I made two new friends this weekend. The first is Angela Joba, a bespectacled and very religious Nigerian lady of strong opinions. She’ll tell you what you’re feeling about pretty much anything, and it’s best not to argue. My second new friend is a rather elegant man of about seventy called Christopher Benton. He’s always smartly dressed, very polite and quite reticent, but he’s carrying a torch for a lady called Judith, and between you and me, I think he’d do anything for her.
When I say I made these friends, I literally did, and I employ the overused adjective “literally” advisedly. I literated them. That is to say, I made them up, in the course of writing my new book, Now and Then. Until yesterday, Angela and Mr Benton (I can’t call him Christopher, it wouldn’t be appropriate), didn’t exist outside my imagination. Now they also exist in a word document on my computer, and, please God, in my back-up. If all goes to plan, sometime in 2013, they’ll exist inside copies of a print and electronic book, published by Quercus and sold by booksellers everywhere.
This may seem like a strange thing to say, but when I’m writing, I don’t really think about the fact that the people I make up will be going out into the world to meet others. I live with them very intimately for months at a time. My husband jokes that I talk about my main characters as if they were close friends of ours who might pop by at any time. He likes to read what I’m writing, even in the early stages, so he knows who our new mates are.
I lived with the characters from Babies in Waiting for ages, mainly because the book took such a long time to write. It wasn’t because I was lazy, but because I began when I was pregnant, and when Ted was born, my brain turned to mush and I couldn’t have written a shopping list. I finally finished the first draft when Ted was about eighteen months old, then spent another year revising it and editing it before it came out. That’s a long time to spend in the company of friends no one else knows, and it was the scariest thing in the world to wake up on 1 March and realise that Toni, Louise and Gemma were out in the world, meeting people who would judge them and have opinions about their actions. So far, everyone who has met them has been extraordinarily nice to them (and to me), and I can only hope that it continues in the same way.
I started writing this blog post because I wanted to express how writing a novel is the single most satisfying and thrilling work project I have ever undertaken, but for once, words almost fail me. You see, I believe (for me at least), it’s a mysterious process that happens almost outside my control. If I am disciplined and write my prescribed number of words each day, then my sub-conscious, or God, or the great creative river, or whatever you want to call it, does the rest. The characters arrive and tell me their names, what they look like, what they like, how they speak, and we go on a journey together. If I wanted to be pedantic, I could unpick every moment in everything I write and trace it back to the incidents, people and inspirations that led me to it. But it’s much more fun just to let it happen. It’s as much a process of discovery writing it as, I hope, reading it will be for someone else. I can’t wait to find out what I’m going to say.
Of everything l’ve ever written, I’m enjoying writing this new book best of all. I feel free, and I feel as if anything could happen.
I suspect that this is what sportsmen and women feel when they’ve practised and practised and practised something, and for the first time the motion becomes fluid and easy, second nature. it doesn't mean I'm any good at it yet, just that after four books,I feel I've practised enough now to feel a little more sure-footed.
If you’ve always wanted to write, and write something big, I can’t urge you strongly enough, Go for it. There’ll be times when it’s hard. There’ll be times when it feels impossible, and boring, and when you think every word you’ve written is shite. But there’ll also be times when your fingers can’t fly over the keyboard fast enough, when you make new friends and they spring up, fully formed, vivid and real, and speak to you in a voice you know will ring true to a reader. And when that happens… well, it’s a bit like magic.
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
– Carl Sagan (with thanks to Alyn Adams, who posted this quotation on facebook and made me think about the whole writing thing)
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.