But the general wish to keep writing, to go at it, to find the new poem, the new subject immediately is quite an interesting experiment. I once kept going for quite a long time, and most of that material was discarded, but I think the very business of doing it uncovered a lot of things for me that did ultimately lead to poems; it was material I could make use of and it suggested other things to me beyond what I'd actually got in the notebook for that day.
Browning gave up after three days, but he did write "Childe Roland" on one of them, so that's pretty good going — that's a long poem. It's very difficult when each day you start with a sort of cold brain and nothing happens. In my case I look back over what I was doing the day before and make a few small corrections, often to typing errors, then maybe a few grammatical errors, and then I see a better way of putting something, and gradually you get drawn into the world you've created and you start rewriting what you did the day before and gradually coming up to the point where you left it the day before and going on.
And certainly at the end of each day's work I try — when my brain is hot and stuff is happening, but when I'm really too tired to go on — to make hasty notes and write down bits and pieces of what's going to come, anything that's already in one's head, sort of scatter it down on the page so that when you start the next day you've got some stuff there to work on.
You get these writers who say: I sit down at a computer, nothing's coming, I'm having to tear each word out, it's like digging for coal, and I'll go: The first bit usually is in pencil, and then later in the day or whenever I will often type that up, and from then on I will be correcting and then I'll work on it in pencil again — over and over and over and over and over — and some pages come fairly easily and don't take much correcting, especially if it's a book for very young children where you're keeping the prose extremely simple.
The older the intended reader of the book is, the more complicated it becomes, so you might end up printing certain pages out 20, 30 times. I have novels where, out of sheer interest, I've kept every version of it and I can fill a box two, three feet off the floor with drafts. What I really like is rewriting, but you cannot rewrite until you've already written, and that is terrible.
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And then rewriting the rewritten text, and so on, up to 10 times, hoping always to get it shorter, more condensed, pack more energy into it. Even if it's a sad thing, you want to get the essence of the most dolorous phrases and connect them in some way, [and] so in that way try to perfect something. When I had an ordinary typewriter I had to do much more in longhand, and the typing was a kind of copying of it, or a polishing-up, but not original work.
But as soon as I moved to a computer I began to work on the screen and I had a sense of the words appearing, almost as if they were appearing out of my unconscious because the effort to type is so little compared to a manual typewriter. So you haven't anymore got that chop chop chop of the keys — you've got an almost silent process so you can hear the rhythm in your head better. Fludd was the first book that I worked on entirely by that process, from inception, and I think that's made a huge difference to me. I can think of it as far more like composing, like hearing a tune and composing a piece of music, if you like, than I ever could in the days of typewriters.
Of course soon nobody will understand this: What sort of a relationship exists between writers and the people they create on the page? Well, you do get very obsessed with them. You can't help thinking about them a lot. However much you think in advance, however much you plan, the events will get changed as you come to them and work on them. And the events are the characters, the characters are the events. So they are in flux.
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It's not like thinking about friends, or people one knows, whose lives are not under one's control. With characters, you are actually creating their lives with them. It does seem — and I realise this is a psychological trick and it sounds very coy — but it is as if they are speaking and leading those lives. It's a very symbiotic relationship. You do seem to be with people who have minds of their own, thoughts of their own, but at the same time you're very much involved in leading their lives with them.
How it works for me is best described in the opening of Devices and Desires. This book begins with the murder of a young girl, I think she was called Brenda. The murderer is a serial murderer of women who cuts off their hair, and whistles, so he is called the Whistler, and it had the opening that Brenda was the fifth victim of the Whistler and she died because she missed the bus. And the bus she missed was from the country town, which was obviously Ipswich, where she'd been to a dance, home to her village.
She gets a lift with two women drivers, but they can only take her part of the way; they leave her at the end of this country road. She never reaches the bus because the murderer is there on that road. When I was writing that passage I was Brenda, feeling first of all the relief that she was going to be on the bus and then the realisation that there was this murderer, and then an increasing fear and unease.
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I was Brenda knowing everything that had happened at the dance, although I wasn't going to write about it. But then with part of my mind, of course, which was detached from being Brenda, I was thinking how can I describe this journey. I'll have bushes on the left-hand side where she's walking because that's more frightening than the open fields, and then on the right I'm going to have some of those distorted trees you get in East Anglia, distorted by the winds — some of them look like witches, waving witches' arms; very sinister.
And then I'm going to have a car coming past, and then there'll be this familiar, reassuring sound, and then just a blaze of light and sound as it rushes past, and that will make her feel even more lonely and isolated. So there's this duality of actually experiencing what your character is experiencing, at the same time with part of your mind thinking of the technique of bringing this alive for the reader.
Where do all these characters in your books come from? They come from inside your head. You're a role-player, you're an actor, and you've got all these different characters who you invent and who then are there forever. I must have a cast of thousands by now of people I've invented. It's not really putting on someone else's clothes, it's putting on someone else's skin, their mind and their body.
