Sunday, 23 December 2012

Had we but world enough and time....

This coyness, story, were no crime.

But we don't have world enough and time. We have deadlines. And a story that slips in and out of view, dragging its characters into dark corners and throwing out an enticing distraction, is apt to get abandoned for another commission.

Stories take time. And they don't just take time to write, they take time to stalk and to understand. The time spent actually writing a picture book might be only a day or even less (though sometimes it's much longer), but the total time it takes can be months or even years. For longer books, it's much more complicated. There are stages to even the simplest book:

  1. inspiration - that moment when the idea comes to you. It might come as a story, a character, a plot idea, a situation, even a snatch of dialogue or the first line. That's just the seed, though. (Which is why it's so frustrating when non-writers say 'I've got a great idea for a book... perhaps you'd like to write it and we can share the money?' Yeah, I've got a bag of lawn seed. Perhaps you'd like to plant it, grow and nurture the lawn, and then we can play croquet on it.
  2. working it into a proper idea - people do varying amounts of planning, but even if you don't write a plan the idea needs to compost into something you can work with
  3. writing the damn thing - putting the ideas into words is always the point where the instance varies from the ideal form - where your perfectly conceived book becomes an inadequate pile of words that doesn't quite capture it. Fun and frustrating in varying measures
  4. realising it's crap and despairing - just wait
  5. rewriting/editing to make it a bit less crap. Repeat until relatively uncrappy.
The bit that is easy to forget comes at 2/3. For some people, the detail that makes the plot hold together comes at the planning stage; for others, it emerges during writing. I usually fall into the second camp. I'm not really a planner. I thrive on adrenaline. If I know where I'm going, it feels like writing-by-numbers and I get bored. But still that time needs to spent, composting the idea into something rich. I have two books at the moment that I thought I understood. Both have a good premise. Both are proving really wayward and elusive. I want to take them by the throat and shake them. They are worse than children. Perhaps I should swap some of the characters around - how would my bewitched walrus do in nineteenth-century London? No, that wouldn't help...

I had a few weeks between other books in the autumn and tried to bully these into shape. But they just hadn't had their composting time. If you get all the old potato peelings out of your compost bin and spread them on the garden, it's not going to do any good. Patience. It takes time for the subconscious to work, like worms, on the idea-mulch. It's too frustrating. I want to play with them NOW.