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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Bringing your inner artist to heel - the long haul

Last week I read a great article in the Guardian called "unleash your inner artist" in which well-respected artists from different disciplines told the reader what inspired them. Each had ideas for setting the right conditions, and they varied from "Find a studio with more than one window" to "go on a journey with someone who is as different from you as chalk from cheese".

As a writer I have no trouble at all finding inspiration. I could start twenty books tomorrow. But the question is, could I sustain them? Never mind unleashing the inner artist, how do I bring it to heel?

For novelists, most of their work of their first draft happens in the middle of the book. For me the pattern looks a little like this:

Inspiration! (The beginning! I write feverishly.)
Hard graft,
H a r d G r a f t,
H a r d   G r a f t,
H   a  r  d    G  r  a  f  t,
H     a    r    d    G    r    a    f    t
Aha! The End is in sight.
The End - breathes a sigh of relief.

So a lot of the trick of it is about keeping inspired through the long middle. The characters or subject must have viability for the long haul, and be fascinating enough to sustain my interest over the eighteen months it takes me to research and write the book.

One of the best quotes in the Guardian article was from Guy Garvey, singer/guitarist with Elbow, who quoted in turn some advice he'd been given by songwriter Mano McLaughlin.

"The song is all, he said. Don't worry about what the music sounds like; you have a responsibility to the song. I found that really inspiring: it reminded me not to worry about whether a song sounds cool or fits with everything we've done before - but just to let the song be what it is."

When I start out I have an idea of what the book will be.As I approach the middle I realise that the book is moving away from my vision of it. I try to bring it back. It persists in going its own way. Much of the hard graft in the middle of the book is about the battle between my control of the story and my imagination which wants to take a looser journey.Somewhere near the end of the hard graft phase I realise I have to "let the song be what it is" and allow the story that wants to be told to have free rein. Just about then, I glimpse the end.

Subsequent drafts are about letting go of previous rigid ideas that I had about what my book might be, and who I might be as a writer. I have had to let go of ideas that I might be a) as brillliant and respected as Hilary Mantel b) as popular and best-selling as Dan Brown c) about to be tipped as the next TV book club read, or d) the ground-breaking quirky new voice of the 21st century.

You might have to do the same. Maybe you thought it was literary fiction, until you found you had written a fast-moving convoluted thriller with a crazed psychopath. Maybe you thought you would like to write a romance, until you found it impossible to force those love scenes and ended up with a murder instead.Maybe you became so interested in the motivations of your central couple that the plot never happened and it became a meditation instead and you found you had written a literary novella.

I write historical fiction so here are my top tips for inspiring myself in the long haul.
Surprise, surprise, they all involve leaving the computer and going out, and none of them are hard-line research. They are what I call "dabbling."

Browse your subject in a second-hand bookshop.Don't rush, allow lots of time for diversions.

Wander round a place your character might have lived.

Look up his/her name on and find out what his/her namesakes did

Go horse-riding. (In my books most people travel by horse)

Go to an Antique shop, auction or museum and handle objects from the period.

Find a spot to daydream about your book and make a point of allowing time for the mind to drift.

Let the song be what it is.


  1. I love this article. Just love it. Thanks

  2. Wow thank you for sharing your thoughts on writing with us. I love the idea about handling object of the same period your writing about.

    But I think I'll miss out on the horseriding bit I stick with walking.

  3. inspiring! I like these ideas. One of my other writer friends suggested having an "interview" with one or more characters. I've found that to be helpful sometimes.

  4. Hello Alison, Jarmara and Augustina, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. That idea of having an interview with a character is great. In fact I might try having one of my characters as interviewer instead/as well. I'll pop over to your blogs too and see what you're up to.

  5. A lovely article and a beautiful blog,
    Grace x

  6. I love The Lady's Slipper which I read on Kindle and this article is excellent, as ever. Thank you for posting it.

  7. Hi Carol and Grace, thanks for your comments, hope you are both enjoying scribbling away on your works in progress!
    Grace's book, Eulogy's Secret, is getting very good reviews, great news.