Through A Dark Room With Arms Outstretched
By Beatrice Colin
I’m always amazed by people who tell me they have a whole book stored in their head – all they have to do is write it. When I start a novel I have only the vaguest idea of how it will turn out. I usually have a place I want to end up, a final scene imagined but I have no idea how I’m going to get there. Instead I have a sense of a mood, a time of day, colours, perhaps. If I was writing music, I would only have the key: F minor, or G major rather than the melody.
Maybe it’s because I have written so much radio drama, I have to be able to see it or I can’t write it. If I’m writing something that takes place in the past – I am drawn to the early part of the twentieth century – then I travel to that place, listen to music, look at old maps, look for tiny telling details and research as much history as I can bear. I don’t want to become swamped with fact but I want to be able to imagine what it was like. I need to be there.
The actual writing, for me, is where the story begins to unfold itself on my screen. There are dozens of analogies of how it feels to write but to me it feels a little like trying to walk through a dark room with my arms outstretched. You stumble across things you weren’t expecting, and as you grope around in the dark take two steps forward in any direction and then one step back again. It can be either frustrating or exhilarating, but this is where I feel I’m most creative, and I usually come up with scenes or situations that I had never imagined before. I have to say here, that I write primarily for myself and when I can impress myself with a good line or an image, then I’m satisfied.
When I’m writing the first third of a novel, I usually have mixed feelings about it. Some days I love what I’ve written and sometimes I get cold feet and tell myself that it’s not too late to dump it and start again. The middle section is always difficult – too far from the beginning to give up and too far from the end to be able to feel secure – it’s like being stuck in the doldrums. Towards the end, I start to speed up, almost finished, but this part is also the hardest. All those choices I made so casually earlier on in the story have consequences. I am now the grown-up left to tidy up the mess of a very messy adolescent and I tear my hair out and spend many hours pacing around as I try to bend everything I’ve written into something complete.
I tend to rewrite compulsively – I usually start each day by rewriting what I’ve written the day before. And when I’ve finished the first draft, I go over it many times until I feel that it couldn’t be any better, at least on that day. I try and follow the dictate that you put your novel away for a few months and then come back to it with fresh eyes, but it’s not always possible. But I do know that the more distance you can put between you and the book, the better. Eventually it stops becoming part of you and starts becoming its own entity that you have a duty to brush up and polish before you send it out into the world.
All of this makes me sound like I know what I’m doing. Although I have written five novels (one lies unpublished in a drawer) I still wonder how the hell I did it. As I make my tenth cup of tea, and it’s only eleven am, check my email again and then download another track from itunes, I feel like a total fraud. If I were employed by anyone, I’d have been sacked long ago. And so I use the 500 words a day rule. More is ok, but less is not. And when and if, I finally start writing, sometimes I forget the time, the children’s school pick-up time and the dreaded word count. Caution, spelling, self-monitoring all go. Nothing matters but the story. But on other days I stare at the screen for hours and every word is a struggle. And so I go for a walk, read the newspaper and try to imagine what it must be like to be someone else, not a fictional character, but someone with a real job.
About the author:
Beatrice Colin was born in London and raised in Scotland but has lived in New York. She has worked as a freelance journalist, writing for publications including the Guardian, and a playwright, writing radio plays for the BBC. She lives in Glasgow. Her most recent book, The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite, was a Richard & Judy selection and has been translated into seven languages. http://www.beatricecolin.co.uk/
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