I shouldn’t be writing this.
I’m about four chapters (I think – I hope) from the end of a book that I actually began writing nearly two years ago. For various family reasons it then got put on hold for at least ten months – and I have nearly 26 different versions of the first four pages: I know, because I labelled them by the letters of the alphabet.
This is a long gestation, even for me. I’m not a writer who plans the book chapter by chapter, then does a first draft of the whole thing. I’m a writer who proceeds by a sort of instinctive groping, like someone following a path through thick mist. There’ll be landmarks on the way – things I come to with relief, because I’ve known from the beginning that they’ll be there. But how to get from one landmark to another – that’s a journey of discovery done step by step.
In my last book, ‘Troll Blood’, for example, I saw from the beginning that at some point the hero, Peer Ulfsson, would find a broken dragonhead from a wrecked longship, lying half submerged in a tide-pool. (This is a good example of a faun-with-an-umbrella: see my last posting!) But it wasn’t for months, when I finally came to write the scene, that I realised the dragonhead symbolised his dead father, and the dragonhead itself took on a spooky, malevolent life I’d never expected. These are things you find upon the way.
And the reason it took months to reach that point is that I write and rewrite every page over and over as I go. Till they feel perfect. This is frustrating for my editor, who has to take the book on trust – there’s never a point where she can ask to see an early draft – because there isn’t one. When I come to the last full stop on the final page, that’s when book is done, finished, complete at last. It’s an emotional moment, like when they finally hand you the baby you’ve been struggling to birth. I sometimes cry.
Fairy tales and folktales are full of stock phrases, repeated over and over with incantatory effect, not just, I think, to aid re-telling and memory but because like snatches of poetry they send a shiver down the spine and are recognised as emotional truth. Here’s one that’s works for me just now: in a Scottish folktale the hero has to travel ‘over seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors’ to accomplish his task. Here I am, several mountain moors still to go, but the seven bens and the seven glens are certainly behind me, and it no longer seems totally impossible that I shall, eventually, finish this book!