Confession: I spent most of my teenage years in my bedroom reading, but in the last decade, I’ve finished more biographies and books on writing than novels. (Before that, as a doctor, I spent the time I wasn’t working or studying, eating and sleeping.) This is not good. Non-fiction inspires articles, but if I want to get better at fiction, you need to read that.
Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” But nevertheless, it’s felt like an indulgence. King has a wife and fewer children than me. It took a Youtube video with Ian McEwan to change my ways.
He sees reading as much a part of his working day as writing and spends an equal amount of time doing both. He’s doing something right, so I picked up a novel- This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell. As I was away for my birthday, I felt no guilt devouring it in a weekend. Since then, I’ve made sure I always have something to read in my bag and in the last ten weeks, I’ve read eight books.
It may be that I’ve now entered that phase of parenting where reading when the children are around is OK, even advised. They need my presence without constant observation.
I don’t know what effect this reading has had on my prose, but counter-intuitively, it’s already improved my productivity. Enjoying other people’s words with no sense of responsibility for their use, living in the world’s they’ve crafted, I feel so much more inspired.
Well, hello again! Remember me? Yes, I know it’s been a while.
I knew summer was coming, as it did last year and the years before that, so why didn’t I prepare meal rotas, online deliveries and continuous activities in advance? Why, when I had the time, did I prioritise reading reports, and getting to end-of-term concerts and plays?
But in Norfolk last week, while the skies were often blue, the air was cool. Overnight, the edges of the tree in front of our window turned ocre. Autumn’s coming with its promise that this year I’ll perfect the after-school routine. The children will develop self-discipline and consistent consideration for each other. And I’ll make that courgette cake I’ve been thinking about for the last eleven years. Perhaps by next summer, my home will be so ordered and beautiful, other people will ask to come and write there.
And the laws of procrastination mean it’s been so easy to work on my novel. It has been a joyful escape rather than a discipline, partly because my fictional world is much better organised than my real one. My characters’ lives might be a mess, but they manage to keep their couches free of washing.
Last week was special. I have seven younger siblings and as there are thirty-three husbands/wives/partners and children, it’s rare even those in the UK are all in the same place at once. Pretty much my whole family met in the Lake District to welcome my third sister and family who were visiting the UK from New Zealand. It was the first time most of us had seen them for six years. Some children had either to be introduced or re-introduced to each other. And yet, shared genes and heritage created an immediate shorthand. I’ve never had to explain one of my children to their cousins in the way I’ve needed to do to their friends. (Meeting my own first cousins a few weeks ago was a very similar experience.)
Thanks to another sister’s and brother-in-law’s organisation, there were nerf gun fights, party games and I sent my eleven-year-old son on the Via Ferrata. (As he was making his way there without me, I watched this on Youtube!)
As for my novel, I would say I’m fleshing out my world, but that’s a very active term. Ian McEwan described this point as ‘coming into focus’. (Who says I have to be a literary genius before I compare my process with his?) I’m asking questions and finding answers that convince and interest me. These may not reach the final product, but they will still improve it.
For instance, Jane has always been the nearest thing to a villain in my mind- bitter, disowning her own son- but this morning I realised how she’d got to that point. I think I like her.
Work-life balance would be a struggle if I had lots of work. This is not a complaint. Actually, I’m becoming increasingly relaxed about the ebb and flow of freelancing. The current ebb means I have time to prepare for next term, find things to do with the children over the summer, help my son relearn how to touch type, push him to learn some Spanish, write my current novel, submit my previous one and catch up on reading. And the reduction in stress means inspiration comes more easily. I suppose it’s the flip-side of the perennial working parent’s complaint- that you can never do everything as well as you want. When you don’t have to do everything, your performance improves.
I don’t have any deadlines at the moment. I am grateful (in a slightly anxious way), as life has become about deciding which of the children would forgive me most easily for missing a concert/ end of term celebration/ play/ rock climbing session.
