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I recently watched a BBC programme, Simon Armitage, Writing Poems, in which the poet took the viewer/reader behind the scenes of some of his poems to reveal elements which went into writing them.
‘Like most poets,’ Armitage says. ‘I try and get the form of a poem to somehow represent or resemble the subject matter.’ In his poem, A Vision he uses a town’s abandoned plans for a utopian future as a metaphor to explore society’s, and by extension our own, lost and fruitless dreams. The poem, he says, ‘is very architectural … it looks orderly and it looks structured.’
This struck a chord with me as considering the shape, the layout – the form of a novel is something I enjoy and like to take time over. It is after all the realization of a pile of pages, the manuscript into a physical object, the book.
The form is of course an important element to the reading experience. Whether to divide the book into chapters or parts, how to show a shift in time from past to present, how to move between different points of view need to be handled carefully so that the reader isn’t confused or shaken out of the flow of the narrative. There is scope, though too, for a little fun and a bit of decoration.
In ‘Laughing as they Chased us’, I gave my chapters titles, not numbers. The titles were phrases or partial phrases drawn from the text of that particular chapter: ‘can’t stop myself’, ‘feel empty’, ‘let me talk’. These words expressed the intensity of emotion captured within the chapter and I felt and heard them as I would a lyric.
In my second novel I divided the book into parts by season which both acknowledged and deepened the significance the weather had to the story. Not only did the seasons and weather evoke the Englishness I wanted to celebrate but it was influential in the motivations and actions of the characters.
In my novel, ‘Summer Circles’, circles, spots, dots and circular patterns appear throughout the book –the corn circles, chairs set out in a semi-circle, freckles on a face – and the cyclical nature of life is suggested at within the rural landscape and through the main characters, three women at different ages and stages in their journeys. I visualized the form of book like a Venn diagram, the circles representing the relationships the characters had with the world and with each other. Certain scenes in which all the three characters interact are repeated three times from each different viewpoint.
For several days now while I’ve been walking the dog or on the bus, or running my eyes down my To Do list (see March post) the knowledge that I still haven’t written my June Blog Post has become as pressing as the post remains elusive.
A blank page is rarely a problem for me when I’m writing fiction. ‘Throw the idea down and see what you can make of it,’ could be one way of describing my process.
I touch type and work directly onto a laptop. I can get the words out as quickly as I think them which has two, seemingly opposite, effects of providing distance from the words appearing in front of me while allowing me scope to contemplate what I’ve written.
Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t be without my notebooks either. Handwritten notes are the form I use to make observations and examine my writing life. The notebook is the place where I study my characters, explore scenes and settings and work out themes and plots. Working on the laptop allows me to delete, add, and move words, paragraphs and even chapters as the work evolves. It gives a tangible feeling of freedom and of craft.
The reason for the Blank Post is because, at the moment, I’m teetering on the brink of a final manuscript. I’m obsessed with the glacier-creep towards the end of this edit. I am living for the small filip which each finished page gives me. Time spent on anything else feels like pages torn out of the book.
A couple of months ago I took part in an Opinions and Lifestyle Survey for the Office for National Statistics. Prior to this, a letter had arrived in the post saying I had been selected from 63,182,000 “to help shape Britain today and tomorrow.”
Enclosed with the letter and explanatory leaflet was a book of first class stamps as a thank you or perhaps encouragement to take part. For me, neither postage stamps or an appeal to my citizenship was necessary. As a writer of contemporary realism, numbers feed my hunger to know the habits and tastes of my fellow nation-dwellers and this was a real chance to glimpse behind the scenes.
The friendly woman with her official badge who had turned up on my doorstep one evening returned on the day we had agreed for the interview. I said this was my first ever survey and she said this was the first time she’d interviewed a novelist. I like to think that she seemed pleasantly surprised by my enthusiasm and we settled in the living room with mugs of tea, a fat file of question cards and my attention-seeking cocker spaniel who the lovely Dorothy was very patient with.
Questions on air travel, airports and flying, on tax evasion or was that avoidance? on alcohol, on my use of IT, were just some of the subject areas in an interview which lasted well over an hour. My enthusiasm waxed and waned: questions didn’t allow for context, the structure of the answers didn’t cater for nuance but it felt good that someone was asking these questions and that somewhere, later, out would pop a batch of fresh statistics.
These days everyone’s collecting data: service industries, financial institutions, shops and supermarkets, as well as, of course, the mother of statistic gathering: the government. What kind of tea I had supplied Dorothy with, and which make of kettle I use, is no longer purely my own business.
