When is a writer not a writer?

Been there, got the badge


Words matter. That’s one lesson you learn after spending three weeks deciding if it’s ‘that’ or ‘this’ in a sentence. That kind of fluency is, I think, largely instinctive. I’m not sure you can really teach someone how to hear what makes a sentence sound right and what strikes a discordant note. You can study the techniques, but if you’re tone-deaf to the rhythm of good writing, I don’t know if you can learn it. Words matter, and you have to be able to sing them in harmony.

So what I’ve been pondering of late is when you can call yourself a writer. It’s come up a few times already – tax return, hotel check-ins, meeting new people – and I’ve wondered when I’m entitled to use the word. I certainly am writing full-time and making my living that way. On the other hand, many commercially published writers still have day jobs, either through choice of necessity. And my book isn’t out yet, and won’t be for eight months. Most people can’t understand why it takes so long. Are you a writer before you can hold a book in your hand and say, look, I wrote this?

And of course this is a very novel-centric view. I only ever wanted to be a novelist. I can’t write short stories, I suck at them. I haven’t written poetry since I was seven and a girl in primary school passed off my elephant limerick as her own (my first, and biting, experience of plagiarism. Next time I’m copyrighting that damn elephant poem). Yet there are probably hundreds of short-story writers out there who write, win competitions, and have been published for years. Whereas I am still, technically, unpublished. Being a short story writer doesn’t seem much fun – it’s all about novels, as far as I can see. Waving a magazine with the story in and saying, look, I wrote that, doesn’t seem to have the same impact. Or am I wrong?

And what about all the unpublished/uncontracted writers? The ones who have agents but haven’t sold the book yet? The ones who’ve got an agent looking at it but aren’t signed up yet? The ones who are still working on the book, or too afraid to send it out, or letting it rest? Publishing is such a slow and stately process that people can be at all kinds of odd stages. Published overseas but not in the UK, for example. Self-published but selling well. Published with small companies. Published online only. There’s a very clear hierarchy, a ladder to climb. But as the saying goes, you have to be on the ladder to go up. And actually finishing your book and working hard to improve it is a massive leg-up. I think if you’re doing that, if you’re actually writing, then you are a writer.

I’m in a strange kind of writers’ limbo at the moment (not dancing under a pole; that would be a whole other matter indeed, that could spice up writing conferences no end). When I meet writers I’m introducing myself and going, ‘Hi I’m Claire, I-have-a-book-coming-out-next-year’. In other words, I’m one of you. Be my friend! Often, people look at me a bit suspiciously and ask who my publisher is. When I say Headline they visibly relax, smile, or (as on one occasion) mock-throttle me. I think this means it’s a good answer, and I can only look forward to being able to whip out the published artefact as a badge of belonging.

Do the crime, do the time

I’ve definitely lost something at CrimeFest in Bristol. Was it a book? No, I’ve come back with the usual seven hundred. Was it my memory stick, onto which I’m supposed to be editing my WIP? No, they’d have to prise that from my cold dead hands (plus it didn’t get a lot of use). A cloth bag? No, I have at last count seventeen million of those. Oh wait, it was my liver. And several nights’ sleep.

CrimeFest, held annually in Bristol, does exactly what it says on the posters (to my knowledge they don’t have tins) – it’s a full-on fest of crime. Panels of writers speaking to fans, industry peeps, and other writers. There’s no elitism, everyone congregates in the bar, and everyone is incredibly friendly. I don’t know how the organisers make it such a relaxed event, but they do. You might easily find your revered favourite writer standing you a gin and tonic at the bar or sitting next to you at the dinner.

I arrived on Thursday, straight from my holidays in Germany, and was already feeling guilty about not getting much writing done while away. The trouble with being self-employed is you feel you should be working all the time. The flipside is of course you can take a day off whenever you want. I was very diligent on Thursday, catching up on work emails and editing for several hours. I went to panels, I took notes, I nodded seriously.

It all started to go wrong on Friday. In the style of a crime cover blurb: The naive young parvenu was drawn into a coterie of hard-drinking, fast-living crime writers. They wanted alcohol. They wanted fun. And they would stop at nothing to get it. (Not even the eye-watering bar prices). Now, they’re in a race against time across one hotel. Can they get trolleyed before the bar, or their liver, shuts down? Basically, everyone at these kinds of events is too nice and too much fun for anything useful to ever get done.

I’m going to have to find a way of coping with the not-working guilt of holidays. Do we need time to recalibrate our brains, let the big ideas sink in and forget the minutiae of our current projects? Do we need to step back and look at the wide panorama of our inner writing world? I did certainly get ideas, most too fuzzy and general to even be at the formulating stage, and now I’m ready to plunge back into edits and new writing. Right after I’ve recovered from this CrimeFest hangover, that is.

