An Interesting Question

Reading & Writing


On Saturday I appeared at the Stratford-Upon-Avon Literary Festival. I haven’t been to Stratford for a while (not that it’s very far away; I’m just lazy) and the only thing that has changed is the number of Japanese tourists delightedly visiting the Bard’s home town. The event had a terrific lineup of guests, and I was on with Dr Oliver Tearle, the charming, erudite author of ‘Britain By The Book’ and ‘The Secret Library’, about how geography has influenced authors and how we’ve missed some of the best books through history. I was chatting about forgotten authors, and during the Q&A some excellent questions were lobbed in – but not the one I was asked yesterday.

In fact, I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me this before. On Saturday night I went to a midnight screening of Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Infinity Wars’ (what do other writers do to relax? My excuse is it was raining and I didn’t fancy a walk) and the following morning headed to the Bloomsbury Paperback & Pulp Book Fair, a bi-annual event of Books I Didn’t Know I Needed at mostly reasonable prices. It’s a bit Arthur Bryant top-heavy (it’s the only place in London where I feel young) but there’s a lovely atmosphere and everyone hangs around and chats about books – what’s not to love (apart from their execrable coffee)? Here’s my haul…

Anyway, the question. At the event someone came up and asked me: What is it actually like being a full-time writer? I had to stop and think. I didn’t want to give a glib reply or make a joke, but sought to answer properly. I remember seeing an interview with Alfred Hitchcock in which he was asked what happiness meant to him. He said it was a clear sky with nothing ahead, knowing that you could start to make something from scratch. That’s how I feel on many days, that I have an open road and a head full of ideas.


There are other days; ones where I start already written into a corner and feel trapped, ones where I’m exhausted by trying to get a scene right. Then I know that something has to be broken in order to fix it, so I go back and search for the fault, a way of rerouting the plot onto its right track, and this can take time.

Then there’s the three-day rule; during the key points of first drafts I need a three-day run to really get up to speed and write smoothly. Conversely, if you leave a manuscript for three days, it’s hard to get back into with the same tone of voice.In an ideal world I’d write fast to keep the tone but it never happens. Distraction is a tool as well as a curse. It’s the downtime you need to process information, but it delays you and drags out the days (and nights).

The internet has put all kinds of gaps in the workday; mail, social media, browsing, dealing with questions from publishers and readers alike. We are now all actor-managers, largely handling our own careers. A great many fine writers have lost out because they only write (which is what they do best) and have trouble managing a career trajectory.

So, downsides; it’s solitary (writers rarely discuss their work with each other, I have no idea why), you work longer hours and through weekends, and it can bring on profound depression – I hardly know a writer who has not been touched by depression in their careers. The upside – the blank page turns into a filled page. You create something from nothing.

The best way I can sum up is to quote a poem called ‘Clear Accounting’ by Juan Octavio Prenz.

One day more is one day less

That is to say that every day is more

and every day is less

That’s why

there’s no addition that doesn’t subtract

there is no subtraction that doesn’t add

There remains

clear like an adventure

the day.

14 comments on “An Interesting Question”

  1. Jan says:

    Quatermass. I loved those stories I liked the one in the late 1970s early 1980s with John Mills (think it was on ITV) the one with the New Age traveller people.
    Dunno if that was Nigel Kneale?

    How many Quatermass books were they?

    Stratford is interesting in that the international tourism far outweighs the number of Brits really bothered about the place. Strange isn’t it? Shakespeare a World figure only partially acknowledged by his own nation. I wonder if any other country has a similar figure?

  2. Matt says:

    ‘Smashing Time’ is one of my favourite films. I hope the book is as enjoyable as the film. I often watch the movie to cheer myself up.

    I can’t quite believe you haven’t ever had to answer that question before, I’m glad you posted your question and answer here. Its has answered the very thing I have wondered about for years. Thank you.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    I am not a writer but have exactly the same experiences. I think they are the gifts and curses of solitary creativity. The fact that it’s a means of earning a crust amplifies the pain and the pleasure.

  4. admin says:

    There is a fourth script, Jan, one with John Mills made years later, but I found it unwatchable. It’s not in the same book series. Nigel Kneale was very embittered about the way of the world by then, and it shows in The Quatermass Conclusion.

