Monday, 7 May 2012

There's writing, and then there's writing - Linda Newbery



Until recently I thought I was the laziest writer alive. I know I'm not really, because there's a bookshelf lined with books to prove otherwise, but when I'm idling at my desk - or doing something else altogether to avoid facing the screen - I feel  incredibly lazy. There are writers who turn out three thousand words a day, or write tirelessly for hours on end. I just can't do that. Sometimes, especially at the start of a project, I have to cajole, bully and threaten myself in order to get anything done at all.

Fortunately it's not always like that, or why would I do it? A book usually takes off for me when I'm about a third of the way in. And I love revising. When I was revising THE DAMAGE DONE for its Kindle edition, I found myself working at all hours, reluctant to stop. Revising is so much easier than first-stage writing.

It's come as a surprise, this last month, to find that writing non-fiction feels so very different. I'm co-writing a commissioned book about writing children's fiction, and there's not only the knowledge that the other author is busily working away at her sections, but we have a Plan. I know what to do, even if not quite how to do it.

But the biggest difference is that I'm not worrying about it in the way that I do when writing fiction. No, perhaps worrying isn't quite right. Writing a story brings with it a tension that feels like concentrating very hard on walking a tightrope. If I fall off, everything will be ruined. This how-to book doesn't feel like that at all. I can leave off at any point, even for a day or two if necessary. I can spend all morning happily searching for a quotation from C S Lewis in order to add a footnote. I can find satisfaction in getting one little thing sorted out.

Above all, I've found that I can sit at my desk and work. But it can't last. The fiction-writing part of my brain is impatient to get to work on a new novel.

- Linda Newbery is the author of many books for children and young adults, including the Costa Children's prize winner, SET IN STONE, a Victorian Gothic mystery. Her latest children's novel, THE TREASURE HOUSE, is published this month by Orion Children's Books. She is currently finishing an adult novel

13 comments:

Lee said...

'Fortunately it's not always like that, or why would I do it? '

I envy you!

It's almost always like that for me - cajole, bully, threaten - and still I do it. Who knows why?

Linda Newbery said...

It's weird, isn't it, what drives us? Perhaps, like me, you feel bad when NOT writing, so getting on with something is the only cure.

CallyPhillips said...

Other side of the coin. I do it because I LOVE doing it. But then I PLAN it all out well in advance of actual first draft writing and I research copiously and I only ALLOW myself to actually write when I just CAN'T hold off doing it any longer. Obviously at points DURING the process it's a bit boring at times (especially I find that with novels which are SO MANY MORE WORDS than plays or screenplays ever were) but it beats IRONING or CLEANING any day and that usually keeps me at it.

Lee said...

Oh no, a planner: more envy! I only ever have the very vaguest idea where I'm heading - a key scene or two, sometimes the glimmer of an ending - and when I try to plan, all I end up doing is staring at crumbled sheets of paper or a blank screen, getting more and more desperate and/or depressed. And since I still haven't learned to be brutal enough in cutting and rewriting afterwards, this goes a long way towards explaining my problems with plot.

But several people whom I respect - one a published writer, one a professional book reviewer and editor, one a psychologist - tell me to stop trying to fight the way my mind works. So right now I'm in the midst of a SFonal chapter which doesn't seem to have anything at all to do with the rest of my novel in progress, and I'm just slogging along. Maybe it will make sense at some point, maybe it will become another novel, or maybe it will be deleted, like the last five chapters I spent 7 or 8 months writing ... sigh.

Indeed, why do we do this?

Linda Newbery said...

Cally, I agree that it always beats ironing or cleaning! (Gardening, though, is another matter - and positively conducive to writing.) Lee, I like that things about not trying to fight the way your mind works! Yes. I know that my mind is not good at planning until I get right in to the book, so your way wouldn't work for me, Cally, though I can see that it has advantages, not least that I don't suppose you get stuck very often. You do have to learn how to get the best out of your brain. I bet your chapter will find its purpose eventually, Lee - maybe now, maybe in a few years' time!

julia jones said...

Like Linda I love revising and I also love what you might call negative writing - when the achievement for the day is how many words I have managed to cut. Pleasures of writing non-fiction are subtly different from fiction, I find. In non-fiction I am telling the story, finding the links, making the connections, handing out the info - in fiction (when it's going well) there's that lovely feeling that the story is telling itself to me.
Ah! so that's what happened next, I say, with a feeling of delight.

However it is now time to write a blog - hmmm, not so easy ....

I look forward to your book Linda

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I hate getting the first draft done, and will do almost anything but write - research, daydream, make notes, make plans, make mind-maps, listen to music, google actors who might look like characters... but once that's done, however rough and ready, I'm away and I love revisions too. BUT, I actually find non-fiction much harder. God's Islanders was probably the biggest single piece of non-fiction I ever did (it was pretty big and covered a lot of ground) and I'm amazed I got it finished at all. The reason, I decided, was because whenever I got to the end of a chapter, I felt as though I had finished. And then, blow me, I had to start on ANOTHER one. It drove me mad! Whereas with fiction, you're still telling the story, and - I find, anyway - want to carry on. Great, thought-provoking post!

Debbie said...

Lee, I am so much like you. Except that often I don't even have a glimmer of where I am heading. But I think my subconscious does sometimes. I fight with myself over apparently irrelevant scenes/sentences - even words. And then 30k further into the book, I'll realise what the relevance actually was and thank my subconscious for making me keep it.

It's a scary and insecure way to write, isn't it? But I couldn't do it any other way.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Linda, you're so right. Once a story has got me in its jaws, not much else exists. Non-fiction doesn't have that pull for me.

Jenny Alexander said...

I've written about 50/50 fiction and non-fiction books - I find they're exciting and demanding in different ways. Interesting post!

Enid Richemont said...

Reading and enjoying THE SHELL HOUSE, Linda. And yes, I work in the same way. The first draft produces the raw material. After that, you're the sculptor.

Trish said...

Your post completely resonates with me, Linda. I can fly through non-fiction writing without a worry, but I spend more time THINKING about writing than actually doing it when I'm writing a work of fiction.

For me, the difficulty lies in the fact that non-fiction has fewer noticeable repurcussions. Writing non-fiction is a bit like giving professional orders. You're dealing with facts, organization, and reality. Fiction, on the other hand, is purely imaginative. You're not talking TO someone; you're talking THROUGH characters. Your inner thoughts are exposed as is your writing style. If someone dislikes your non-fiction work, you can blame the facts. But if someone dislikes your fiction, it feels like a personal hit to the soul.

Linda Newbery said...

Trish, that's a very good distinction! And Enid, thanks for reading THE SHELL HOUSE! Jen, yours is an interesting perspective too. Yes, each has its own requirements. Writing non-fiction takes me back to writing student essays, I think - deeply satisying in its own way.