Big Brother omniscience is the sinister aspect to insatiable data capture but the flip side is that we now have access to the strangest information.
A few months earlier, at Christmas time, I’d enjoyed Damian Carrington’s article in The Guardian about the ‘Christmas Effect’ on the National Grid. While capitalism promotes the individual, statistics prove that common behaviour remains heavily in play. I relish the thought of “TV Pickups” – the national heaving of bums off settees as we head towards the kettle while TV credits roll after a popular programme or the fact that for the grid, Boxing Day morning is the “most peaceful national moment of the year”.
In the same issue of the paper there were also statistics about people who had split off from the herd. On Christmas Day in 2012, 392 people bought a car on eBay, 1,548 filed their tax returns while 674 died.
Setting the idiosyncratic against common behaviour is a gift for a writer. Behind those numbers are stories of heartache, boredom, loneliness and excessive pragmatism.
I am currently editing my next novel. The book has already been through a number of drafts and is now a weighty 90,000 words. Weighty because I have printed it off and the pile of paper is gratifyingly thick but also because the book is finally feeling substantial in content: the plot, the timelines, the research and the settings are, for the most part, worked out.
I have read through the printed pages twice: the first time, quickly, to get a feel for the atmosphere, the readability of the book. The second read-through was slower, more reflective. I was on the lookout for surfaces and shortcuts, for false notes and weak spots.
I am now putting those thoughts and addressing those questions directly onto the next draft on my laptop. This is the time when I can strengthen the core themes that shape the story and give myself over to the characters.
There is an intensity to this edit which is different to all the others. It feels both precarious and immersing. This novel is told from a single, male perspective – the father of a family in crisis. It’s hard to break away from the relationship I am building with him although work, family, day-to-day life frequently intervenes. It feels as if I keep getting up and leaving in the middle of a confidential conversation.
I love lists. I have lists for shopping, to-do lists for home and work, books I want to read, what to take on holiday lists; to list just a few! Add a timeline and finances and possibilities explode: I’ll produce budgets, monthly goals, an annual plan and so much more.
I’m happy to be teased about my prolific list-making because secretly I’m thinking I’ve got it sussed. I mean, how do people who don’t make lists function? What do they do with all those ideas, wishes, tasks? Do they keep them in their heads? Or, perhaps – a suspicion I suspect most list-makers try to hold back from allowing to fully form – the ‘others’ are people without enough ideas, wishes or tasks to warrant a list. But surely that’s not possible? You can make a list out of anything.
Maybe non list-makers don’t realize what they’re missing out on. They don’t know that there’s a whole world of pleasure in notebooks, coloured pens and sharp pencils. They haven’t yet been seduced by the soft suspense as you ponder what form your list should take.
I find setting words down attaches purpose and value and makes what they represent harder to ignore. And there is pure satisfaction when you can tick something off as ‘done’. I love the meditative moments that come with the ordering of thoughts, and the rush of releasing a mess of words onto paper where I can contemplate them at leisure – making connections and meanings for future use.
Each novel demands a slightly different approach but lists, naturally, form part of my creative process and will feature at some point in the novel’s evolution. A word-doodling list might help me find a way forward when I’m stuck; lists of objects or observations pushes me deeper into a character or setting; specialist phrases and words gives me access into unknown worlds and the authentic ‘mot juste’. Sometimes the juxtaposition of words or lists can bring out new connections and provide texture and fibre.
My third novel, Never Stop Looking, is set in a fictionalized London. I took a research trip there back in 2008 to stay with a friend who happens to work in the area where my character lives (Vauxhall). I spent the day slowly making my way from Paddington to Vauxhall where I then spent a few nosey hours wandering the streets. While I waited for my friend to finish work, I sat in the lovely café in Kennington Park and noted down everything I’d experienced that day, without hesitation or censor. When I look at those pages now, I can see it, smell it, feel it all. The taxi drivers relaxing against their cabs is as clear to me now, the tall man with long legs walking along with a full box of kiwi fruits on his shoulder, still makes me smile.
The night-time plays a strong role in the novel and this also influenced the overall visual impression that I wanted to convey of light within shadows. I sought for words, objects and sounds that would reflect the metallic and monochrome world I imagined Abbie, the main character, living in: the silver cold of the moon, the shocking, stark whites against disorientating shifting shadows.
