Inside Writing 3: A Blank Page

Reading & Writing

There remains, clear like an adventure, the day. 

Today I started the 20th Bryant & May novel, to be published in 2021, which may seem a long way off to you but is actually a little behind schedule, which is why author’s works continue to appear after they drop dead.

A blank page, then. How to mark it?

Last week, as I finished the edit on the next Bryant & May novel and the latest incarnation of its cover arrived, I realised I was about to fall into that odd lacuna which occurs at the start of a new book when there’s everything to play for and I can do whatever I like.

Not many careers allow for starting all over again every time (acting is most closely allied to writing, I suspect), and it carries a burden. Make a mistake early in your career and you self-immolate.

When I first started to get published I was not focussed on it as a career at all; it seemed like unreal ancillary work to my main job in film. I was a slave in the service of celluloid, and writing felt like a jumped-up hobby. I had never taken a writing course (and still haven’t, although I’ve read some) or been given any kind of useful writing advice. Consequently I wrote as I thought writers were supposed to; planning, outlining, following a long-gestating blueprint.

But I’m not a planner, and my first attempt at a book, bashed out on a portable manual typewriter, became an unruly monster-in-a-box of carbon copies, handwritten revises and sellotaped slivers of sentences.

What I wanted to do was think on the page, but of course the technology had not been developed then. We have finally reached a point where ink and paper no longer obstruct thought, and the way I work now is unimaginable to the younger me. Preparation is not just boring, it makes you terribly impatient to start writing. You research and draw out diagrams for a while, but you’re itching to smash on.

Over the last few books I’ve reduced my forward planning to a single page of bullet points and do nearly all of my thinking directly at the screen. Novel writing now starts with throwing something, anything onto the screen and becomes a flexible system of problem solving, like unpicking oakum, line by line, page by page, chapter by chapter, until the book is finished and everyone ends up in the right place.

Pixels are not paper but impermanent, malleable phantoms. There’s everything to play for right up until you type The End. The Bryant & May books are easier because they have a structure upon which to build.

I don’t so much write as build, trying lines that don’t work, ploughing on until there’s something to look at. I’ll come back later, adding and adding (I always under-write and add, never trim). But there are no ‘three drafts and a polish’ anymore – it has become a single blurred thing, only defined at the tail-end of the process. The technology required a new way of thinking; rolling ideas, not finite drafts. For some it’s a nightmare of open choice. For me there remains, clear like an adventure, the day.

The quote is from a poem by Juan Octavio Prenz. I can find no work of his in English but for a single short story. Anyone?


8 comments on “Inside Writing 3: A Blank Page”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    How do you know when you have finished; that is, when it’s better not to add or change any more?

  2. Roger says:

    The only quote I can see is ‘three drafts and a polish’, which is moderate by the standards of poets – look at Goodbye to all that for Graves’s description of his and Thomas Hardy’s methods or Housman’s account of writing a poem for much more intensive procedures/

  3. admin says:

    The first/ last line is from a poem called ‘Clear Accounting’.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    How about making it entertainment, like Monty Python’s live novel writing, with Thomas Hardy on the field at Lord’s, trying to start ‘The Mayor Of Casterbridge’?
    “Oh dear, it’s a doodle in the margin.”
    “Yes, it’s ‘Far From The Madding Crowd, all over again.”

  5. snowy says:

    Juan Octavio Prenz, you don’t ‘arf pick ’em!

    A quick look at the two largest Anglophone copyright libraries comes up Spanish only.
    Checking the World libraries meta-catalogue has one publication the lists English as a language but I think it is a false lead, [anthology, 46pp, 12 authors from all over the world].

    He writes/is translated into Spanish, Italian and Serbian. Not looking terribly hopeful.

    There is a rather nice quote:

    “Only trees have roots is a sentence I have often used to answer who exhorted me to declare myself unilaterally Argentinean, Yugoslav or Italian, as I have written in these three languages and I have lived in the countries where they were spoken. All this comes from my distrust of easy metaphors, one of which makes man a being without roots. Sometimes, I’ve found myself answering: if it is a matter of making metaphors, then, why roots and not wings? Why can’t we think that identity can be defined also in terms of a future to be shared, rather than a past to be contemplated?”

    Why not unfold that typewriter, feed in a nice piece of paper and write to him? What’s the worst that can happen?

  6. Kitty Kilian says:

    To think on the page. That is a nice succinct way of putting it.

    Lee Child also improvises line for line, and also underwrites rather than overwrites. It can be done, then.

  7. Jan says:

    What the bloody hell is that round copper thing? Is it a lamp? Or is it something you hit yourself over the head with if you can’t get any ideas?

    Seems a funny place for a lamp in front of a computer.

    Why did you decide to have your keyboard that beige colour? It is nice but unusual. Is that a lead between the keyboard and screen – it looks a bit short.
    Is that an I pad on the left, a notebook, pen and one and a piece of plain paper on the right? That’s a lotta notes.

    Is that part of a lamp on the extreme right of the photo? Or have you got a large down pipe on your balcony? I only just noticed this thread today. Don’t understand it much but its an interesting picture.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    The copper thing looks like a lamp with the light focused away from the table/desk. On the right it looks like a birch tree in a white planter and a big frowsty hanging plant. Yes, interesting shapes and things.

Comments are closed.