Thursday, 26 February 2009

Putting In The Hours

Naomi Alderman describes the process of writing a novel like this:

It's like waking up one morning in London and saying to yourself on a whim "hey, I know what'd be fun: walking to China! That sure would be a great place to walk to." And you sit down with your atlas and a ruler and you say "OK, so it's 5,057 miles to Beijing*, let's say I walk 8 miles a day, with one day off a week, that's 105 weeks, so I should be there in just about two years. Awesome!" And you pack up a bag and set off.

You can read the rest of the post here. It’s very funny and very true.

Well I’ve finally arrived in China and what a relief it is to be here Towards the end of a first draft I always feel like I’m holding a red hot poker in my hand and I can’t wait to put it down. It’s the tension that builds up inside me as the climax to the book approaches. I’m not exactly a relaxed man at the best of times, as anyone who knows me will testify. I spent several years doing yoga and meditation twice a day. I gave up coffeee and alcohol. It didn’t make a blind bit of difference. It’s me. I’m just like that. And when I’m getting to the end of a novel I’m me squared.

When I used to work in universities advising students about writing, they were always coming into my office and saying, with real surprise in their voices, ‘I find it so hard to write,’ and I would reply, possibly not very helpfully, ‘that’s because writing is hard.’ People often assume that just because they can speak and read, they ought to be able to write. But it’s not that simple.

Rosie, my wife, recently showed me some instructions on a Standard Assessment Test for primary school children. The test was intended to assess their level of written English but, as she pointed out, the instructions were hopelessly ambiguous. The educationalists setting the paper were no doubt convinced of their own ability to write well but the evidence suggested otherwise.

The fact is that writing simple unambiguous instructions is by no means easy. When I first started out as a professional writer I would take any job that paid me and I remember being commissioned to write a book of instructions for ball games and sports all over the world. It sounds easy enough but in fact it was an absolute nightmare because it had to be written in simple, accessible language but some of the rules required a high degree of technical specificity. That cured me of the notion that anyone can write a set of instructions.

Writing fiction presents different but equally challenging problems. There are so many things you have to get right technically but none of these must show in the final product. It’s got to seem to the reader as if the story is just unfolding in his or her imagination without any of the writer’s contrivances getting in the way.

People who dream of being writers always imagine that it’s a painless activity so much more pleasant than all the hassle they have to put up with in their nine-to-five jobs. That’s because they only think about it as something you do when you feel inspired. But that’s not how you write a novel. You write it every day whether you feel inspired or not because one of the things you learn very quickly when you start out trying to be a writer is that feeling inspired has nothing to do with the quality of the work you produce.

No, inspiration is like the myth of quality time. You know that phrase that got bandied about in the nineteen eighties by parents who were too busy with their own lives to look after their kids? ‘I don’t get a chance to spend much time with Josh,’ they used to say, ‘but when we are together, I always make sure it’s quality time.’ Yeah, right! Well writing is a lot like being a parent. Some days you feel you’re doing a good job. Some days you don’t. But you keep on doing it because you have to, and in the end it’s putting in the hours that counts.


Foxi Rosie said...

Well done you. I know you are experienced and very professional, but nonetheless the sense of reaching base camp with all the equipment in place and all of the team still with you, must fill you with a sense of achievement. I guess onwards to the summit now through the editing process.

Jarucia said...

YES, I love the comparison to parenthood. That's exactly what it feels like.

I'm not a parent, but I was a live-in nanny for 3 years, so I have a good feel for it.

Brian, once again, your insight has come on a day when it serves me particularly well.

Paul Lamb said...

...and my feet hurt!