Monday, 18 August 2008

Seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors - Katherine Langrish




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!

5 comments:

Nick Green said...

Fascinating to hear how you work. I'd never have imagined it from reading your writing; nor can I quite imagine working that way myself. In some ways I envy you that method; in other ways I don't (for me it would feel like jumping out of a plane and having to weave my own parachute on the way down). But I do know what you mean about discovery along the way. I make detailed plans, but they are only roadmaps; a roadmap doesn't show the terrain, and more than once I find a mountain or a swamp where I thought was only a simply road. Or a big metaphor where I thought was only a simple blog comment...

adele said...

That is such good news. I remember well during Charney last year that you were having troubles and it's heartening to ALL of us to see that you've almost made it. Knew you would...it'll be terrific. Have to say, your work method sounds both terrifying and exhausting but that just goes to prove that every single person does it in their own way and their own time and you have to go with the flow and other assorted cliches!!

asakiyume said...

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.

I completely agree. Glad your seven bens and seven glens are behind you and the destination is in sight.

Katherine Langrish said...

Nick, it DOES feel like weaving a parachute on the way down! But such a long way down, somehow I have time to do it. Watching the ground coming up is scary, though.
Thanks for your comment, Adele - so touched you remembered. It was a difficult summer.
And Asakiyume - sounds like we are right on the same wavelength about folktales!
Now - back to work!

Lucy Coats said...

Of course you will get there, Kath. And I am SO glad to find someone else out there who does the instinctive groping through a thick mist. This somehow makes me feel much better about being the non-planning kind of author. I too see it as a kind of journey--and my editor is incredibly patient about it too. Thanks for cheering me up.