  5. Martin Tolley says:

    Nigel Kneale was the husband of Judith Kerr who wrote and illustrated The Mog series of picture books and “The Tiger who came for tea.” – a tale which my sister wanted read to her every night before bed. We can still both recite it.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    There are four ‘Quatermass’ stories, all by Nigel Kneale. ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, ‘Quatermass II’, ‘Quatermass And The Pit’, and ‘Quatermass’ (or ‘The Quatermass Conclusion, take your pick). The covers of the Arrow screenplay reprints are lovely, but ‘Quatermass II’ is odd, as it shows Richard Wordsworth as Victor Caroon from the Hammer movie ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’, The Arrow book of ‘The Quatermass Experiment correctly shows Duncan Lamont as Caroon, and ‘Quatermass And The Pit’ depicts one of the tripodal Martians created so splendidly by the BBC’s Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie. The first three books contain an introduction by Kneale, production notes, and best of all, a selection of photographs, taken, in some cases, from studio monitors during production. I have all four books ‘Quatermass’ being a solid novelisation, and have read all four, too many times to mention. (They’re falling to bits, actually – Arrow books always seemed to, after a while. They still stir the imagination, and have the power to frighten, especially ‘Quatermass II’.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Bernard Quatermass has possibly the most definite death in science fiction, too – he is hit by a destructive alien ray from the heavens, suffers a massive coronary, whilst simultaneously setting off, and being at the epicentre of, a low-yield atomic explosion. No brushing your lapels off, and sashaying back into scene after that, methinks.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Martin – The last ‘Mog’ book is possibly the saddest book written. Through the series, Mog gets older, and the last book contains her death. I think that it’s entitled ‘Goodbye, Mog’. I made the mistake of flicking through it, and having uncontrollable tears well up. One of the staff saw me, and glanced at the book. “New Mog book?” she asked. I could only nod. “Does it to everybody, mostly dads thinking of buying it for their kids.” she said.

  9. Ken Mann says:

    I am inclined to think that Nigel Kneale was always a bit of a misanthropic curmudgeon and it just got a bit worse as he got older. Quatermass Conclusion is in hind-sight a better fit with the other stories than it might have seemed at the time.

  10. Martin Tolley says:

    Ian, there is a short piece in the Guardian at about why Mog had to die. Judith K was almost 80 when she finished the last tale, and was sort of preparing herself and family for endings generally. She’s still around (in her mid 90s methinks)

  11. admin says:

    You see, Martin, that’s what happens when writers talk about ending things – they soldier on for another half-century. I’ve been keeping Bryant & May on life support for years and they won’t go!

  12. Ian Mason says:

    Quatermass might have had a definite end, but that wouldn’t stop him coming back as a recording on a ‘stone tape’.

    I’ll get my coat…

  13. Jan says:

    Think I enjoyed the later John Mills Quatermass as it touched on New Age travellers( who were pretty new back then) and the idea that they were following leys across the countryside. The subject matter just tickled me. Also the remnants of a dessimated Met police force acting as “pay cops”. Protecting travellers like knights protecting pilgrims in medieval times but with riot shields, carriers and public order gear. It was just interesting the facets to the story.

    Agreed there was a pretty weak conclusion to the story but interesting premise. Ended at Wembley Stadium which is a ley site.

    Am up in town at present. Went to that Sky garden place a top of the Walky Talky building last night for Jonjo’s birthday. Brilliant views apart from to the N where the Gherkins already being obscured by that ruddy cheesegrater creation. Another strange building seems to have appeared close to the Heron tower – which I still think of as the old Nat west tower.

    In the end the city will just be full of tourists waving @ each other from viewing platforms!

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – there was an alien incident at Wembley, in ‘Quatermass’ but the conclusion was at Joe Kapp’s radio observatory, in Oxfordshire. There was a small stone circle adjacent to this, which had already been hit by the alien beam, killing Kapp’s wife and children, whilst he was away trying to repair a booster station that had been vandalised by ‘Planet People’. After filming the show, Euston films sold the two full size radio telescope arrays they had built for the show. They were very similar to real radio telescope arrays situated at the Mullard Radio Observatory just outside Cambridge.

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