Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Not Knowing What You're Writing

At the weekend I met up with Liz Kessler, author of the series about mermaid Emily Windsnap, aimed at the 8+ age group. We chatted away about books and boats, and writing and living in Cornwall and at one point she asked if I'd ever thought about writing something other than what I was writing.

I said yes, in that I'd thought of shifting ground slightly, and I have a non-fiction book idea lurking around my mind, but essentially what I write is what I write. 'There's no point writing anything that doesn't come from the heart."

She agreed with me. Books had to come from the heart. She added that often she didn't know what she was writing about until well after she'd finished writing the story. Sometimes, she'd even had to have what the book had really been about explained to her by an outsider.

I nodded in agreement. I can now see patterns in my books - themes, concerns, reactions - that are about me, the writer, but there is no way I realised they were there at the time of writing. It sounds weird, but I suppose it's to be expected if you write from the heart.

Alan Bennett, in Writing Home, says this: "One seldom sits down knowing exactly what one wants to say, the knowing very often coming out of the saying. 'One draws,' says Lichtenberg, 'from the well of language many a thought one does not have.' A writer does not always know what he or she knows, and writing is a way of finding out."

I see it with students. They start with fixed ideas about what they're going to write, and then surprise themselves with what emerges on the page. Write from the heart, not the head, and surprise yourself - and that'll be worth reading.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Karen said...

This really resonates with me - in fact I wrote a blog post about it after I'd finished the first draft of my second novel, as it suddenly occurred to me there was a recurring theme throughout about dysfunctional parents. I hadn't set out to write it that way - I thought my novel was about something else entirely - but there it was. Every single character had been affected in some way by their parents'

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree totally. I have often thought how much easier it must be to work from an outline and basically just fill in the novel but I’m not that writer and likely never will be. And it’s not usually until I’m well into a book that I start to realise what it’s about. In Milligan and Murphy, for example, a character utters the line, “There are no reasons for unreasonable things,” and as soon as I had written that the book made sense. In Left I got the title when the protagonist said that she said that she had been left but it wasn’t until she asked the question, “What happens to Left when Right disappears?” that I realised that I wasn’t simply writing about loss as I had intended but ‘leftness’: Left is only Left in relation to Right, if there is no Right then Left has to redefine herself. These are pivotal moments because you can either go with the flow or try to bring the book back to its original direction. The important thing for me is not that I’ve written what I set out to write; as long as what I’ve written is worthwhile then I’m content.

Sarah Duncan said...

Karen - Isn't it weird when you realise it's about something completely different to what you thought it was?

Jim you're so right - especially your last lines.