In search of the write stuff

When attending a book festival to listen to an author talk about his or her book, you can bet a pound to a penny that a member of the audience will raise a hand to ask the writer one particular question: Where do your ideas come from?

Most authors say their ideas come when they go on long walks in the countryside or at least somewhere nice and green, giving everyone this romantic idea that being an author is an endless exercise of writing and walking. But I’ve donned my wellies and tramped fields many a time only to return home absent of a eureka moment.

The writer and comedian, John Cleese, has strong advice on the whole subject of creativity, or at least the best chance of conjuring it up. In essence, he claims that by creating the right mood, creativity will follow. Cut yourself off from the busy world and allow yourself to play. Just make sure that time and space is your time and space. When ideas don’t come, work on them some more in your isolated state, then perhaps wait for the unconscious mind to kick-in when you least expect it.

This method of working, he says, explains why so many writers prefer to work late at night or in the early hours of the morning when there is less chance of interruption.

Yet, only the other day I read about a writer’s debut novel being written on a commuter train using her mobile phone. She didn’t specify whether she did this standing up or sitting down, given the state of our overcrowded trains, but you get the point, creativity can happen anywhere, locked away in a log cabin or in a train filled with passengers.

A year ago, I visited the lakeside house of the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, where he lived with his wife Nina, just on the edge of Bergen. I think any writer would have given his or her eyeteeth to work in his cosy hut overlooking Lake Nordas. Working in such tranquillity and light must have been heavenly for the composer. He apparently built it for himself to get away from the din of the house.

But for me, noise isn’t the issue having worked in busy newsrooms where there was constant interruption. I learnt quickly to block out everything around me while writing because there was a deadline to meet.

If anything, I found that I had more ideas floating around my head when I was working in a newsroom than I do today while sitting alone in my office. And when I used to travel for my job ideas seemed to multiply because there was so much going on around me to stimulate my mind.

But I agree with Cleese’s thesis that ideas have to be worked out in your head until a perfect solution is eventually found or otherwise it is just a compromise. I walk around thinking about such problems for days on end and then suddenly come up with an answer while reaching out for a jar in the cupboard. There can be no switching off until the right idea presents itself.

With my new book, Scoop of the Year, due to be published in late October, I wanted to write a suspense story based on a single emotion, jealousy. But I wanted this emotion to be a positive experience for the protagonist. Envy can be good for you, if it gets you off your backside.

I wrote the book in a few months as I knew what I was aiming at, but to figure out the right presentation of the story required an incredible amount of thinking and caused much delay.

Some writers are heavy plotters, and often decide the ending first before working their way back to the beginning of their novel. While others are more improvisational and go where the story takes them, often to places they never would have thought.

I’m somewhere in the middle of the two. I usually know the beginning and the ending before setting sail, but I do let the logic of the story unfold. Sometimes, an idea comes to me out of the blue as my fingers hit the keyboard. If it surprises me at that point, then it will sure surprise the reader.

Some ideas can peter out while writing or they just don’t hold out to keep the story alive, even if everything else is in place in terms of characters and plot. At the end of the day it’s about finding the right stuff to sustain 90,000 words or more. When you have it, you write fast and furiously, but when you don’t it’s a bit like playing a tune on a piano with one finger.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

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