For example in The Complaints , Malcolm's sister has a fairly abusive relationship; you know, she's living with a guy who she loves but who's not a very nice guy. Well I didn't just want to look at her through Malcolm's eyes, I wanted to know what it was like to be her. But I didn't go and talk to lots of battered women or abused people; I just thought, "What's it like to let yourself get in a situation where you can't escape, you don't want to — you don't want to walk away, you know you should but you won't and you can't? You just think about these people until they become real to you and you can inhabit their bodies, for a short space of time.
I mean only for a page or two, but a page or two is all you need. I'm very keen on dialogue as a way of defining character, so I often find that the notebooks fill up with passages of dialogue between a couple of characters who at that stage will be called A and B or X and Y; they haven't even got names. I know sort of who they are, that they're a he and a she, and they're central characters, or not. But I haven't named them yet because that comes later, but I want to hear what they say, I want to get some idea of what their voices sound like because in that way I shall be able to fill them out as characters.
It's the most odd business, the naming of characters in fiction, because it's so unlike people's names in real life.
Your name has not been chosen for you by your parents because they think you look as though you might be a Sarah or a Penelope — they've plucked it because they think it's a name they rather like and it perhaps goes with your surname. Whereas in fiction you do feel that you have to match the name to the character and a character who sounds very much like a Tom or a Dick you're not going to be calling Percival. Where do you pull your characters from? You have to create them out of your own self; where else could they possibly come from? To create the protagonist of a book you really have to be prepared to live through them, and for me the process is physical as well as mental: I don't quite know how to put this, but I am so intensely engaged with my characters that their physicality passes into mine, and I've only just discovered the joys of working with a really healthy central character.
My health suddenly improved and I felt as if the boundaries of my being had become firmer. Cromwell is physically a short, broad, squat, strong man, and what I've always thought about him is that he was probably very hard to knock over. This is important because he had been a soldier, he had led a very adventurous youth, and I thought, well, if I'd only known what a tonic it would be, I'd have started writing this book years ago!
It is just amazing what imagination can do — what it can cause to happen in the real world, and every day I'm proving and exploring how strong the products of one's mind can be. Structure is the most important thing of all, I think, in writing. You may think of a marvellous plot, but unless you know how to structure it, which bit goes where and where, you won't get the full impact of it.
I'm really not in control at all of what I'm writing. It's almost as though before I start writing there's a shape sitting there that I've not seen yet, and when I start to write the novel the shape will reveal itself to me, the novel will decide which way it wants to go. Does it want to follow this character or that character, is this minor character really interesting and worth blowing up into a full-scale character or is this major character unnecessary and needs to be done away with?
Maybe the shape is sitting in my subconscious, buried way deep down. It's like a high-wire act, because you've no idea when you start the book if you can finish it or not; will it have a satisfactory denouement? A writer like James Ellroy, for example, will do a two to three-hundred page synopsis of the book before he starts writing it because he needs to know everything that's going to happen in the book.
I don't need to know everything that's going to happen; I'm much happier playing the detective; ie, the first draft is me getting to know the characters and their motives and everything else, so I start the book knowing almost as little as Rebus does, or whoever the cop or main character happens to be. I think that keeps the suspense level up, because if I don't know where the story is going probably the reader doesn't know either. So I'm not giving stuff away because there's nothing for me to give away; there are no red herrings at the start.
I don't like all that kind of stuff like red herrings, a sense of holding back necessary information from the reader, which Agatha Christie did brilliantly throughout her career.
The write stuff
To me that's the least interesting part of the crime genre. By the time I begin writing, the plot is there and there's a chart which shows in which order the things come so that the structure is right. But that will change, as new ideas occur during the writing, which makes the writing very exciting. When you write biography or history or non-fiction you always look for a way of escaping from the prison of chronology before you come back into it, and sometimes what I try to do is to have two lines of progress in a narrative: But then there's the thematic line as well, and that doesn't keep exactly in step with the other, so the challenge is to have a narrative where you can stop the sequence of things and have a thematic break from that and then return.
I once, in my biography of Shaw, left Sidney Webb I think on the top of a hill — at a certain date, of course. Then we had a lot more "and then", and 30 pages later I thought, "Okay, he can come down now". I don't think a writer is necessarily a good judge of his own work, whichever way it goes. He can be over-fond or overcritical. I'm not at all confident about the quality of what I do, and I suffer like all people do, I think, who are writers, an intense disappointment — not at the reception of what I've written, but at my own inability to bring off what I want to bring off.
Auden in his introduction to his Collected Poems well, the first one of his collected poems , said in a writer's work there are usually four categories — he loved categorising things. First, sheer rubbish which he greatly regrets ever having done. Third, the saddest of all, the fair notion, fatally injured.
And then the last one, the handful of poems he's truly grateful for, which if he were to publish would make his work seem dangerously slim, and vitiated. I would love to just disappear to the other side of the world at publication time, or put my head under a pillow or something, but you can't. So I simply dread it. I love a year in which I don't have a book coming out and dread a year in which there is one. A bad review doesn't get any easier to take, so you just have to sit and suffer for the period that it happens.
Some writers say they don't read their reviews.
