The Writing Process: Where It Begins
For the first time in an age I find myself seated at my desk with a clean slate and an empty screen. True, there are five titles sitting in a folder, possible ideas for new books, and at least two of these are workable. But my agent has asked me what I would like to do next (‘next’ being the second half of 2016, as the books for 2015 are already delivered). It may be that there will be more Bryant & May books. I may attempt a long-gestating ‘literary’ novel. There’s a half-thought-through fantasy novel there, and a mainstream character-driven novel as well. There’s another supernatural thriller, a comedy and a book of short stories.
And so the process begins anew. It starts with an A4 pad, a pen and a huge stack of books I’ve been meaning to read. First up is ‘Thames: Sacred River’ by the always readable Peter Ackroyd. I’m still reading fiction – ‘Glow’ by Ned Beauman, the first I’ve read of his that has disappointed (hey, we’re allowed a couple of those), JG Farrell’s ‘The Siege of Krishnapoor’ – enthralling and unexpectedly funny, ‘Catastrophe’ by Dino Buzzati – Kafkaesque and alarming, the Adrian Conan Doyle/Dickson Carr Holmes ‘Exploits’ (follow-up cases to the originals) – mediocre and rather unoriginal – Pamela Branch’s four mad murder mysteries including ‘The Wooden Overcoat’, now back in print, a host of non-fiction online reading – and some TV, including ‘The Honourable Woman’ – excellent.
Once this has all filtered through, it’s topped up by visits to galleries, museums, random wanderings with notebook and camera, nights out with friends I haven’t seen for a while, and travel; three trips coming up, Barcelona, Tokyo and Brussels. Boil all of this together and what emerges is (hopefully) some idea of direction. But they don’t just come at once. Rather, two or three will develop together at varying stages, and will have to be cultured accordingly.
The other day I went to the Edgar Wallace pub, which is lined with his novels. Wallace was a famously fast writer. It was a standing joke that if someone telephoned Wallace and was told he was writing a book, they’d reply ‘I’ll wait.’ He produced around 175 novels, 24 plays, hundreds of articles and short stories, and about 160 films have been made from his work, including ‘The Edgar Wallace Mysteries’. I count 12 novels written in 1929 alone, but popularity does not always translate to longevity, and Wallace’s slam-bang tales are often regarded unsubtle and improbable. It was said that the King of Thrillers’ heart was left in Fleet Street.
Well, that will never be me. People think I’m prolific but I’m really not, just consistent, so that while one book is coming out I’m working steadily on another. The thriller I’ve just been working on has been through seven entirely different drafts, with changing characters, voices, locales, tenses and plot twists. I now have a version that I like, and it’s half the length of the first one, with four characters excised from the earlier cut.
Other books come easy; ‘The Memory of Blood’ was the least laborious book I’ve ever produced, and virtually appeared without me noticing. This is neither a good not a bad thing; some books simply prove more demanding. Next year’s Bryant & May novel, ‘The Burning Man’, had a single major change made to it, thanks to my agent pointing out something I hadn’t noticed I’d done – sometimes you need to take outside advice from an expert.
So, now I’m allowing myself the luxury of a single week in which to make those decisions outlined above – I may never have a pub named after me as Edgar did, but I’ll have a body of work I’m proud of!