Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Do you just write whenever you feel like it?"

One of the things people are always asking me is "How do you work? Do you just write whenever you feel like it, or do you do a set amount every day?" I am asked this often enough that I thought it might be worth a blog post. 
I first started writing "seriously" in 2004 when my youngest child started Kindergarten. At the time we were living in Bad M√ľnstereifel, a small but very pretty town in the wilds of the German Eifel. I had longed to write for years but life always got in the way: first a demanding job, then two babies in short succession and then the move abroad. By the time I actually had some time to myself again I was so full of ideas that I felt as though I would burst if I didn't write some of them down! The very first morning I found myself at home alone I powered up the family PC (those were the days; now we have one each) and started work on an article about Steinfeld Abbey. Much later, after a false start that was mostly about proving to myself that I could write something 100,000 words long, I wrote The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. 
When I was writing The Vanishing I had no idea whether it would ever be published. I knew absolutely nothing about publishing except for what I could glean from the well-thumbed pages of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. All the same, I was determined to write the book. I loved Bad M√ľnstereifel more than anywhere I have ever lived - its beauty, its history and its weird legends - and I wanted to put all of that into the book. Because I had no publisher breathing down my neck at that point, it would have been very easy to spend five or even ten years writing it. However, the thrill of finally having any time at all to myself to write things, and the pressure of only having from 08.30am until 11.35am every day to write them, spurred me on. I finished the first draft in a year.
Since then I have written a number of other books and my working schedule has settled down into a pattern. I consider every weekday a working day but I don't expect to be able to get any creative work done in the school holidays. I have a target word count for each day and if I manage to get the target for the week completed by Thursday I have Friday off! This probably sounds very mechanistic but it works well for me. Sometimes if I am feeling uninspired, the only way to get the writing engine warmed up is to start work - even if I have to delete it all later. Before Christmas I decided to delete an entire 9,600 words from my work-in-progress because it really wasn't working. So sometimes I go backwards as well as forwards! The main thing is to keep going.
One of the hardest things for me is not letting other things intrude into my working time. Since I work at home, and my husband has a two-hour commute to work, it makes sense that if someone has to take the cat to the vet I do it. More difficult if you are a full-time writer are the invitations to meet for coffee etc during the day. There is no good time to do this! If you meet for breakfast you start the working day late. If you meet at 10.30am you feel as though you cannot really get anything done beforehand, and afterwards it is nearly lunchtime. If you meet at 2pm there will be no time to do anything afterwards because the kids will be home from school by then.
Even more difficult is the question of having people to stay. Try as you might, the time when you thought you would be relaxing between books always seems to turn out to be the time when you are frantically racing against the clock to finish one. It would take a flinty-hearted writer indeed to stand at the door greeting people who have travelled a long way to visit with the words, "The kettle is over there; I'm getting back to work so BE QUIET." Also, since my "office" is the dining-room table it would be pretty much impossible to get the solitude to work anyway.
I don't know what the answer to this is apart from work like mad when there isn't anyone around. I suppose ideally we would live on a huge estate surrounded by pine trees, so remote that there would never be a ring on the doorbell from a courier wanting me to take in next door's parcel again nor passing roofers wondering whether I would like anything done about the hole in the barge boards (no thanks; there is a family of starlings living in it, you know). My writing room would be a little chamber at the very top of the highest turret, reached only by a spiral stone staircase, so that even if any hardy visitors made it past the iron gates, the roaming hounds and the moat they would not be able to disturb me with their distant cries...
On the other hand, I don't find Facebook and Twitter a problem, as some people do. Since I work alone, Facebook is my "office water-cooler", where I can spend two minutes chatting with someone whilst I have my mid-morning cup of tea. I shall have to make sure that my lofty turret has wifi.



Left: my MacBook, which appears to have been "blessed" by a passing pigeon. Where are the screen wipes?!

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