Criminal Leanings #4: The craft (slog) 0f writing

Ernest Hemingway at his writing shelf

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote standing up (see the photo below) – he maintained that it kept him alert and made him feel like he was REALLY working, doing something active and dynamic. He also recommended drinking only wine when he wrote, as he found consuming spirits caused his books to become too frenetic and impulsively plotted (I believe he abandoned this rule as he got older, and often wrote with a bottle of whiskey on board).

It puzzles me that a professional writer had to fool himself into thinking he was really working. I don’t get that. I love to write, but I am under no illusion that it is anything BUT work.

And (for me, anyway) it requires consistency and discipline.

At the start of the summer of 2019, I had written 12 books. By the end of the summer of 2019 I had written 15. I was also something of a wreck and in need of a lot of sleep and a long holiday. Alas, I had to go straight back to my teaching job (which I have cut down to two and a half days a week this year) and into writing the first book in my new fiction series.

Thankfully, though, I don’t have to operate at the exhausting pace I’ve maintained for the last 3 months, and to be honest, I hope I never have to again. That frenzy of activity was all meant to put me in the place where I am free to write at a much more leisurely tempo.

My writing marathon did get me thinking about the mechanics of writing, though. I think it’s quite an important topic. 
HOW we write is almost as significant as WHAT we write.

I have commented before about encountering Charles Dickens’ writing desk while working on a documentary in the UK, and actually finding it quite an emotional meeting. It is a gorgeous thing made of what looks like burnished oak, a deep, dark brown colour, still gleaming with polish and pitted with marks of age. The thought that one of my heroes created so many books that meant so much to me while seated at that very piece of furniture was quite humbling, and brought on a severe bout of Imposter Syndrome, causing me to doubt if I was even worthy to be in the same space as such an artefact.

Looking back over my writing career, there have been a few corners where I have done a lot of my creating, but none quite so beautiful as that ancient piece of woodwork.

I have an office in my house, which almost always resembles a junk room. I clear it up intermittently, but usually within the space of a matter of weeks stuff from the rest of the house that is in need of a home finds its way in there (it doesn’t matter how much storage space we have, its never enough). So when I’m in my home office I’m surrounded by boxes of papers that need filing, Christmas decorations, my grandson’s car-seat (that’s where it lives when we take it out of the car to make room for an extra adult passenger) and any amount of other stuff. I want to add here that I am as much to blame as anyone in the family for this state of affairs (I’m getting in there before someone else does!)

The problem is, despite my earlier admission, I hate mess. I don’t find it is conducive to working well – it affects my mood and makes me FEEL disorganised. My office in the college, which is another place I write, is a perfect space for me (see the next photo), because it is free from the intrusion of a continuously flowing river of junk. It is light and airy and (during holiday times, at least) undisturbed, and I feel very comfortable there.

My desk in my office at WCFE

Bizarrely, it is a space I used before it ever was my office. It’s funny how we gravitate to certain locations, but about six or seven years ago, the room which is now my office in WCFE was a classroom. When I was writing my book The Girl Who Couldn’t Smile, I needed somewhere quiet to work. The students were all away on placement, and I got all my visits done early, and went looking for somewhere to write. I found a small classroom in a remote corner of the college, which was unused. I piled some desks up to make a cubicle for myself, and settled in beside a window that gave me lots of natural light.

One of my bookshelves

That very window is behind me now as I write this. Somehow, fate conspired to make the room mine, in the end, and I love it. When I work there I am surrounded by art I love (I have a lot of pictures students have done for me), books I treasure, collectibles and lots of other odds and ends that make me feel at home (I’ve included a shot of a couple of my office bookshelves). My wife always says it looks as if my personality has exploded all over the room. She’s probably right, too.

The other place I love to work is my writing shed. It is totally different to my workplace office, in that I keep it quite spartan. It is literally a wooden garden shed, which we divided into two rooms years ago – one half contains garden tools and equipment, the other was supposed to be a play room for my daughter. Which she almost never used.

Last year, fed up with the state of my home office and of how difficult it can be to work while a noisy and boisterous family does its thing, I claimed our garden shed for writing. It contains an old couch that was once in our living room and is still incredibly comfortable, and the centre piece of an old dining table. This I put across the arms of the couch to make a desktop, on which I sit my laptop and the endless cups of tea I drink while I write (sorry Hemingway, for me it’s Barry’s Tea that is the essential fuel for writing). I have put some pictures on the wall – some photos of my family, a large poster of Mohammed Ali flooring Joe Frasier that I’ve had for years, and an old keytar that used to belong to my son when he was small hangs by the door. I have a lamp and a side-table to put pens and notebooks and that’s about it.

It is quite amazing how, as soon as I walk down the garden and open that door, I’m in another world. It is quiet (there are fruit trees directly behind, and my work there is always done with the soundtrack of birdsong in my ears. The windows don’t open, so I leave the door open to various degrees dependent on temperature, so I can gaze out at the weather and the texture of light as the day alters. My dogs, George and Lulu, tend to come out and join me, sleeping at my feet as I work, or going out for a bit of a run around the garden before returning.

I have written the last two Dunnigan books mostly in my shed, and the first of my new non-fiction series was written out there completely – every word of it.

The Writing Shed has become an essential part of my process. I thank Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman and Nicholas Briggs for giving me the idea. I think every writer should have one.

This summer I usually rose at 6.30am, sometimes even earlier (I did quite a few 5.00am alarm calls) and worked through until I just couldn’t anymore – sometimes as late as 10.00pm, but usually 7.30pm). For the last few years, that’s how I’ve done it: just trying to get the books out in the time I had free. In some ways it is good, because you inhabit the story and really immerse yourself. In other ways it is terrible – I put up over a stone in weight this summer just from lack of exercise and eating badly (you don’t have time to think about food, and shovel in whatever is available) and, as I said to my agent on the day I finished, I had reduced myself to a semi-vegetative state.

My plan going forward is to try to work more sensibly. The contracts I am currently under give me lots of space and feel quite freeing. I plan to write from 9 until 5 on the days I’m not in college, and see how I fare at that. It feels healthy and positive, and should allow me to enjoy other things, too. Like living!

So now, dear friends, I’m off home to my shed to work on the exploits of a new set of characters and a new series.

More of which in subsequent blog posts.

Happy reading and writing to you all!

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