Robert Sharp tagged me in the Writing Process Blog Tour, a carousel ride of writing answering a few short questions about their creative process. For Robert’s own great advice about swapping filler for fun, please check out his website.
What am I working on?
I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel – which should explain why I’ve been a bit slow at putting up new stuff on this website recently!
What’s it about? Well, like a lot of writers I feel a little superstitious talking about it – there’s always the creeping suspicion when you talk about a new project that someone will say ‘Oh, that’s been done before’ or, worse ‘Oh yes, my new book coming out next week it about just the same thing!’ I know that feeling is ridiculous, but nonetheless it niggles me.
But I’ll try to get over myself: it’s the story of a famous doctor, and how he became trapped in a painting. It’s also a history of melancholy, and a journey through the last two hundred years. There, I think that’s quite enough to be getting on with…
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I think this question is a tricky one. We’re all told these days that, in terms of marketing and promotion, books ought to fit into a clear genre. Of course, I think this is rubbish. The best books resist easy categorization. Some of my favourite books of all time – Invisible Cities, The Rings of Saturn, Labyrinths – are impossible to pin down.
I write stories about how history catches up with us. Does that make me a historical novelist? Maybe. But I’ve always thought of historical novels as those that stay within a particular time and place and explore interesting or important questions through the perspective of a different age. My novels tend to ride slipshod down the river of time. In Under Fishbone Clouds, I followed a couple from the 1930s to the end of the century. In The Book of Crows, I dipped in and out of interlinking stories that happened in disparate times, from the age of Qin Shihuang more than two thousand years ago, to poets in the Song Dynasty and to petty bureaucrats in the late 1980s. The project I’m working on now revolves around the 1890s, but features everything from the Siege of Paris and the 1848 uprisings to Herman Goering and the 2008 financial crash.
So, in short, I try my best not to think about genre. Does that make things hard for the publisher trying to promote the books? I hope not, but it’s not something I dare think about when writing.
Why do I write what I do?
If an idea gets stuck in my head, churning round and round until I can’t think about anything else, then I have to write it down.
But more specifically, I like to travel through time, and I figured this was a bit easier than trying to build a Tardis. I like the research (I’ve always enjoyed history, and I studied it at university), and I like getting lost in the past.
The best piece of advice that I’ve heard about writing is ‘Write what you want to read’. For me it’s a simple as that. I write about questions, and ideas, and times that interest me – and that’s more than enough to keep me going.
How does my writing process work?
I steal time. Usually, because of work and kids, this tends to be either early in the morning before everyone else has woken up, or late at night after the children are asleep. So its essentially a case of trying to do a page a day – I used to write in great long splurges, but I have come to relish the slowness, and I find it helps me measure out the rhythm of the book much better if I’m trying to make every sentence help.
In a more general sense, my writing process is to throw in everything: not only the kitchen sink, but the kitchen itself and every pot and pan and ladle and spoon I can think of. Because of this, my first drafts tend to be huge beasts. Then after that I go through with a scalpel and cut as much as I can – in this way I find what is essential about the story, which parts matter, and which can afford to fall to the cutting room floor. There is something wonderfully liberating about deleting, about letting go of all the hard-wrought paragraphs and watching something better take shape.
I’m going to pass the Writing Process Blog Tour baton to Matilda Tristram. Like me, she doesn’t really have a blog but does have a fantastic website and tweets as @, but more importantly it gives me a chance to mention the forthcoming book of her comic, called Probably Nothing and published by Penguin. I’m really looking forward to it – please do check it out!