The character, Abbie, repairs and makes theatre costumes for a living. I needed to access sewing terms and vocabulary, so I started a classic word-doodle list. Words were slow to come at first. I thought about sewing classes at school, about outfits my mother made me and my sister when we were younger; I remembered my grandma who crocheted. Memories of sensations and emotions returned alongside words and phrases like threading the bobbin, hook and eye fastening, tacking stitch.
I visited backstage at a local theatre and snooped in the wardrobe departments of other theatres on the internet. I drew on the experience of plays I’d seen and the few I’d had first-hand involvement in. The list grew not only with sewing terms, but equipment and fabrics and the damage the costumes could suffer that Abbie might have to repair.
In the creative process, lists allow me to explore, to reach deeper and find new directions. Lists encourage those serendipitous moments: I discovered pearl on my sewing list and pearl(y) on my metallic list. This word shines at the core of the novel and plays an important role in Abbie’s healing.
Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk About when I Talk About Running was first published in 2008. I clipped out a review at the time but it wasn’t until this year, that I happened to buy it.
In those five years ill-health has ended my running and slowed my writing. For a few weeks I hesitated to read a writer who might arouse new yearnings for past capabilities.
Despite its classifications this book, as Murakami says, is not a manual on running or fitness, nor is it a conventional autobiography. The author’s personal history and creative process are revealed only in terms of his preparations for running marathons and triathlons. Essentially this is Murakami’s philosophy on running and writing: the two components which form his essence.
The writer hangs his hat on the Buddhist proverb: ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ You feel the fibrous determination in the muscles that he wills into action even when they are failing. It is the same disciplined attitude he applies to his ‘career’ in writing.
Murakami can’t imagine people liking him and perhaps such a dedicated way of living might daunt a new runner or writer but there is still plenty to enjoy. He is funny, his observations are full of heart and he generously exposes his flaws.
When Murakami quotes Maugham’s aphorism, ‘in each shave lies a philosophy’ you understand that this is a man who is patiently carving out his space in life. Most appealing are the intimate moments he shares, those small moments of ceremony: writing in his notebook, buying new training shoes, the counting of miles run.
I worried this book would awaken unwanted emotions. Instead I was gently reminded of the enchantment of daily life. It made me want to sit down, stretch my legs, reach for my notebook and write.
One of the most common questions asked of any writer must be where do you get your ideas from? My instinctive response is anywhere and everywhere but I’m aware this evasiveness is awkward and sounds oddly self-important although it is by no means meant to be.
My less opaque reply (see FAQ!) is an attempt to touch on the infinite sources and routes that an idea can come through. As a writer of social realism within a contemporary context, day-to-day exposure to all this potential raw material could be overwhelming.
A more rigorous but trickier question might be – what makes a particular idea stick? What is it about this idea amongst all the others which urges me to experience, feel, understand it more? My answer is not necessarily more concrete but it feels real: there are issues and themes that I might repeatedly return to and there are some which catch my eye and then gather strength, burrowing deeper once I’ve allowed them houseroom.
For every piece of writing, the experience is different and the underlying concept can swerve and contort, almost beyond recognition sometimes, as the process of writing happens; yet that initial idea remains, even when fragmentary, its essence.
When Honno contacted me to see if I would be interested in writing a story for their love-themed collection, My Heart on my Sleeve, I happened to be reading Couples – the truth by Kate Figes as research for a novel.
In her chapter, September Days Figes explores relationships in older age. “We need that gentle kindness of intimacy most in our later years when we are fragile and vulnerable …” Figes says, and yet this is a period of our lives which brings great challenges.
Ageing in our society is an issue that fascinates me and I was particularly interested in how Figes talked about the way ageing can blur the boundaries of gender. Women can become more “independent, feisty, assertive, outspoken and less constrained by conventional notions of femininity, while the machismo of men tends to soften.”
For my short story I wanted to explore how a woman’s growing strength might show in her adaptability to a changing society and, how the man’s ‘softening’ might lead to a distrust or rejection of such changes. I wanted to explore how a couple’s marriage provides a foundation of continuity and security but how the individual and their role within the marriage can be tested by the aging process.
This initial idea remained steady throughout the writing of Leaves and Geese and is the core of the story. The husband observes his wife going on an everyday errand from a window in their house. “Each day the world seems to me a little more complicated, a notion more unfathomable,” he thinks. His fears manifest themselves in an over-protectiveness towards his wife. It is her willingness to engage with the ‘outside’, together with her understanding of what lies behind his anxieties that give her the strength to provide the tender comfort he needs.*Cancian, Love in America: Study quoted in Kate Figes compassionate and fascinating study, ‘Couples, the truth.’