writing process

One of the pleasures of working for the Arvon Foundation is being visited regularly by the extraordinary and talented writers we book as tutors and guests.  Our guest reader last week was the poet Paul Farley.  As his latest collection The Dark Film attests, his work covers a breadth of cultural reference points – childhood memory, film, television; ways of seeing.  Fascinating stuff.

Just as fascinating was his description of the writing process.  ‘Being a writer can be a mundane thing,’ he says.  He lectures in creative writing, so he says that most of his days are spent on campus.  ‘It’s far from the smoking jacket and cocktail lifestyle that many people imagine.’ It can be hard graft. It can be boring.  But not all the time.  What of that excitement that comes with the onset of a poem, an idea shifting, coming into view, becoming something that can be shaped into something else more concrete?

Paul spoke compellingly about the genesis of a poem, that feeling of energy when something comes into view for the first time.  It’s like the glint from a pane of glass that you catch in the corner of the eye, he says.  I know that feeling.  It’s happened to me before.  Turn to get a better look, and it has vanished.  But for that millisecond, it’s real; it has been experienced.  It will become something bigger: it’s the start of something, not the end.

How does the poem take shape?  For Farley, it’s a question of feeling the way through the poem.  The next line is always there, within reach but invisible.  It can be felt, almost physically, as though it were a phantom limb.  I’m not a poet but I experience something similar when writing fiction or drama (I use the scene as the basis for prose too).  There’s a clear sense of the shape of how the scene should develop, how long it should be and the pattern of rising tension, climax and resolution.  The words might not always be apparent, but – following the intuition – the thing I’m writing begins to grow and develop.  Crucially, for Farley, often two things need to come into alignment – an idea and a memory, an image and a reality.  It’s awareness of that other intangible thing, which coincides with the idea, that ends up being the point of the poem.

What did I learn from Paul Farley, then?  That to write well we need to keep our eyes open to catch that glint.  That we need to follow our intuition and widen our point of reference beyond just a single image, looking for the layers of meaning in what we’re saying.   And, finally, not to be afraid of mundanity.  A writer’s life isn’t all glimmers of excitement, just as it isn’t filled with cocktails and smoking jackets.  It’s a question of catching the inspiration when it comes, then working and working at it – in an everyday, mundane kind of way –  until the thing is done.





What is it about October?  So many people are publishing novels this month, and it seems like these days interviewing other authors on one’s website is de rigueur.   Personally, I never tire of hearing from other writers about their processes and what makes them tick.  I’m nosy like that.  So here’s an interview with the lovely Laura Wilkinson, a Brighton-based writer whose debut novel BloodMining has just come out with Bridge House Publishers (based in Manchester).

I’m very excited to have got to know Laura. We’re both publishing our debut novels at the same time, which is what prompted the connection.  But when we talked more we realised there were several thematic overlaps: motherhood, different social structures and family arrangements, ethics and beliefs.  Set in the future, the heart of the story in BloodMining is a woman’s quest to find a donor who can save her son with a terminal, degenerative disease.  And in the process, everything she knew to be true about her origins is thrown into question.  BloodMining is a page-turning read, challenging and thought provoking.  I highly recommend it.  Here’s Laura on how she came to write it, her literary influences and what she does in her ‘spare’ time.  Oh, and on not owning an iron.

Write your biography in 50 words.  (I confess that I nicked this idea from Stephen May – but it’s such a brilliant one that I couldn’t resist! – Ed)

I grew up in Wales and now live in a never-to-be-chic area of Brighton. I’ve worked as a journalist, an editor, and a copywriter. In between raising my boys and working I’m completing my second novel. I have published stories in magazines, an anthology, and digital media like Ether Books.

Why should we read BloodMining?

Eeek! That’s hard; I’ve never been any good at selling, least of all my own work. But as I have to… because it’s a good yarn, because there’s nothing else quite like it out there (at least not as far as I know), because it asks the reader to consider some important questions, because it’s about the really significant things in life, because it’s from the heart, because … I’ve run out of things to say. Is that pathetic?

Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind it?

Sure. It all started with a news piece on the BBC website. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and then a fictional character appeared, started talking to me, and the dilemma she faced.  I wrote a piece of flash fiction and showed it to my sister Helen, who’s studied for an MA in Creative Writing and like me has worked as a journalist, and we both agreed that it didn’t work as a piece of flash, but as the germ of an idea for something much bigger it was quite a good one.

That’s why I say in the back of the book that it started with Elizabeth. I had a picture in my mind of the character who would eventually become Elizabeth at her mother’s graveside. I started thinking about the child she was holding and who that little person would go on to become, and that’s when I was propelled into the future. A scenario where ethics are open to abuse.

Tell us your favourite stage of the writing process.

I genuinely enjoy all the stages – even that final, nitty-gritty, getting rid of qualifiers, overused words, surplus adverbs and adjectives, checking-fiddly-aspects-of-grammar one. Other than the usual troughs one can expect to hit during the writing of a novel I find first drafts exhilarating and, when things are going well, fantastically exciting. I’ve never been one for big dipper fairground rides in real life, but first drafts are like this, and I love the ride. Second and third drafts are when I start digging to get to the heart of the story, and what I’m trying to say, and ensuring that the characters and narrative are truthful. Shaping it into a cohesive, hopefully engaging, read. On the tricky days I despair and feel that I’ll never write anything worthwhile, that everything is bollocks. I keep going regardless and though I might dump almost everything at a later date there’s usually something, a phrase or single word, worth salvaging. Or maybe that’s me kidding myself!

Apart from writing, what other work do you do?  And how do you manage to juggle everything?

I work part-time in a junior school, with a lovely bunch of people, and I also work as an editor for Cornerstones, one of the leading literary consultancies. I read manuscripts, and offer detailed and constructive feedback. It’s a great feeling when authors write back to me saying that they have found my reports useful and inspiring.  Juggling? My house is filthy, my front and back lawns meadows, and I never, ever, iron. In fact, I don’t own an iron.

What do you do for relaxation?

To be honest, I don’t get too much free time, but when I do I like to watch movies and hang out with family and friends. Eating and drinking is usually involved.

Who are your greatest literary influences?   And your greatest non literary influences?

There are many authors I respect but those I always find inspiring include Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Emma Donoghue and Maggie O’Farrell. Susan Fletcher is another newish, young writer who I’m full of admiration for. Many classic writers too: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, the Brontës, Hardy.  All the usuals. And the great American novelists, like Melville, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Lee and Morrison.

Non literary? The world around me, my mother, my sister, my grandparents, my father…

 What are you working on at the moment?

Finishing off my second novel. It’s set in 1980s Manchester and noughties London. I’m writing about the relationship between a beautiful, damaged artist and a deformed boy. One is on a quest to look ‘normal’, the other experiments with cosmetic surgery as a means of artistic expression.

Finally, name your most precious thing.

That’s easy: my boys. My lovely ginger boys. I’ve cheated, I know. They’re not things.

You can buy BloodMining on Amazon here.  And if you want to know more about Laura and her work, do pop over and visit her website.