Inside Writing 3: A Blank Page
Reading & Writing
6th February 2020
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?