The hermit-like life of the writer


When I was in primary school, we studied the fascinating story of Simeon Stylites. It was one in of those weird comprehension books we did at my small rural primary, that possibly every other school had left behind in the sixties (The fact it was called New Worlds to Conquer convinces me more of this). So Simeon went off to the desert and lived up a pillar for years or something, and was very holy and stuff. I drew a picture of him to go with my comprehension, his ribs sticking out in a piteous fashion, using many of the brown-hued set of my 64- crayon Deluxe Crayola case.

I have just looked up old Simeon for the first time in twenty years, and whatdya know, he was a Catholic saint. Catholic propaganda in our English lessons! Why am I not surprised. And apparently he lived up a pillar for 37 years, on a platform just one metre square, and he never allowed any women to come near him, not even his mother. And quite right too; we all know women are evil. Probably they would have distracted him with some cake and the latest issue of Heat magazine. This all just goes to show that one millennium’s saint is the next’s care-in-the-community.

My point here is not the subtle indoctrination of Catholic schools (perhaps it should be), it is more about the life of a writer. We may not live actually up pillars, but we could be said to be aloft from the world in many ways. For example. I’ve heard some established writers say they haven’t had a ‘real’ job in about thirty years – how could you then descend from this pillar and go to work, if, as keeps me awake at night, the whole publishing industry collapses?

When I quit my office job a few weeks ago people asked me would I not be lonely or bored sitting at home. I said I didn’t think so, and the truth is I love love LOVE it. I love being at home on my own. Is that sad? I like the peace and quiet, I LOVE not having to trek up to London every day on the train, and I’m immersing myself in words all day. Plus, the only filth in the kitchen has been made by yours truly, and the tea is of the finest leaf (I do live in Tunbridge Wells, after all). What’s not to like? Perhaps we aren’t so different from Simeon, happy to shut ourselves away from the world with just our thoughts, the harsh desert light of imagination.

I think most writers must have hermit-like tendencies. You have to, really, or else you’d spend your entire time swanning about at book events. A certain degree of anti-socialism is required to sit in a room and pound out thousands and millions of made-up words. The very gregarious must struggle with this. Luckily with the internet, we can all connect with people without actually having to get out of our pyjamas and leave the house. A bit like in the EM Forster story, The Machine Stops, where everyone lives in little rooms connected by the internet like ‘machine’. (if you want to read it, it’s here ) This is fine with me. As long as I have tea, paper/laptop, broadband, and mittens, I’m happy. Cold hands are definitely an occupational hazard of the writer. And as for fasting, let’s just say we don’t all cope with the solitude in quite as ascetic fashion as old Simeon. Unless his pillar was built of several thousand boxes of Jaffa Cakes? for more hair-raising information about old Simeon.

Habits of the lesser-spotted writer

This week is my first as a proper writer. I spent the last two at my laptop, hammering out edits and gripped with fear it will all be rubbish. Now that’s done – for now – I have time. The next book isn’t due for a while and I’ve already finished the first draft. What will it be like now I’m literally my own boss? How can I hide my procrastination from the boss when it’s ME?  I went back to my partly-started third book a few days ago and I’m happy with it – I need to get back into the excited creative blur where I can pound out several thousand words a day, not spend hours deciding where a comma should go.  This is the best bit of writing. The bit where you think, God, I’m amazing. No one has ever written anything as good as this in the history of the WORLD. All those others writers, quite frankly they should just give up now and go home, or not go home since they’re probably already there, but certainly give up and start writing technical manuals for printers or the copy for cereal packets or something.  

Annoying, right? It doesn’t last. During the editing stage it’s more like, God, I’m the worst writer in the world. There are toddlers scribbling on walls with their own saliva who write better than me. I’m going to give up and write the copy for cereal packets, etc etc.

