Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Writing is not a race

I've been thinking about time and writing (so have a lot of other people: see last Friday's Sterling Editing blog post). Specifically, I've been pondering the fact that (in my experience) novels aren't like news pieces; they are not to be hurried.

My books take a long time in some ways, and not very long in others. As an example, let's look at my first published novel, Ammonite. I wouldn't be lying if I said that book took me ten months to write, start to finish, with no rewrites. But that's not the whole story. The book I wrote before Ammonite (with a fountain pen, on lined paper; the book only three people have ever read; the book that will stay in a drawer forever) was set on Jeep, the world of Ammonite. It wasn't called Jeep then because that terminology is specific to the milieu I created for Ammonite. But it was Jeep: Moanwood wreathed Ollfoss in splendid isolation, the Echraidhe roamed Tehuantepec, and a fisherwoman called Vine sailed Silverfish Deep. The character of Marghe already existed, too: I'd written a very early (unpublished) story about an archaeological dig on a world called Beaver (or BV 4)--the tale of Marghe's first run-in with the security people of the local mining corporation. They weren't Mirrors, in that story, because at that time I didn't know Mirrors existed. Mirrors sprang, fulled formed and armoured, from the forehead of "Mirrors and Burnstone," my first published short story (Interzone, 1988). Which is where we first meet Hannah Danner.

So by the time I sat down to write Ammonite I had two of the main characters, the bones of the world, and some of its history. The whole thing fell into place and I pulled it together as neatly as a zipper. Zzzsst! and it was done.

I could tell similar stories about Slow River, and all the Aud books. But let's skip ahead to today, to my latest novel.

Hild took me 3 years to write--or 10, or 25, or my whole life, depending on how you define 'writing'.

I was born in a place Hild probably knew, and in my childhood roamed the sites she very probably visited.

In my early twenties I fell in love with Whitby Abbey, which Hild founded in the seventh century.

On my birthday four years ago I sat down and wrote the first paragraph of the draft that became Hild. And now that I have a whole novel, I find myself not moving on but falling deeper into the seventh century.

When I first crossed the threshold of Whitby Abbey I couldn't have dreamt that one day I'd try wrap my head around an entire century of British peoples and languages, flora and fauna, politics, religion, history, war, and art. If I'd been in a hurry when the notion of Hild first occurred to me, I would have ended up with an alternate history novel, one in which the Synod of Whitby decided for Ionan Christianity, not Roman. I'm sure I would have had fun with it, but it wouldn't have been Hild.

I just found this description of three books I was toying with in the mid-nineties*, right after outlining The Blue Place:

Historical: Set in the eighth or ninth century England, the main character is an abbess.  Abbesses of that time were incredibly powerful figures; absolute rulers of vast tracts of land and resources.  I want to write about an abbess of Whitby Abbey, Hilda--the one whose famous Synod of Whitby changed the whole course of western christianity (not for the better, in my opinion).
This book may or may not have fantasy elements in it, but given the religious fervour of the times, fantasy will certainly play a part in the lives of the major characters.
I want the world of these people--the sights and smells and mind-think--to be utterly real to a modern reader.  I want to take him or her into the heart and soul of the ninth century, the way Mary Renault or Henry Treece can take me back to ancient Greece, or pre-Celtic times in the British Isles.
This would require enormous effort research-wise.
Would require enormous effort research-wise. Ha! I didn't even know the Synod was in the seventh century...  But I digress (that how writing works: a series of digressions until I find the true current and then ride it, bellowing and wild, til it reaches the sea).

Hild the novel that is, Hild the character who is still taking shape, could only exist through the luxury of time.

But calling time a luxury is, of course, misleading. Time isn't something that's given to a writer on a silver platter. (Unless you have a trust fund. I don't.) Time to write is something we defend from incursion. Time to write is something we choose; something we make a priority, something we actively plan for and decide in favour of. It doesn't just happen. To make time to write you have to give up time spent on other things.

Sometimes that thing is sleep. Sometimes it's peace of mind created by having health insurance provided by a day job. Sometimes it's time with friends. Sometimes it's a day in the park chasing rainbows.

But sometimes, part of writing is sleeping, talking to friends, working at something else, and chasing rainbows. That's the thing. Sometimes writing is everything we do. How do we know? We just have to figure it out and trust ourselves. And choose.

As writers we are the sum of our choices. And one thing I know about making decisions: sometimes, if you  just set them aside for a while, the choice becomes clear.

So that's what I do with most things in life: I take my time.

Of course, sometimes you have to just go for it, right away: take life on the volley. That's a subject for another blog post. For now, here's the advice I would offer any writer, new or deeply experienced: writing isn't a race, impatience is not your friend. Find the still, quiet place inside and dwell there for a time. Go deep.

* I found it four days ago, written in WordPerfect. I might post another idea from it later this week or early next.
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