These are the sturdy daffodil bulbs that have sprouted, unaided by us, in the wasteland that is the cleared garden of our new house. I’ve been keeping an eye on them, using them as a measuring gauge. I have a week left before I need to deliver a draft of the Rathlin book to my agent. I think a flowering before then would be a good sign.
The book still needs a shed load of work but it’s getting closer and closer to what I want it to be. Because I’ve been working on it like billy-o over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing methods and all the problems that I create for myself. About a year ago, I started using Scrivener, a software package that allows you to import your sources (images, page references, weblinks etc.) into one virtual space and to navigate easily within a large body of writing, something that suits my working method very well. I’ll be working on a passage that’s currently placed about two-thirds of the way through the book and realize that if this is what’s happening now (and it looks like it is), then I’m going to have to rewrite that section on the third page and if I do that, I’ll have to move (or delete) the scene that follows directly after it and actually, now I think about it, maybe I should move that section that’s currently on page 84 so it comes much later in the book… You get the picture. I have never been able to write a story chronologically. I have always written in fragments, in scenes, laid them down on the page more or less in the order in which they’ve been written, on the understanding that I’ll be able to move them around at a later date. In many ways, it seems counterintuitive to me to use words to tell a story. (Bear with me.) By its very nature, reading is an orderly process, letters follow one after another on the page or the screen, black type on white background, top left-hand corner to bottom right (at least they do if you’re reading in the western world). But that’s in no way representative of what the writing’s trying to do – to evoke a life in all its messy, multi-textural, multi-dimensional, multi-sensory, technicolour glory. There are days when the challenge of achieving that with marks on a page seems like asking for the impossible.
One of my favourite quotes on writing is from E.L. Doctorow: ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Except for me, it might be a little more like stumbling about in circles by torchlight. The pace is much slower and much less assured and could in no way be described as linear. I often begin by writing about a place so when I start, I don’t even know whose eyes it is that are viewing the scene. I don’t know who it is who’s just spoken in that last passage, I don’t know what’s happened to them or what’s about to happen. It’s a very free way to write - I like to surprise myself. I like to do what I never like to do in real life – I like to get a little lost. As a writing method, it would work really well if it didn’t matter that no-one ever read what I wrote but me. The thing is, I do want other people to read what I write and when it comes to the stage of making it readable, it gives me a massive headache to put the whole thing together in a great big eighty-thousand-piece jigsaw.
It's not that I haven’t looked at other methods of working. Over the years we’ve investigated quite a few in the writing groups I work with. Author David Mitchell suggests drawing a kind of herringbone: ‘The spine represents the whole novel, bones coming off the spine represent chapters, and sub-bones represent scenes with sub-sub-bones spiking into foliage of dialogue, lines and ideas which will feature in those scenes. A godawful mess, to be sure, but it makes sense to me.’ I’ve also read about the snowflake method although I have to confess, I’m none the wiser. I recently heard Barbara Taylor Bradford interviewed on the radio, saying that you should approach novel-writing the way an architect approaches building design – with a ‘sketch’ of what you intend to do. I have a friend whose writing method relies heavily on post-its and laminated A4 and A5 sheets. But here’s the thing I’ve discovered about myself – I don’t like being told what to do, even when it’s me that’s doing the telling. Writing (or drawing) a plan for a book feels a little to me like stitching yourself into your own straitjacket. I can’t do it. It seems perverse to try. Instead, I engage in something I’ve described retrospectively as ‘the patchwork quilt method’. I create each ‘patch’ (or scene, or fragment – whatever it is I see in the torchlight) as colourfully and as fully-textured and as completely as I can and while I’m doing that, I begin to think about pattern and how the pieces might all fit together. If I place the blue velvet beside the red plaid and the yellow corduroy below the border between the two will the blue seem paler beside the red, will the red make the yellow pop out? And when I reach the stage of devising the pattern I do it old-school style: I take a big pair of scissors to the printed manuscript, arm myself with a pen and a roll of tape and experiment with colour and texture and position. At the end of it, there will still be gaps, there will be scraps on the cutting-room floor, more patches will be required, but finally, finally, the stitching can begin.
I’m not too far off that stage now. Wish me luck - I’m going to need it. If the fates are in my favour, there’ll be a finished book before the daffodils are gone and before the wild Rathlin fuchsia is in full bloom.