About Zadie Smith and Maggie O’Farrell. The reader in me luxuriates in cleverly written books like This Must Be the Place and Swing Time (I’m only halfway through that one, but I assume the rest is as good!) The writer despairs. How do they do it?
And about editing my novel. I won’t meet my CampNanowrimo goal, but I have chipped away at it most days. So that’s something. I hope to produce a thing of beauty in the end. At the moment, it’s a big mess.
…Like our home. The one thing my life is not about at the moment is housework, though it almost certainly should be. I’m not honest enough to post pictures. There isn’t a corner I don’t mind you seeing, and my phone is refusing to transfer photos. So this is a (boring but appropriate) re-post.
I should stop mulling over post ideas and just communicate. I really should.
We went to London this weekend for my birthday. It was possibly my best yet (at least a tie with last year’s where there were gluten-free pies.) We had the use of my husband’s boss’s very nice flat. So, on Sunday there were poached eggs and salmon on a rooftop looking out on the Shard and Walkie-Talkie buildings. Then we travelled around central London trying to find art. This was easier said than done, even once we were inside the Tate Modern. Eventually, we realised the speakers on the wall were an installation. We then legged it round the National Art Gallery, going for quantity rather than quality of experience- how many old masters could we appreciate before the children’s patience with culture finally wore out.
Anyway, I’m back, three days behind target on Camp Nanowrimo, but still hopeful the discipline of editing for an hour a day will push my new WIP forward.
I did hope I’d return to my laptop inspired with plenty of article ideas. However, it appears I am useless at creative multi-tasking. I can either concentrate on my novel or pitching features. Sometimes, there’s an overlap and wrestling with the novel suggests an article for Writing Magazine.
I’m in novel mode again, a pleasurable, guilt-ridden state. I’m not quite sure who flicked the switch from hard-working freelancer to dreamer. Slowly, very slowly, I’m understanding how I work best…
…and why as a responsible parent, I don’t write fiction all the time. To do it, I need to fully immerse myself in the world of my story.
At the moment, for instance, I have an image in my head- one of my main characters is stroking a kitten. She was a gift, but from whom, and why? And why was the character’s reaction so negative at the time? It’s all I can think about as I go to sleep or load the washing machine.
Making sure it still feels like fun
I hardly noticed the work I put into my first novel. I was a mum at home; there were many other things I should have been doing with that hour in the afternoon. Because of this, writing rarely felt like a treat in comparison to my other options.
I’m trying to think of this manuscript as socialising with interesting (albeit imaginary) people when I could be earning money or doing something about my laundry pile. Allowing the housework to build up really helps foster that sense of indulgence.
It is common sense to sure up your structure before you try perfecting your sentences. After all, you may be chopping that carefully worked prose later. However, looking at the story as a whole overwhelmed me. So, as working anyway round is more productive than pontificating about process, I’m editing at the micro level before the macro. And I believe I’ve found my stride.
It’s half term. In my humble opinion, I’m not doing too bad a job as a mother. The children have been outside in the garden more than they’ve watched telly. But I did turn a blind eye to an unauthorised water fight yesterday, which I lived to regret seeing mud on my newly cleaned floor, an extra storey of washing on the pile and hearing the misery of younger siblings. As I yelled at the instigator, even he admitted it had all gone a little too far.
If you’re local, Gary Dalkin, Steve Cox, John Pegg and I have been asked to run free creative writing sessions at Gateway Church’s ‘School of Life’ ( 128 Alder Road, Poole, Dorset). They’ll be at 7.30 pm on 21st and 28th June, then 12th and 19th July. We’re hoping they’ll provide aspiring writers with a mixture of inspiration and guidance. Unfortunately, there will only be eight spaces. Booking beforehand is essential, but I hope to post a sign-up link here later in the week.
And if that isn’t enough self-promotion, my latest article, ‘The Jane Game’ is out today in Writing Magazine- 10 reasons why Jane Austen might get overlooked by an agent or publisher today.