A couple of weeks ago I was nominated to write a blog about the writing process, part of a blogging chain. Having written mine, I passed the baton to three others, one of whom is Leigh Chambers, whose novel, Scapa Flow, is riveting. As she doesn’t have her own site, I’m publishing her blog here.
I’ve read about how other writers write. Some get up at 5 in the morning, when it’s quiet and still and there are no children or distractions around. They do ten minutes of ‘morning pages’ and then a good couple of hours work before the day kicks in and the school run starts etc etc.
Yeah, I don’t do that.
Others plan each chapter meticulously. Have a cast iron synopsis and stick to it at pain of death, pumping out a minimum of 1,000 words a day and watching as their novel or short story falls perfectly into place. Victoria Hislop is a great fan of this way of writing.
But I don’t do that either.
Others go with the flow. This was Beryl Bainbridge’s technique apparently (and who would argue with the wonderful Beryl). She’d just start writing, with no pre-set idea about what the story was or who the characters were, and see where it took her. Linda Grant is also a big fan of this process. ‘Where’s the fun in writing,’ she says, ‘if you know what’s going to happen?’
Perhaps I should try one or all of the above given that it’s taken me the best part of six years to write my novel. Or maybe I needed to go through that long drawn out pain to know what not to do next time, if there is one. No, be confident, there will be one. Of course there will.
I had the idea for my novel, Scapa Flow, in 2001 when I first visited the Chapel on the Orkney Islands built by Italian Prisoners of War held there during WW2. It finally began taking shape in 2008 when I was studying on a Creative Writing MA at Anglia Ruskin University.
But as I began to find out more about the Italian POWs, I became more intrigued by the whole geography of Orkney and the significance of Scapa Flow harbour during the Second World War. The Italians were there to build barriers around the islands to prevent a second devastating torpedo attack like the one led by German U-boat ace, Gunther Prien in 1939. Now, that Gunther Prien, the more I read about him, the more I was fascinated by his story. And before I knew it I had a novel spanning three years, two countries and four viewpoints. How did that happen?
So, how to proceed. The first decision was to stop researching. Cambridge author, Rebecca Stott, says she stops when she knows more than what she’s reading. Good advice. I did the same, though it was hard. Research is as addictive as Nutella.
Once I’d put away the German/English dictionary and the book of Orkney Folk Tales, I could concentrate on writing. But not before I’d emptied the dishwasher, finished the ironing and, oh yes, spent way too long on Facebook. Delaying tactics to avoid the possibility of not being able to fill a blank page. I’ve put off writing this as well. Thank God for deadlines.
When the house was spotless and everyone on Facebook ‘liked’ and ‘updated’, then I began. I wrote it in chapter order which meant that I was jumping from one character, country and year to another. In retrospect it would have been better to have stuck with the Orkneys action and then written the German chapters, but then it was also true that images from one chapter could echo into another chapter uniting them – despite their differences – which was what I wanted.
Perfecting chapter after chapter – only moving on to another when I thought the previous one was as perfect as it could be – was a false economy. I did it in the belief that any rewrite would be minimal because everything would be so polished. Well, yes, it was polished but my style of writing was different at the end of the novel to the beginning and there had been plot changes along the way. I’d not always kept to the synopsis but had gone with twists and characters as they came to me during the writing. So those polished chapters had to be rewritten for the final draft after all. Two, in fact, disappeared altogether.
I’m now working my way through amendments suggested by my agent, David Headley. And, if the novel does get accepted by a publisher, I guess there’ll be more. It’s an evolving process, telling a story. It’s not like sitting around a fire any more when you only get the one chance. With the written word and the technology we have for changing it, there are millions and millions of chances to change, tweak and write something better.
Once you’ve finished emptying the dishwasher.
I nominate Alex Ruczaj @alexruczaj and Guin Glasford-Brown @guingb and Melissa Fu onetreebohemia.wordpress.com