Inside Writing 1: The Things That Did Not Happen

Reading & Writing

This is the first of a new series that I hope will explore the actual experience of writing, from the first word to publication.

So, What Do You Do Apart From Just Writing Books?

I love that question. I get asked it a lot. Some people are surprised that what they consider a hobby can consume your life. Writing is more than a career – it can become a vocation. Yet there are writers I know who have simply stopped one day and done something else. We’ll get to that another time, but first this;

Working on a book starts with an idea and its viability, then research, then drafts, edits, proofs, publication, post-publication selling and so on. But, like resting actors, we do get left with gaps of time. We also get holistically involved in projects. Your idea infects you and you often have to live with it for years. It can take on other lives even after you’ve done with it; you can guarantee that if you write about a character with leprosy the International Leprosy Foundation will get in touch with you and ask you to front a campaign.

Whichever subject you choose to write about, two things will happen:

Readers will assume you’re the expert on the subject.

Readers will assume you know nothing about the subject.

When I write about London, I get emails from people saying; ‘My cousin and his wife are coming to London on their first trip to England. Where should they go?’

Having said that, we love talking to readers, and I wish I could spend time with more at events, which is why I love this blog. But writing about a specific subject doesn’t make me an expert – it makes me a good researcher.

It can be easy for writers to fill their days with festivals, committees, Q&As, dinners and meetings about writers and writing. I’m not a natural organiser and leave that side of the job to those who have more practical brains. I produce quite a lot of work because I specifically stay away from the things I’m not good at, but I keep insanely long hours at the keyboard.

A file gradually grows beside your books that’s filled with Things That Did Not Happen. Glancing to the side of this screen I can count around 30 dead or currently comatose projects that didn’t go anywhere. Some were finished and went out – the BBC Radio One Halloween Special I wrote for the DJs, which aired live over the course of the evening. Others were completed but went nowhere. The movie scripts for Psychoville, Calabash, Hell Train, Disturbia, Spanky and a project called The Waiting Darkness which sadly never saw the light of day (the script went through around 20 drafts) were all ready to go, but didn’t. Then there was the absolutely deranged screenplay for ‘Breathe’, a novel of mine few have ever read. There are unfinished novels in that pile, one called ‘Crazy Lady’, another called ‘Mr Wonderful’, part-written, awaiting a return.

There are deep-back-burner projects there too – a fantastical history on London in the Dark Ages, a time travel novel, several non-fiction books, plays, weird stuff that has nowhere to go. There are lots of essays and articles too, like the one I recently wrote here.

Then there are the scripts for short films – dozens of them – a Poirot project and a Hammer project that didn’t happen, my section of an anthology film called ‘Bloody London’ (my part, a script called ‘Down’, went through many drafts before the film simply vaporised).  I can see other scripts, for ‘Young VS Old’, and something called ‘Bad Town’ that I can’t even remember writing.

Why haven’t these been finished?

Some never found the right length – too long for a short story, too short for a novel. Some were overtaken by events – one by technology, one by #MeToo.

If you get involved with film and TV, it’s amazing how many long meetings you take with companies that end on an incredibly positive note, only for you to never hear another word. People enthuse, oversell, love you and simply vanish without apology for wasting your time.

So, of this great iceberg of work, just the tip appears. And I assume this is true for all writers – I don’t know for sure, because we hardly ever talk to each other about actual writing!

5 comments on “Inside Writing 1: The Things That Did Not Happen”

  1. Susanna says:

    I’ve read ‘Breathe’. The screenplay can’t be as deranged as the novel, can it?

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Ideas that sounded great at first and even had legs enough to get into the research stage but just became either thinner and thinner or so complex it was incomprehensible and finally just vanished.

  3. John Howard says:

    I like the idea of the deep back burner projects. Like a slowly cooking casserole with the ingredients getting richer and tastier as time goes by.

  4. John Griffin says:

    Not just in the fiction world. I twice did updating and rejuvenating textbooks for publishers, to be told there were too many alterations (of stuff that was factually and diametrically wrong!!) and paid a pittance for the chunks they used. One independent publisher got a whole course update and grudgingly paid a second pawky fee following litigation threats. The best one is the revision book done as a joint with the publisher’s ‘big name’; he contributed ONE email and receives 7% while I get 1.5%, having been led to believe this was a proper collaboration and dangled the prospect of a textbook collaboration- no further communication, of course.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    John, text books are very much a vexed issue. Math and science texts should be up to date but if they do the books end up costing a fortune. We were researching a new elementary arithmetic text at the ten year old level and could not find one with the type of exercise we wanted. The one that came closest was the better part of $100 per copy and the province just doesn’t allow that sort of cost for texts. We continued to use books that were getting a little worn around the edges and were beginning to disappear.

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