Sunday 6 January 2019


I'm never sure whether to believe what writers say about the way they write their books.  I always read those pieces when they appear in the papers.  I can’t stop myself, though I usually regret it.  And one thing’s for sure—there are as many ways to write as there are writers. Here’s Lee Child interviewed by Adrian McKinty in The Sydney Morning Herald (2018)  The best thing about this interview was that it led me to read Adrian McKinty’s books, which are terrific and strangely absent from libraries and bookshops here in North London. I have a soft spot for Jack Reacher too.

‘Child is famous for saying that he never redrafts but I don't see how this is possible in Past Tense. "Surely when the book was done you went back and reworked the early chapters to lay the groundwork for the ending?"

Child denies it. He says that he wrote the book, the way he does all the others - seat-of-the-pants-style finding out what's happening in the story as he goes along. There was no rewriting or second draft. I shake my head in amazement. "Don't you ever write yourself into a corner and can't get out?"’

You see what I mean? No rewriting?  No second draft? Can it be true? If only I could do it like that! McKinty tries Lee Child's method when he gets home: 

'When I get back to the apartment that night I throw away my intricate book plan and try some seat-of-the-pants writing. But two hours later I have, predictably, prosed myself into a corner with no way out. Adrian McKinty is at a complete loss.' 

Or how about Enid Blyton’s famous method, which involved . . . 

‘ . . . finding the characters and settings and then using the ‘cinema screen’ in my mind on which the whole story seems to be projected from beginning to end without any active volition from me.’ 

I've never managed anything like that either. At the opposite extreme is poor Joseph Conrad, who suffered terribly as he tried to write.

“The stuff comes out at its own rate . . . [and] too often—alas!—I’ve to wait for the sentence—for the word.”

Despite all this agony, during which ‘days would pass without his writing a line,' (Michael Gorra in The Hudson Review, Winter 2007) and which often led him to take to his bed, Conrad managed to turn out quite a few words in the end, and those not even in his native language.  (As someone who worked in Lowestoft for 20 years I love the fact that Conrad learnt English from the Lowestoft Journal and the Lowestoft Standard).  He didn’t produce as many words as Enid Blyton however.  She had usually written, according to her biographer, Barbara Stoney, ‘between six and ten thousand words by five o’clock’ (!!!) 

So, now I feel obliged to say how I write. Feel free not to believe me. I have an idea. It is brilliant, of course. There is nothing in the world quite so fabulous as the fully-formed idea that blossoms in the imagination and then withers away the moment you start trying to write it down.  

But still, something remains. I have characters, a setting, and an elusive, half-remembered feeling that was the essence of the brilliant idea. I start to plan, but then I think: forget it, I’m going to start writing. Because it’s only by writing the characters that they come to life. And also because I’m just impatient. I hate planning. I’m rubbish at writing a synopsis, even when I have the finished book in front of me. I’ve always been an improviser, in teaching, in music, in writing.

Then, at some point between the middle and the end of the book, I realise that it’s NO GOOD and needs rewriting completely. After rewriting I might even do another rewrite. And another. If only I could have planned it out in detail before I started and saved myself all that trouble! 

I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work for me, because it’s only as I write the book that I find out what it’s actually about and, just maybe, recapture something of that original idea.

I once told an editor that this was how I worked and, guess what? she didn’t believe me!  

I don’t entirely believe Roald Dahl either but, as always, he is entertaining— though some may find it strange that he appears to assume that all writers of fiction are male! But of course, he's talking about himself.

‘The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman . . .  If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained . . .  The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.’ (from BOY)

Hmmm.  I need a glass of whisky.  Sláinte!



Susan Price said...

I believe you! Your account of writing is very recognisable to me. I especially like the wonderful idea that withers away as soon as you try to write it down.
About the only thing I agree with Dahl on is the love of whisky. Whisky is good.

Joan Lennon said...

I[m of your school, Paul - profligate and find-out-as-you-go. Those other ways sound so alluring but ...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Me too... I know of no other way to write... find out what happens as you write... and then as you say... there's all that rewriting and rewriting! I have two avid Lee Child fans in my family! Guess what was in the Christmas stocking! He writes like his protagonist behaves... he never doubts himself.

Paul May said...

I'm glad it's not just me! Very acute observation about Lee Child, Diane! I had never thought about it that way. OK, back to the whisky.