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I never quite know whether to believe this or not. That must mean not picking up a newspaper for about two months. You have to give an author the elementary courtesy of getting the basics of their book right. But if that's in place, well then opinion is free, and from time to time you are going to be horribly misunderstood, but after all, you gave that book into the world to be misunderstood.
You can't staple yourself to it and go round explaining yourself and protest that the critics have misunderstood because that is something they're perfectly at liberty to do. Such a lot of it is about keeping your confidence up. But I think that's got more to do with what happens day by day than what the critics say, because the blank page breeds a crisis of confidence every morning.
I have altered one or two things as a result of reading reviews and thinking: If I get another chance to do it in a new thing I'll make a note of that," and I have had a chance and I have changed it. It could be even a single word. But I think I've probably become more sensitive to them. I would say people as they get older become either more like stones or more like sponges, and I'm probably more like a sponge. One is investing everything in it and one wants the child to be well received.
In the old days you wrote a book, and if you were lucky it was reviewed, and then after about a few months the whole thing was forgotten till you wrote another one. But nowadays, if you have a book coming out you go all over the country — you have to really flog it; your publisher expects you to, and you're forever giving readings or talking about it on the telly or the radio. You could turn down invitations to America, to India, to Australia, to all the different festivals.
I always turn them down because I hate travelling. You'd have various articles in the newspaper, they'd come round and interview you and take another dreary photograph, and you'd go from city to city doing readings, because nowadays there is a so-called book festival practically every month, so there's always somewhere to go. The way things are today you couldn't be as successful, in the sense of having your works put on and esteemed, as Shakespeare was and yet be completely unknown to everybody as Shakespeare was in his time. If he were alive today he'd be on everything.
Every morning he'd be on the Today programme, he'd be having special sessions at the South Bank, he'd be in 1, different pictures and he'd be interviewed and he couldn't avoid it. When my career started, you did perhaps something on the radio, the Third Programme maybe or the Home Service, and that was it. There was much more advertising, there were more bookshops and advertising in newspapers and magazines, but that didn't involve you.
You might do an interview, yes, but then from the 70s onwards writing became more and more a younger brother of the performing arts, so you have to go out and blow the trumpet and beat the drum in front of your book. I think that because we're no longer a literary culture, as we used to be, it isn't the word that speaks: And there's something terrible about it really, because you finish a book and it's not published for another year or so; possibly you're writing a different book — involved in that — and when people say, "What's your book about?
A terrible blank that stares you in the face. The book should do the speaking and I should stay at home. It's always worried me, is writing a way of life or is it a way of not living, is it essentially a second-hand pursuit? I think it probably worries all writers, but then they say the onlooker sees most of the game, so that's the virtue of it.
Literature is a sort of keeping going while the various destinies all around about you are being enacted. It's a way, I think, of coping with time. We don't seem to live very long, and yet on the other hand 24 hours can be a tremendously big burden. The only happiness one gets from writing is doing a good day's work, of suddenly discovering something on the page which works. You pick up the page, you shake it, it's there, it doesn't come to bits, and you didn't know it at the beginning of the day and now you know it. Now that's a real happiness, and unless there is some element of that, well why on earth is one writing?
Because otherwise moving a pen across the page is not all that enjoyable. There are times of boredom, there are times of regret, there are times of disappointment and there are times of it's just hard work and times when you wonder if you'll go on today — better not leave it and wait till inspiration comes? Always fatal, I think. But basically, yes, hugely pleasurable, and certainly a writer is happiest, I think, when either writing or plotting or planning a book, or most of us are. This is good for me as my writing comes to me in fits rather than prolonged spells.
Only when my work is finished in longhand do I transfer it to a computer, editing as I type up. I find this part of my writing process the least enjoyable. Writing on the page stays on the page, with its scribbles and rewrites and long arrows suggesting a sentence or paragraph be moved, and can be looked over and reconsidered.
Writing on the screen is far more ephemeral — a sentence deleted can't be reconsidered. Also, you know, the internet. He's right, of course. There are far too many distractions when writing directly onto the screen. The internet being the main culprit. But if that's not all, the computer screen itself is enough to put some writers off completely.
The physicality of longhand pleases me. I can revise as I work in a way that doesn't happen on a laptop. There's a greater sense of space when using a pen.
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A lined notebook is less judgmental. But most importantly, I write in a more economical way. I think harder about one good sentence following another, which for me is all that matters. In longhand, the hand moves freely across the page in a way no amount of computer jiggery-pokery can muster. I think the economy of writing longhand is to do with its pace. Which is something Alex Preston has found out. I composed my first book in a computerised blur; for the second, I wanted to be more scrupulous, more thoughtful.
This is the pace of longhand. Writing with the fetish objects — the Uni-ball pen , the Rhodia notebooks —and watching the imprint of pen on page reminds us that writing is a craft. If everything is done on keyboards and fibre-optic wires, we may as well be writing shopping lists or investment reports. I can understand this idea of the pen and notepad evoking the idea of craft. For me, writing longhand is an utterly personal task where the outer world is closed off, just my thoughts and the movement of my hand across the page to keep me company.
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