So what’s it like being a full-time (ish) writer, I hear you ask? There are perks. Last week I went to my college reunion and had a good answer to the ‘what are you up to now’ question – Well, I’ve quit my job to be a writer. I went to Oxford, so as you’d expect many of my contemporaries went on to banking, law, more law, and management consultancy. But I’m not sure how many felt fulfilled by it. I heard several people say they wanted to take a break or change careers. At the same time I’m reading about the increasing doom and gloom for books – no money, no sales, piracy – and having feelings of alarm. Have I done the right thing? Will it end in tears? I know full well I might not be able to live off it for good, but for now it feels right to write as much as I can and give it my best shot.

I must say I think I’m quite temperamentally suited to home-working. I don’t mind being alone a lot. I often find other people irritating. I like sitting still and drinking tea. I like silence, and I don’t feel the lure of daytime TV. I’m quite self-motivated and I feel the fear a lot and do it anyway.

But what do writers actually do all day? I can go out for walks, I can have lunch, go shopping, write in coffee shops, drink tea all day, read and legitimately call it research. I can sit out in the lovely sunshine we’ve been having. A day at home slips by surprisingly fast. Somehow though I suspect I’ll feel bad if I don’t sit pounding at the computer until I have serious RSI. Tis the Catholic guilt or something. So far I’m really REALLY enjoying it. I love my new house. Steam trains run past the garden and it’s been sunny and quiet and beautiful. The edits are done for now, and the next book is, obviously, the most amazing thing anyone has ever written, ever (for now). So far, then, being a writer at home is brilliant.

The algebra of edits

A few weeks ago I got the list of edits for my book. A big page of things I need to change, ridiculous repetitions (I’ve mentioned Nancy Drew, like, five times), and plain stupid mistakes  (like saying something happened six weeks before when it was more like six months. DUH!)  Not easy to look it, so I took a deep breath and made a lot of notes on things to do. A classic avoidance trick that doesn’t involve, y’know, actually making the changes. Then I sat and looked at it. Then I did that ‘oooo –eee—urrrrr’ noise you did as a child when you didn’t want to do something. Mu-um, it’s not fair! I can’t dooooo it! Then I sat and looked at it some more. I counted the days to handing it in – less than three weeks.

It was sort of interesting to feel that edge of mild panic with my writing. For years now my only deadlines have been self-imposed, and what needed to change was only coming from my own intuition. Quite often, I felt I just didn’t know what to change at all. Like I’d come to the end of what I could do with it. So I’m thinking, this is interesting. It’s like a university essay crisis. Maybe I can lie on the floor of a library and eat sweets and laugh hysterically (we were allowed to do this because we had an 24-hour library, in which not much work got done but lots of intrigue went down). So I indulged in some gentle panic.

Then I went to York for the Festival of Writing, and realised how lucky I am to have this deal, and I really must GET ON WITH IT. So I did a bit on the train, starting with drawing up a timeline for the book. I’ve always been sort of proud of how I don’t plan, just write it all down and keep the plot in my head. Especially this one, with three narrators and quite a convoluted plot involving a police investigation and a trial (handily I know exactly nothing about either of these things, necessitating lots of emails to people begging them to help me and then emailing back saying, I know you said this wouldn’t happen but could it, could it ever happen, because I really need it to, pleeeease?). Turns out some  planning would possibly have helped a lot. Finally I got down to it, and after that things went surprisingly fast. I’ve added scenes, cut words, tried to weed out those pesky Nancy Drew references, and so on. I invented a minor character and killed him off (RIP Stephen the gay solicitor. You’d have been great if I had any lines for you to say). Now I have 10,000 extra words and some less mild panic that the editor might not like it any more.

This kind of editing is like algebra, and can melt your head in a similar way. If X is one thing, what does that do to Y? If Z fancies P, what the hell is C doing the whole time? What time is Loose Women even on the TV and why do my characters keep watching it? What IS the time difference to Singapore? See, head-wrecking. The whole equation of the book can change and you have to remember and adjust accordingly.  If I said this happened in October, have I said elsewhere it’s June? (Yes, because I am stupid). Would character 1 know this at this point? Why on earth is character 2 behaving in this way? I actually want to give the characters a good slap and tell them to stop angsting about like some episode of Dawson’s Creek circa 1999. But then, it would be a much shorter book if they didn’t get themselves into some emotional tangles. Editing is sort of the opposite to the happy headlong rush when you write the book, totally in love with your characters and their dilemmas. It’s like the sensible side of life when you do your tax returns and set up direct debits and other dull but necessary things. It’s not as much fun as the love bit, but you need it to make the book stronger.