[I think this may be the best quote of the festival: ‘Oh look, (massively famous author) Simon Kernick’s forgotten his banana.’

‘Don’t worry, he emptied it first.’

If you think that’s one of those ‘had to be there’ ones, then the solution is simple – come next year!]

Scaling the second-edit summit

Writing a novel is a long and epic journey. It might start with an idea knocking on your door, like all the visitors arriving in The Hobbit. Characters taking up residence in your head. It could be something very small, a word, a scrap of colour, a picture. Whatever it is, it sets you off on your journey of a hundred thousand words and more. And, like truly epic quests, a novel is the kind of journey that gets longer and longer as you go on. You may think you’re climbing the crest of the final hill, but then you get over it and see the curves of the twenty other ones you have to climb. Writing your first book in particular feels like this, like you can’t even see how far you have to go until you’ve already climbed for miles. You thought the first draft was great. Then you realised it wasn’t. You wrote away, digging your pen in like an alpenstock. You thought the next draft was finished. Then you realised you’d only begun to learn to write. And so on.

A few people have asked me recently what actually happens when you get edited. For me, I’ve been getting general feedback about what isn’t working so well in the book (could be entire characters, could be scenes, could be the whole plot…) and then it’s up to me to figure out how to fix it. These are big structural and thematic issues. Like if you built a house and forgot to put in a staircase (eg, ‘I don’t think Bob would really become a crazed puppy-killer in the final third of the book. Can you make his arc of motivation clearer throughout?’) Next it’s the fixtures and fittings – why have you mentioned people sweating twenty times in a row? (I really have done this – what’s wrong with me?) The repetitions, the timeline errors, the bit where you mixed up the character’s names. Writing a book is such manual labour it’s all too easy to reach for the same phrases again and again, especially once you’ve knocked down walls and taken the parts for scrap. My characters all do far too much shrugging, nodding, and sighing, for example. We haven’t got to the final stage yet, which I imagine will be something like putting in the carpet and screwing the number onto the front door.

So having rounded many hills, fought through the valley of the first draft, conquered the valley of first edits, I now find another ascent – the second edit cliff-face. And I know there will be more after this. Copy-edit crevasse. Final tweaks tor. I think there might be no such thing as a perfect novel (is that what poetry’s for?) There will always, always be a word you could have changed. Perhaps it’s as the quote goes: art is never finished, only abandoned. I don’t know if this book is art exactly but I’m quite keen to abandon it right now! Also like in quest stories, there’ll be many points you want to give up. You’ll hate and despise the book you loved to death at the start. You’ll think you can’t do it. But every single person who ever wrote a book has been this way too. If you look closely, you might find the marks that show you the way.

It’s oh so quiet

Inkstains Claire is away. Well, I’m at my parents’ house in Ireland, where they’ve lived since before I was born (long time). I once spent a whole summer writing in exercise books in the conservatory (all awful). The first night I was here I felt unsettled in some way but didn’t realise why. Then it hit me – it was so quiet! No noise at all except for the wind in the hills. I slept in this house for eighteen years and never noticed it. I must have got used to the traffic noise at our new house. When I woke up I’d no idea where I was, I slept so deeply.

In some ways it’s the perfect place to write – peace and quiet, natural beauty, hills and sea. The notion of being inspired by nature and quiet is a classic Romantic one, and the basis of many writers’ retreats, like Arvon. If you want, you can cut yourself off from TV, internet, and even phone reception. Everyone has their rituals and I’m developing mine, like having absolute quiet when writing fresh words, and drinking tea till it’s ready to come gushing out my ears. I can’t seem to do it with the TV on or if I don’t like my pen. But the truth is you can write anywhere. You can write sitting on the floor in the luggage rack of a massively crowded First Great Western train that’s been delayed by three hours, if you need to (I’ve been there). You just have to get on with it, is the sad truth, whether you’re in idyllic rural tranquility or on the tube in London (I’ve done this too).

I think this might be the first week I’ve felt like a proper writer. Now I’m self-employed I can do basically whatever I like. I can go home mid-week, I can walk in the forest and drink tea in cafes (I finally did that today. A pot of tea in this village costs a mere £1.20 – another culture shock). For the first time I’m really starting to savour that freedom. Not to mention the fact that Irish radio is a goldmine of potential research for my new local-based book. Did you know that it’s a common Irish custom to sprinkle holy water on your fields to help them grow? Or to kill a chicken and put it on your neighbour’s land so their crops will fail? Neither did I, but I’ll certainly be tuning in more often. Sure the books practically write themselves round here. Something in the air?