I’ve been writing this novel for eight years. I know. It’s a very long time and I can imagine a variety of responses. An agent might say: ‘We need a book a year, at least!’ A publisher will say something similar: ‘We can’t wait.. write something else..move on..’ If you’re not a writer, it might be : ‘What’s taking you so long? How hard can it be?
Blyton, Patricia Cornwell, that pink lady, Barbara Cartland, etc, etc …they all
wrote at least one book a year, if not more, so why can’t you do that?’
I have to tell you that for writers there is nothing worse than a deadline. DEADLINE. Dead line. The line beyond which, if you're not standing there, wild-eyed and breathless, manuscript in hand, you are, or might as well be...er..dead. Such a cruel word.
A writer might say, ‘Yes. It happens like that sometimes.’ A writer will understand my problem. You do, don’t you?
Writing is like surfing.
For a while you pootle about in the shallows, sketching out an idea, then a wave of confidence comes along and carries you high, as you write several chapters, which are all marvellous! Then someone says they’re not so marvellous and you’re dumped in the shallows again, but you keep going and try again, get back up on the board and steady yourself, ready, because you can’t let the idea go, because you’re convinced of it, you know there’s something there…something.
Maybe fishing would be a better analogy. You write and write, fishing for the magic that will bring your story to life, that elusive little fish that’s darting about just out of reach while you dangle your hook in the water and wait and wait and wait. Or, let's get real for a moment, in my own case, not fishing as such, but cleaning, cooking, washing, gardening, walking, all the time with my head in a different place, sitting on the bank of the lake of stories, staring into the water.
Sometimes if you’re lucky, a whole section will come to you like a gift; a scene, an incident, a snatch of conversation, even just a phrase, that you know you will never change, because it’s part of the finished book. When I wrote ‘Mr Rabbit the Farmer’, a text for the Oxford Reading Scheme, it was the pictures that came to me, slotting into the 32 page format like clockwork.
In the case of ‘Warrior Girl’, for the story of Joan of Arc, I wrote the death scene first, very quickly, with trembling fingers, and didn’t change it. It must have been on my mind, you know, from the first moment of deciding to write about Joan and her terrible death. Perhaps I’d been working on it subconsciously. Whatever the case, the finished piece came to me and was’ right’.
It’s rare though, that it happens. Mostly, I plod and hack and weed and stumble on. It was reassuring to hear Alan Bennett recently speaking of writing as ‘very difficult’. And another hero of mine, Alan Sillitoe, saying he wrote every novel eight times over, before he was satisfied it was ‘right’. Then there’s George Eliot, who threw away over 100,000 painstakingly handwritten words to start again.
My new book is written: I do have a complete draft, but I know it’s not ‘right’. The writing process I go through is like watching fog clear from a view.
(Copyright: Alec McCann for BBC Weather)
Time after time, day after day, the fog stays solidly in place, clearing perhaps for a moment, a sentence a scene, a chapter. Then it swirls about and closes down again, but, eventually, if I keep going, it clears like magic - boom!- and I can see the way clearly, and it’s ‘right’. Or right enough to show a professional editor. It’s a wonderful moment.
I’m lucky in not having to earn my living from writing, so I can indulge in this lengthy process, as I search for the ‘right’ words. Modern publishers won’t wait, I know, which is why I’m thrilled at the way the market is changing to favour more self-publishing. I will finish my book and publish it when I’m ready, when it’s ‘right’.
Pauline Chandler May 21 2014