authors · rereading · work-in-progress · writing life

The Pleasure of Not Writing

I’ve heard it said that writing a novel teaches you only how to write that particular novel. Next time, you’re back to square one. I don’t want that to be true, do you?

I do want to be informed by the experience of writing my current book. I know I want to look again at some of the themes and the territory – I don’t know any other! – with a different focus. Are you the same?

There are mistakes I’ve made that I don’t want to repeat. I’ll make different mistakes. I might see them coming, and avert disaster. Chances are, though, if I resolve them, once again it’ll be through trial and error.

Some writers never reread their work. I think the late Margaret Forster was fierce about her novels and even defied her friends to read them. But I will reread Ready to Love, because I enjoyed going through the page proofs when it all looked so different to the computer print-outs I’d worked on for so long.

I’d love to be brave like Ross Raisin, author of God’s Own Country. In an interview when he was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (which he won), he said:

‘I have bought myself a notebook recently, in which I have attempted to write down my thoughts on the novel after rereading it … I have jotted down the things I think I have achieved and the things I think I could have done better. The thing I am most pleased with is the creation of a distinct world and voice. Could do better: consistency – of rhythm, subtlety and minor characters, although of course I’d prefer it if people didn’t agree.’

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Ross Raisin – photo by Eamon McCabe

In his case, I think a rigid notebook is the right approach. It’s a commitment to your honest, intractable impressions. I’m not ready to do that yet, but I will be, I hope.

I’m keen, but not impatient to write more, but I can understand it when people are. You’ve finished a book and the floodgates remain open – why not keep going?

Perhaps we think of Susan Hill as the creator of ghost stories, such as The Woman in Black or the Simon Serailler crime novels but from 1969 until 1974 she entered a powerful creative phrase which produced plays, short stories and an annual novel. And then stopped.

Of course, she started again, but in a different vein. That kind of writing – books like I’m the King of the Castle and Strange Meeting – was behind her. I don’t think she’s regretted it.

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For me, right now, writing about writing is a good way of using time. These blog posts remind me that a) I did finish a novel and b) chances are, I will start and hopefully finish another. Somehow.

The best training for being a writer (I’ve often heard) is not writing, but reading. Certainly, I’m doing lots of that. Currently, I’m gorging on crime fiction, for which I feel a renewed admiration and pleasure now that I no longer want to write it.

Even so, spending so much time in the criminal word means my antennae are out. What should I do if I suddenly have a brilliant idea for a crime novel?

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