Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A writing Q & A

Definitely NOT the author
I recently came across a set of answers I gave to an interviewer several years ago and was relieved to see that they still describe my approach to this writing business. (So I must have been telling the truth.) Here’s how they went.

1) In order to meet a writing goal, do you write down the date you wish to have your manuscript completed?
No. Even though the word ‘deadline’ suggests a finite point (which may well be the case for some publishers or academic examiners, etc.), it’s really notional. Not notional to the extent that you can make it spread over a year or so, but in that it indicates a period towards the end of a month, say, by which you should have got the job done. Much more compelling is the impetus of the work itself. If anything provides the push to get the thing done, it’s the novel’s internal drive. Your characters insist on moving towards the resolution and, when the end is near, the euphoria of knowing that you’re about to slot the final pieces together is much more compelling than the artificial mark on the calendar.

2) If you have a publisher, do THEY dictate to you the date your manuscript will be completed?
Some do, others are still aware that the creative process isn’t an automated procedure. If you’ve promised them a draft by a particular time, your professionalism should make sure they get it, but you and they then need to recognize that second thoughts on your part and queries/suggestions from them will necessitate rewritings and a period of reflection. If you’re writing to someone else’s orders, you’re giving up control of some important parts of the process.

3) In order to meet your deadline, how often, and how long do you spend working on your writing project?
This will sound like a glib or facile answer but the truth is that it’s the project which dictates that. Whether you’re talking about a play, poem, short story, novel – each takes as long as it takes. The pleasure of being involved in creating an intrigue involving people interacting with one another is so absorbing that you lose track of time. If you’re thinking of the deadline, you’re not giving the work the attention it has to have. If progress stalls, you have to find some technique to get it going again or bring it to a conclusion. For academic exercises, of course, it’s different, since the tutors are calling the tune – but writing, in all its forms, only works properly if the writer is in charge.

4) What do you do to keep those writing juices flowing?
Look around, watch people, speculate on their motives, feel their elations and their sorrows. And trust your characters – even the nasty ones. They’ll always take you on surprising journeys. Writing is a compulsion.

6) Do you do outlines for your novels?
No. I know overall where I want to be heading before I start. There’s an issue I want to address, a character I want to explore, an anger I want to externalize, a remark I want someone to make – all sorts of things provide a starting point. So I have a notion of what the tone of the writing will be and maybe of some major turning point I intend to reach. But then, as the fiction begins to build, it’s the characters who take over to a certain extent. They lead the narrative in directions which often surprise me. They add details I hadn’t suspected were there and, in the process, they force me to adapt my original plan. It’s still the same basic drive and the purpose remains relatively unchanged, but the way in which I convey it is coloured by what my characters allow me to do.

When it comes to rewriting, I correct some of the wilder fancies they’ve had and bring them back within the scope of the book but the process from conception to delivery (sorry to use an obstetrical image but, as a man, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to having a baby – albeit without the pain) is organic, unstable.

However long the novel, until the final full stop’s been added, all it has is potential.  If I started with a rigid notion of its shape, I’d be inhibiting that. In fact, the only time I imposed a preordained structure on a piece was with a radio play. I was very keen to maintain a specific set of images, so I made the characters do exactly what was necessary to achieve that. After the broadcast, a well-known critic reviewed the play in a respectable journal. His review began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people.’ He was right.


Jackie King said...

I really enjoyed your answers to these questions. And as a woman who gave birth to three children, I have to say that finishing a novel is very much like delivering a baby. The pain is emotional and mental instead of physical.

Bill Kirton said...

Indeed, Jackie, but the subsequent pride compensates for all of it (at least in the non-obstetric version).

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree, Jackie. I've also heard it said that publishing a book is the closest men ever experience to giving birth.

Jackie King said...

I'm so glad you agree, Jean!