soul. The thrill is like…so thrilling…it’s…there are no words. But it’s short-lived.

It’s short-lived.

I love being a writer because it teaches you things. It teaches you humility (and a bit of humiliation); it teaches you courage (and a little bit of masochism); it teaches you resilience (and a little bit of naivete)….

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Who’d be a writer? Me.

Advertisements

SOWING STORY SEEDS

Today is the day that I start my new book. I’ve worked up to it for the last few weeks like a marathon runner limbering up for a big race. I know some writers (like Tolkien) take years and years to write a book but as I suffer from ADHD (true story) my concentration and focus won’t allow me to do that. I would lose my train of thought and all direction and end up with a patchwork quilt of thirty books that just go round and round in circles with strange squirrels appearing out of no-where in tutus singing opera because I’d get so bored and need to entertain myself and then I’d probably decide that the squirrel thread would make a good feature film and I’d embark on a screenplay, possibly scribbled in the back of my most recent journal and then I’d lose that journal and start another one and find a poetry competition and decide quite foolhardily to become a poet. You get my drift. I get distracted and bored very easily and THIS is not necessarily a good trait for a writer to have, particularly a novelist, because a book requires you to sit still, in solitude and write about eighty freaking thousand words….in order….that make sense and work to keep a reader glued to the page without getting distracted and running off to chase burlesque squirrels until the very LAST page after those magical words THE END get written.

I can bang out a short story in an hour. That’s like a cracker and cheese to me. A blog…that’s more like popping a grape into my mouth BUT A BOOK….a book is a banquet of words that requires a hunger, a gnawing aching hunger, for THAT particular meal and it will require menu planning for the entree, the main and the delicious dessert. One will need to make a list, check it twice and then go hunting for all the ingredients and for a really good feast you’ll need to seek out some impossibly exotic tit-bits that make your meal unique and so you may have to seek out unpronounceable spices from hidden alleyways. Then you’ll have to prep and cook and make sure you get it all right, so that the damn thing rises when it should, marinates all the way through to the marrow and has just the right, heady blend of flavours when it hits the plate, so that it will entice people to gorge themselves on your story. Not just nibble but gorge! At about two dollars a book…writers need readers who are ravenous and bring all their mates to the table!

For someone who finds boiling an egg unthinkably tedious, this culinary/literary ordeal is a challenge for me and so I have evolved and adapted my process around my diagnosis so that we’re all happy. Books get written and I stay pepped up and focused and don’t run off with the squirrels (except for Saturday night which is designated squirrel night).  And I do this how, you might ask? I do this at break-neck speed and all else evaporates from my life. I tumble down the rabbit hole of my book…..

I am a very lucky writer. I have the luxury and leisure of being able to write full-time. I have no other day job (other than being a wife and mother which is not to say that that doesn’t pose all sorts of challenges as well!) The advice most commonly given to budding writers is ‘to marry well’. That doesn’t mean you have to marry someone rich as much as it means you NEED to marry A SAINT! Writers, by and large, are an intolerable breed. We are emotionally needy and insecure and tortured with story-lines and characters that leak out from our heads into our lives and this can sometimes be disconcerting to those around us who can’t see KATHERINE AT THE END OF THE BED GIVING ME INFORMATION ABOUT HER CHILDHOOD IN SEVENTEENTH CENTURY SCOTLAND AT THREE IN THE MORNING …CAN’T YOU SEE HER…SHE’S RIGHT THERE!!!!! That one freaked my husband out for days. But I am lucky, as I said, because I did marry a Saint. He’s not perfect, mind, he is a bit gassy and dances like an emu and inserts the words gloopy schmook schmook into the lyrics of every song and he plays WAY too much Forza but….he’s a keeper. He lets me write… and that means he puts up with the screaming lunacy, the complete gulf between me and reality and the fact that I make NO money. Writing is a thankless job. It is even less thankless (or should that be more thankless?) than parenting or wife-ing. Oh, sometimes you’ll hear something nice from a reader, get a nice review or an email, but the neurotic writer’s voice inside your head will tell you that they are just being polite and actually didn’t even finish your book and just feel sorry for you. Being a writer is a bit like sitting day in day out looking at a mirror, finding flaws while singing NOBODY LOVES ME EVERYBODY HATES ME I THINK I’LL GO AND EAT SOME WORMS. I think that’s what being a writer is like….or perhaps that’s just me….eeek….

Back to my process…I did tell you I get distracted and go off on tangents….

I write fast. I have to. I open a file …type the title (I always have the title first and work my way out from there)….and then it’s a race between my typing fingers and my ADHD. Who will win? It’s very exciting early on because I never know how it’s going to go. The thee hundred and eighty-seven unfinished manuscripts clogging up my Documents Folder in my laptop are testament to that. They are the ones that got outrun. They sit waiting for me to accidentally chase a squirrel past them one day and stop and go AHA I REMEMBER YOU. And then I’ll forget the squirrel and start up from where I left off and see how the replay race plays out.

When I say I write fast, I do not lie. I wrote my last completed manuscript in ten days. I do little else in those days other than write and I type at a speed of about a hundred and twenty words a minute and I tend to sleep in brief bursts, waking up to hammer at the keyboard again. I start with a seed. A simple seed. I don’t necessarily know what sort of seed it is. It will be an idea and a title. That’s all. I’m like Mr Squiggle. He was a television puppet in the seventies for those of you who are under a hundred years old. His nose was a  giant marker pen ( I know right…the seventies was like a festival of acid) and he would go to work in front of a piece of paper that someone had drawn a squiggle on and he would have to turn the squiggle into a drawing, upside down, and then ‘voila’ the pretty t.v presenter/hostess would turn it over and there would be a great drawing for the kids in the audience, most often a spaceship or a tree-house. So, yes, I start with a title and a premise. Little more than a squiggle.

So today I have my title and my premise. It’s not much to go on but I feel the swell of a wave under me and know that it’s a big one and I’m ready to ride it. That’s one analogy for the process of writing. Waves. Ocean. Swell. As for the story-line….that’s more like a regular seed. I bury it in the soil of my mind and the keyboard and coffee are the sunshine and water and we’ll wait to see what grows. Might be an oak tree or a fern or a patch of parsley or a weed. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.  But I’m excited. That’s all I’m saying. Exuberant, squirrel-chasing loony writer over and out….stay tuned for the progress reports.

Nik x