How I Write
This was written ten years ago. My day is a little different now, but the important stuff doesn’t change…
My typical day begins at about seven. I can’t lie in – I was a teacher for so many years that I wake up automatically, whether I want to or not. I don’t function well in the mornings without tea, so I make some and take it into the library. This is where I like to work; it’s quiet and has a beautiful view, although I am still getting used to having a place of my own. For a long time I didn’t even have a desk, and I worked on a laptop on the living room floor. Nowadays I still use a laptop (a full-sized keyboard feels too big), and I still work on the floor, though I do now have a desk. It’s an old Victorian schoolboy’s desk, with an inkwell and a lid, and it’s ridiculously small. Everyone laughs at it, but I think it suits me better than the authorial-type of serious desk, with a blotter and a fax machine.
I work best in the mornings, especially in summer. In winter I get depressed and lethargic, which makes it hard for me to work at all, so most of my writing gets done between March and November. I’m very sensitive to the weather and the seasons, and this affects how (and whether) I write. I don’t agonize about this; I can usually tell within half an hour whether my day will be productive or not, and if I’m not in the mood, I don’t work. Instead I go to the gym, or watch a film, or go for a walk. I’m not a page-counter, and I don’t work to a set schedule. However, I do get very nervous when I don’t – or can’t –- write. My motivation has to do with need rather than discipline. I hate deadlines and would do almost anything to avoid one, which is why I’m so secretive about work-in-progress, even to my agent.
Since Chocolat, when I gave up teaching, I have published a book a year. This doesn’t mean I actually write a book a year – some things take longer than others, and in any case my books have not always been published in the order in which I wrote them. For instance, I began Holy Fools before I wrote Chocolat, and continued it on and off for five years until I felt I was ready to complete it. Blackberry Wine and Five Quarters of the Orange, too, were published out of sequence. It’s quite usual for me to have several projects going at once. I may work on one thing for a couple of months, then switch to something entirely different – either because I need to do some research, or because I need a change of scene, or just because I don’t know what happens next. I have a couple of projects to which I escape when I need a break from my current work-in-progress, and which may never make it to my publisher. However, I do find that this parallel-jump from one thing to another helps me to focus and keeps my thinking flexible.
Occasionally I feel like a quick fix of something completely different. Short stories are a great way of keeping these impulses under control, which is why mine cover so many zones; from Western to sci-fi. I tend to write more of these during the winter months, which may be why so many of them are so dark and savage. Or maybe it’s the inherent nastiness of my personality seeking an outlet.
Very few of my ideas come to me when I am at my desk. Usually I come to them – either on my travels or just by talking to people and watching what they do. Trains and airports are especially good for this; and I carry little notebooks in which I scribble down things I have seen or overheard. I find people endlessly fascinating, and one of the wonderful things about this job is the opportunity it gives me to encounter different kinds of people in such varied environments. The process of writing is essentially a solitary one. If I have to, I can write on trains, in airports and even in my daughter’s playroom, but I prefer to be alone if I can.
Being a linguist and a musician, I am sensitive to the notes and rhythms of words, the varying lengths of phrases and the individual sounds of the different voices. Some words sound very ugly to me and I won’t use them – my American publishers often ask me to change certain words and expressions for the US edition (so that “aubergine” becomes “eggplant” and “pullover” becomes “sweater”), but sometimes I feel these Americanisms are out of key with the rest, and I don’t like making the changes. I often read my pages aloud; it’s the only way for me to know whether I have really managed to evoke what I wanted; if a phrase sounds clumsy when it is spoken aloud, then I get rid of it.
Many readers assume that my books are autobiographical. This isn’t really true, although often my writing does reflect some of what is happening to me at the time. While I was writing Five Quarters of the Orange I was suffering from migraines and insomnia, and that emerged very vividly into the story. Chocolat and Holy Fools both feature working mothers with young daughters, in both cases constrained by some kind of institution – which reflects my own dual role, as a teacher at Leeds Grammar School and as the mother of a very small child. I’m not always conscious of doing this, nor do I always mean it to happen, but it does; and frequently these aspects of my novels are the ones with which readers identify most. What it comes down to is that although the stories may be fictional, the feelings within the stories – be they hate, love, envy or the desperate need for a good night’s sleep – are my own. I can’t write about things for which I have no strong feeling; this is why I choose familiar settings for my stories, and people them with so many half-familiar characters.
I write at least three drafts of every novel. The first is for personal consumption; the second goes to my agent, and the third incorporates any suggestions, criticisms or changes my various editors and readers may have put forward. Sometimes I disagree with them; in which case I don’t adopt the changes. Very early on, I would change aspects of my writing just to ease the process of publication, and have since regretted it; now I take greater risks and follow my instincts more readily. I enjoy taking risks with narrative. For me, the plot of a novel is best kept flexible, so that I rarely have the entire story planned ahead. I hate writing synopses – although publishers always want to see one – because I rarely have enough information about my books to be able to explain what will happen at the end. Very often the last-minute reversals and revelations of my books take me as much by surprise as they do the reader. I love it when that happens, because it’s a sign that the characters, and not the author, have taken possession of the story. On the other hand, it makes it harder for me to give structure to the finished work.
I still write largely for pleasure. I find some of the non-creative aspects of the job irksome – things like proof-reading or copy-editing – and I tend to be impatient with them, because they take time away from what I want to be doing, which is writing stories. I perform these administrative tasks on days when I am not able to think about the creative process, or at times of day when I know I have exhausted my inspiration. I stop working at about three o’clock. By then I am no longer able to think clearly anyway, and I need time to wind down before my daughter gets home from school. I try not to work when she is at home; and when she is on holiday I only work until lunchtime, and we spend the rest of the day together. Time is such a luxury, and there is so little of it. In the evenings I unwind in the bath – the one place where I can read without being interrupted – with some scented candles and a bottle of wine. I don’t know whether this is a part of the creative process or not – but that’s my excuse, anyway.
More ‘Writing’ Pages
- Tips For Prospective Writers
From editing your manuscript to finding an agent.