Vicki Jarrett, fabulous short story writer and author of ‘Nothing is Heavy’ (published by Linen press and short-listed for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award 2013) suggested I take part in this latest blog-tour-interview-yourself arrangement. This one is all about the ‘writing process’ which made me nervous because I’m not sure what my writing process actually is but presumably I should have one. So I thought I’d give it a go. If nothing else I’ll act as an Awful Warning for you, rather than a Shining Example (and Vicki’s own blog on her process is here).
1) What am I working on?
I’ve just finished a collection of short stories and am in the throes of punting it around. These are stories that I’ve been mulling over for a few years, but most of them were written during 2013. They’re all inspired by various bits and pieces of science. Some are loosely based on rather peculiar historical fragments; such as the suffragette bombing of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Robert Oppenheimer’s attempts to poison his PhD supervisor and Einstein’s forgotten child. Others riff on science’s obsessions with dark matter and DNA.
Now I’m thinking about the next ‘thing’. It’s probably going to be a novel, but the idea of sitting down and writing a full-length novel is somewhat scary so I’m just calling it a ‘thing’. I think it will be partly about Schrödinger writing the wave equation for quantum physics in a TB sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps accompanied by a mystery woman. What’s intriguing is that at first he himself didn’t understand what this equation actually meant. I like that idea of creating something and not understanding or being in control of its implications. And coincidentally when I was a kid, me and my family went on holiday to the same part of Switzerland. This may or may not be relevant to the ‘thing’.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m not sure what genre I write in. My novel has been called science fiction and also literary fiction. Neither label bothers me, but I do get cross about the elitism that floats around literary fiction when so much of it can be as formulaic as any other genre. I’m quite keen on the ‘lablit’ label – fiction about real science.
3) Why do I write what I do?
Because I can’t write anything else. I can only write what I write. And I’m driven to writing about science, about the efforts to understand the real material stuff that surrounds us. Scientists are storytellers, they just (mostly) don’t know it. I’m a storyteller about science.
4) How does your writing process work?
Oh dear, there’s no avoiding it now. It starts with a lot of random reading, staring out of windows and doodling illegible notes. And there’s a niggling thought – an obsession – a writing scratch that has to be itched. For my first book this was ‘just what would happen if you discovered something really peculiar in the sky? Something that seemed to challenge standard science?’
(At any one time I have quite a few of these obsessions – but I think the difficulty is knowing if they’re big enough to take the weight of an entire novel)
Then I sit down and write. I have tried to plan it all out beforehand but that doesn’t work because then I lose interest. If I know what’s going to happen, what’s the point of writing? So I write to discover. This does mean that in the first draft there are a LOT of dead ends – bits of plot that don’t go anywhere, characters that emerge out of a vacuum and then disappear again etc. etc.
Then I redraft. At this point I might feel ok about it.
Then I give the draft to other writers and get their feedback. I might stop feeling ok about it, or I might carry on.
Finally I have a draft that I am simultaneously feeling ok about, as well as hating every single word. That’s when I know I can stop.
Of course this is a rather sanitised version of the process; I’ve edited out all the endless obsessive rereadings of my favourite authors to try and understand the secrets of their writing. And the tears and biscuits and wine and the moaning at other writers and listening to them moaning… it’s not pretty.
Seriously, I think a large part of my writing process includes thinking and pondering and reading. I’m not trying to escape the writing part, but I know I’m capable of mindlessly generating words that don’t really get me anywhere. Sometimes a bit of nastily objective thinking (‘Just what am I trying to do here?’ and ‘Am I doing what I want to do?’) is worth a thousand words.
Next up is Russell Jones, science fiction poet, editor, Edwin Morgan expert and author of two wonderful pamphlets; The Last Refuge (Forest Press, 2009) and Spaces of Their Own (Stewed Rhubarb Press, 2013). HIs full length collection ‘The Green Dress whose Girl is Sleeping’ will be out next year.