"What do you do when you’re not writing?" "What are you working on now that you’ve finished [insert book title here]?"
These are questions I get asked all the time (and I very much doubt I’m alone on this one). There seems to be a feeling among some people that when you are not in the middle of writing or editing a book, you’re sitting about twiddling your thumbs and achieving absolutely zip. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it took me a while to work that out. Being ‘between books’ can be a stressful and worrying place to be. But it doesn’t have to be.
I’m cooking at the moment.
It’s what I call that process when you’ve had the kernel of a really good story idea, but you can’t quite work out what the book is going to be. So you cook it in your head for a while and see if what comes out of the oven is a beautifully risen soufflé, or a sunken mass of sticky goo.
Everything else in my life is suffering at the moment because of my obsession with this idea. I’m inattentive at the best of times, but when I’m hacking through the jungle of ‘pick me!’ ideas to try and find my way to the Golden Temple of Story, I must be hell to live with. I wake at three or four in the morning, apologising as I turn on the light and fumble about for a notebook and pencil with which to scribble down the idea that my muse (who clearly keeps very unsociable hours) has decided to drop on me. Then I go back to sleep. Unfortunately, my wife rarely does.
Being a ‘pantser’ doesn’t help. I keep telling myself that if only I could plot; plan a route through the undergrowth before setting off on the journey, my life would be so much easier. But I’m not built like that. I have a sado-masochistic streak to me that forces me to make my writing life as difficult as possible. Not only am I a pantser, but I’m not a sharer. I shudder at the thought of telling anyone my idea, or asking someone to read the first part of a story to let me know what they think. I don’t even like letting my agent read early versions of my work. For me, getting an idea into something like a story, and a story into something like a book is an act of self-flagellation rivalled only by certain Filipino Catholics during the Penitensiya.
It seems to me that most writers have to go through some kind of pain barrier before they get to a point that they’re happy to start really working on their book. For some it’s the months and weeks of plotting, for others it might be days of endless speculation and navel-gazing. It’s what we do when we’re ‘not writing’, and it took me a while to realise that this was a good thing. Beating yourself up about not writing is a terribly counter-productive thing to do. Yes, it’s all very lovely to sit down each day and crunch your way through two thousand words, but if what you’ve written goes into the recycle bin of your desktop the next day, there was very little point, was there? I know, I’ve done it.
So right now, I’m cooking. I’m not writing, and I’m feeling pretty good about it. Somewhere in the oven of my brain there’s a story taking shape, the ingredients are all there, but I have to wait and see if I have them in the right proportions and if I have the skill to bring them all together into something that is edible and enjoyable.
Hmmm, all these food metaphors. Do you think I’ve possibly been watching too much Masterchef?