Surfing, Fishing and Foggy Days – by Pauline Chandler

May 21st 2014    Surfing, Fishing and Foggy Days –  by Pauline Chandler

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?  Enid 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 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.
Where did that come from? It was a huge surprise! I was able to provide a reasonable brief for Eric Smith, the illustrator, who brought my ideas brilliantly to life. Don’t ask me how that happened. I’m no artist. 

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)

Surfing, fishing, foggy days! Hope you’re following all this.

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. Eureka!

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


Dennis Hamley said…
I recognise everything here, Pauline. The most I've taken so far to finish a novel is four years. Luckily, I had some other small commissions to do to keep my publisher thinking that I was a prolific writer. But now I'm writing the last book in the Ellen trilogy. It MUST be done this year to meet the Berlin Wall 25th anniversary. But I've been writing it off and on now for five years. And it's HARD. I'm stuck in a particularly difficult plot line which is essential. I'm doing something I haven't done since I started writing - writing other easier bits while I think about this dead, vast and middle of the book. So now the ending is quite good. It's how I get there which is the bugbear.
Lydia Bennet said…
Deadlines work well for me, but only one-off ones - I'd find it horribly claustrophobic to have to write a book a year, of the same type, because someone told me to. Many of the very prolific writers of the past had servants, wives, no day jobs, so they could just write without having to fit in child rearing or sainsburys. if it takes some years to write a book, well that's what it takes!
Bill Kirton said…
So, so familiar, Pauline. With all my previous books, I've made up my mind to do it and, once caught up in the writing, I've been eager to get to the computer every day and find out what happened next. This time it's a sequel. I know what the various themes are, how they (in theory at least) fit together, and I'm familiar with at least half the characters, but I'm having to drag the words out line by painful line. Then I discard huge chunks and start again. I've got around 27000 words so far and usually that's enough for me to be immersed in it but, for some reason I don't understand, this one's resisting. Thanks for reminding me I'm not the only one.
I'm so boosted by your comments, everyone! Thanks!
Lee said…
What a relief to read that others have the same problem - that is, if it's actually a problem at all. There are days when I feel incredibly discouraged to be writing so slowly - ever more slowly, in fact - and that it's taken me five years to complete only seven chapters of my new novel. Of course, there are ca. 27 chapters that I've discarded along the way, possibly more. And the thing is, the novel I began five years ago is not the novel I'm writing now, so not only don't things fit together, but my writing itself has changed, my style, my concerns. Maybe I'll just end up publishing it as 'unfinished' ...
If it's not too much of a cliche to say so, Lee,I think some novels are 'journeys', which take as long as they take while you learn what you need to learn. That's my experience, anyway. With each rewrite of this one, I feel I get closer to the characters and the world they live in, unpeeling the layers. It is an exciting process, but it takes time. may the fog clear a little for you!

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