This post is part of a series on the process of writing. I was asked to join in by Fiona Melrose, whose debut novel Midwinter is receiving the final polish before Fiona and her agent, Jo Unwin, submit it to publishers. You can read her enthralling answers here.
There are four questions:
1) What are you currently working on?
You’ll know if you read my last blog that I write in three genres: prose, poetry and drama. This often means I keep several plates spinning. A few months ago I completed a novel which is now trying to catch agents’ eyes. While that happens, the first thing I did was polish a sitcom pilot for the BBC’s comedy submission window. While the machine that is a BBC radio submission turns slowly, I morphed into a poet. I’m currently writing new poems and trying to get enough decent ones together to call a collection, and then to persuade a poetry publisher to take me on.
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I see from reading other responses that this is the hardest question. I suppose with my novel, which is a wry look at the world of amateur orchestras, it was written from a position of authority: I have spent many years playing cello in such orchestras. Now, of course, my friends are terrified they are all in it. Of course I made everyone up. My lawyer agrees.
With my sitcom, I’d like to say it differs from other Radio 4 comedy by being exponentially more hilarious than anything else and will immediately worm a place into Middle England’s heart and I’ll become a national treasure. The truth is, of course, that a sitcom must be similar enough to others to be able to fit into the essential structure that defines the genre. The other truth is that I simply don’t know and await a producer’s approval.
And my poems? I can write funny ones. I can attempt profound ones. I’m never really sure if I achieve either. I’m not a performance poet, and frankly would be terrified to stand on stage holding a mic like a rapper and jab a pointy finger into the audience as I nuance onomatopoeic alliteration like a machine gunner. I try to say things I notice about the world in a way that connects with people, but I guess any writer tries to do that. I don’t quote whole stanzas in Italian or French because I can’t speak them and I think a lot of poems that do tend to alienate readers. There should never be more than one word in a poem that you need to look up. But one is good. Being stretched is good. I am now at risk of being classed as elitist.
3) Why do you write what you do?
The glib answer would be to empty my head of rattling words that would otherwise interfere with my ability to function. I don’t think we laugh enough, so I write comedy to counteract that. If a thought strikes me suddenly, often a poem is the only way I know to capture it: the form is short enough to represent a single moment but has enough depth to explore meanings and implications, like writing a wormhole in spacetime. It is also, as you see, a terrifically good way of sounding pretentious really quickly.
Writing is the ultimate form of carriage wit. I can appear nonchalant and urbane, when actually a sentence might have taken months to hone. It is all lies pretending to be truths. It’s the best fun in the world.
4) How does your writing process work?
When I was childless it used to involve a lot of walks and writing sessions that lasted until 4am. I was young and caffeine still had the power to fire up my synapses and allow me to function at work the next morning. That is still my ideal way, if I’m honest. However, two children muscle in on writing time. There were times when they were babies that I was too exhausted to write at all. Now my younger is at nursery school I have some clear hours during weekdays that I jealously protect. The house does not get cleaned. Clothes remain unwashed. One of the hardest parts of prioritising writing is giving yourself the permission to do so: telling yourself it is important – more important than the other hundred chores on your list.
If I have a new poem on the go the latest printout will follow me round the house, with a pencil nearby, and it will get scribbled on. I take it to bed. It evolves.
My novel was written in order, with the bare bones of a structure written out on one A4 piece of paper in pencil, like a flow chart that ended up looking like a double-jointed spider. I knew where I had to get to by the end of the scene, but often had absolutely no idea of the route.
I can’t write with anyone else around. Once a fortnight we have someone to mow some grass around the house: when he is here I know I might as well do something else because there won’t be any words until he goes. It’s hard being middle class, ok?
But does it work? I don’t know. There were some really interesting blog posts last week about what qualifies as writing success, how much emphasis we should put on that, and how we cope with inevitable rejection (Isabel Costello, Helen MacKinven and Polly Atkin).
I dream of solitary time away to concentrate. I might achieve that in about a decade.