When it’s going well, it’s like this. You sit down at the keyboard and write for twenty minutes. When you look up, six hours have passed and somebody has kindly added three thousand words to your novel. When it’s going well, the real world fades into the background and the book writes itself.
When it’s going badly, it’s like this. You can find 252 references to yourself on Google. Your Amazon ranking is 25,473. England are 225-4 against Australia. Rain is forecast for Tuesday. This is your fifth cup of coffee and it’s only 9.30. When it’s going badly there is nothing on the internet less interesting than the next chapter of your novel. You will make coffee for anyone. If you’d like one, I’ll bring it round to you. You’re reading this in Wisconsin? No problem. I got a Thermos.
When I write, I write in concentrated bursts. Like most authors I used to have a day job and in those days the people who paid me expected me to show up at the office from time to time. I wrote at the weekend when I could, but most of all I wrote on holiday. While the family were on the beach, I was back in the hotel room typing away. The maids would look at me pityingly when they come to do the room. When the family met up again in the evening I would be monosyllabic over dinner because I had just realised that if Mrs Maggs knew about the secret passage then Annabelle would not have risked lying to the police, which blew a massive hole in my plot. “The book’s fine,” I would say in answer to their questions. “Just fine.”
Now writing is the day job, but old habits die hard. I still tend to write in bursts between book signings and conferences and doing all the other things that my publishers ask me to do – and checking my Amazon ranking and the cricket score.
I write large chunks in my head in advance and dump it onto the computer when I can. Long car journeys are a good chance to think through plots. People sometimes ask me why my characters seem to spend so much time on the road.
When I start writing the first chapter I always know how the book will end, but I rarely make detailed written plans in advance. I have a notebook in which I record names of characters, the chronology of events, bits of dialogue and so on, but most of it I just remember. About 20,000 words into the first draft, I usually write the final chapter and then work towards the middle of the book from each end, like two teams of tunnellers, until the two halves meet. Well, it works for me.
My first drafts are usually very short – little more than novella length. Each successive draft adds ten to fifteen thousand words. To begin with, it worried me that the natural length of my stories appeared to be around 45,000 words. But after a while you develop the confidence that it will come right in the end.
Or, at least, I have that confidence up to a point. Writers, like actors, can be quite superstitious, quite insecure. If you don’t know where a gift has come from, you can never be quite sure that it won’t suddenly desert you. Above all therefore I write in gratitude that I am still writing.
(Written in my head on the A40 between London and Oxford. Dumped onto computer one Saturday afternoon.)