The Author As Lighthouse Keeper

Reading & Writing

Last week our London flat was besieged; there was drilling from the gutted apartment below, hammering from the roofers above and steeplejacks were clambering past all the windows. The once-every-7-years building renovation had coincided with neighbours’ makeovers. Electric saws were operating at variable pitches, sounding like bassoons on feedback. I’m not normally sensitive to such sounds – my brother and I are both tinnitus sufferers so we just plug in headphones – but this proved a little too much.

I’ve never believed much in writers’ retreats – the silence of the countryside just makes me aware of inner ear noise – but knew that the only way to tackle the final draft of a new standalone thriller would be to take it all apart, reorganise the timeline and reassemble it. To do that you have to keep it in your head night and day. This means 100% focus, no breaks or interruptions, seclusion and a surprising amount of stamina.

A 27 quid Easyjet flight got me to our dark, gothic flat in Barcelona, where I have the run of the place and can turn it into the inside of my mind. I’m now three days in and have been out twice to the local shop – no alcohol or red meat, no TV or visitors, no strictly planned hours – and no notes, just what’s in my head. Lighthouse keepers probably have more active social lives.

Last night the process finally came alive, and I worked until 3:00am. At this stage the book looks like an accident victim patched together with plasters. I have managed 62 pages out of 400. 150 pages will most likely be cut. All awkward sentences must be removed. Some contain crucial pieces of information that must be relocated elsewhere. Refocussing reader attention onto different characters changes a book’s entire dynamic.

Oh, and I now have no ending.

I have never done this before, locked myself away to basically tear something apart, but it’s proving to be an amazing exercise. I’m not sure what I’ll come back with. I’d quite like to plaster the entire flat in pages and bits of red string, as writers do in films, then rearrange all the scenes accordingly. As scriptwriters it was standard practice to use scissors and glue.

I know there are online systems for this – I tried Scrivener, with its skeuomorphic cork boards, and it seemed so complicated that the system got in the way of the writing. Probably the biggest problem is eye and neck strain as I currently have 8 windows open on a Macbook Air.

Does anyone know of a better way of doing this, or should I get out the scissors? All tips on procedure will be mulled over.

6 comments on “The Author As Lighthouse Keeper”

  1. Brooke says:

    Observation–you are a “visual learner.” Follow your instincts–get the scissors. Go with analogue story board, i.e. paper pages (white); brown paper for drawing, colored markers–use your own system. e.g different colors for characters or plot lines. The process of moving about to cut, paste, color is more helpful to brainwork. (another reason why making children like you sit still in school is a very stupid practice)

    Lighthouse keeper or light housekeeper?
    Good luck.

  2. snowy says:

    The best advice you will probably get is to go with what feels right, soliciting the opinions of randoms on the internet, might well be an amusing diversion, but of little practical use.

    The least worst bit of advice, is to put your trousers on and pop over to Plaça de Catalunya and get the gubbins to run a second screen off the Air. It’s the equiv. of getting a bigger ‘desk’ that lets you spread out the ‘pages’ so you can see them. [It doesn’t solve the problem it just makes the process less of a pain.]

    Manipulating complex non-physical objects is intensely difficult. [Characters within a story are complex non-physical objects and even worse they start doing things all on their own!]

    [Nobody needs to read beyond this sentence, as all they will find below is some very strange mental cat herding.]

    It is effectively a 4 dimensional system containing multiple quasi-independant but interlinked objects, [the internal timeline gives dimension 4].

    Then trying to do it with a human brain that struggles with 3 dimensions, [or at least mine does!*]

    With only a 2 dimensional ‘toolbox’, [dots on screen/paper].

    [There are tools that can constrain/map parts of the problem, BUT none are technically ‘complete’ and adding each one increases the complexity exponentially.**]


    * Try imagining a tennis ball flying slowly through the air; and then stand outside yourself and count how many dimensions your brain is really tracking, it isn’t 4, it resolves X,Y and Z into a 2D path plotted over dimension ‘t’.

    ** If you think I’m going try to explain any of that without a Whiteboard, you are having not just a giraffe – but all of London Zoo immediately after it was carpet bombed with the entire contents of Billy Smart’s Circus!

  3. John Griffin says:

    Get analogue and physical. Plaster the flat with A4. Walk through it. You can create 4 dimensions that way and also retain a better memory by embodying the plot trajectory (using multiple memory systems, which seem to be what you do naturally?). I’ve only written textbooks, but it is useful for even that dull stuff.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    I favour lots of sheets of A4 spread over the floor and furniture. I have a huge screen connected to my tower, but still run out of space (or comprehension) with more than a few windows.

    The lighthouse keeper is a special image, a ship’s captain without a ship. Is it sad that they have all been replaced with automation?

  5. Eliz Amber says:

    I would recommend against using scissors and paste on a MacBook.

  6. Diane Englot says:

    Sounds frightfully exciting…no kidding, seriously…thank you for sharing these intimate peeks into the life of a writer. I love being squirreled away, focused on something I love.

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