So, if I’ve learned anything from this rapid editing period, it’s 1: planning tools are actually quite useful. I might not scorn the idea so much in future.

2: It’s not really that bad if you do some planning, or indeed actual research, before you write the book.

3: I really have some kind of obsession with Nancy Drew

4: Mild panic is quite motivating

5: You can do anything if you put your mind to it and your bottom on the chair. You wrote the book in the first place, so you can damn well fix some minor issues with it. GO!

What I learned on my (alco)holidays

The weekend before last, I went to the York Festival of Writing – (EDIT – just noticed they have mentioned me on there, thanks guys!) I had booked it sometime last year before I had an agent and before all the book-deal excitement. So I felt something of a fraud when, under gentle writerly probing, I had to admit I, ahem, was going to be published next year. Luckily no one threw cheese at me. (There was quite a lot of cheese for some reason.) So here’s what I learned at York, which by the way is a FANTASTIC event. I had so much fun, learned so much, and got the kick up the bottom I needed to get on with my scary edits.

I learned:

That ducks and geese do a lot of poo. They also make a lot of noise when you are trying to sleep. In fact, for anyone past the age of 22, sleeping in a university campus isn’t ideal. Narrow beds, too bright, too noisy.  But don’t let that put you off, it is a mere stumbling distance from the bar, and surely you used to sleep in this kind of room every night for years, often with someone else there too (how?)?

That writers are very lovely and kind – no one snubbed me when I had to reveal I was going to be published and had also been shortlisted for the live Authonomy reading. And the Festival opening.  People were very kind about stopping to say they’d liked my piece and I really appreciated that. I also appreciated the chocs and wine, thanks, festival organisers!

That when the clocks go back and you stay up to 2.30am still have to get up at 8, it is not fun.  It just isn’t.

That someone has already written my book – one down-side of submitting bits of my to-be fourth book was that I found out someone has already written one with the same title. Set in the same place. With a very similar story. Balls.

That it is quick to get to York. Indeed the train is somewhat TOO quick if you have tons and tons of edits to do and no time because of all the drinking, I mean, learning.

How to do research – I found out some very useful tips from CWA Chair (now ex-officio) Tom Harper, including how to use libraries, how to track down experts, and how to put your notes in nice tidy binders (I will never do this, I can tell).

That you get lots of free books- I went home with nine more books than I left with, plus two magazines, the chocs, and the wine. Since we already had a gas leak caused by excessive books, this was not a bonne idée. Since then I also bought the books of lovely writers I met – Emma Darwin, Julia Crouch, and Elizabeth Haynes.

That it takes guts to read out or send your work in the first place. I was lucky enough to be selected for the Authonomy Live readings, and I would really recommend this to anyone. It helped me get over my nerves, and everyone was so kind. Plus, people know who you are and come to say hi. I also had a couple of agents approach me, so if you are looking for one this is ideal. My top tip for not being scared is to be so busy you forget you’re doing it until 30 minutes before, when people start asking have you practiced. Easy!

How to create pace and tension – two great workshops on pace both in thrillers and women’s fiction, by Adrian Magson and Julie Cohen. Julie has a host of brilliant ideas, including a trick with Post-Its, over at her blog –
Writers know how to drink! I think I was the last person out of the bar on Saturday night, shepherded away by men in high-vis armbands (no, I don’t know why). And all the agents and publishers and authors and organisers were so kind to us wannabe writers. Totally willing to chat and help out. Amazing, really.  

So see you there next year, yes? I’ll be in the bar iwth the £2.50 gin and tonics. Not unconnected to the above fact, that.