I’ve been trying to arrange some babysitting because of a rash of parties that’s broken out all over my formerly pristine diary.
I rang my friend Bannister, who has some prime teenagers, and got her answering machine. It spoke very slowly like a BBC newsreader from 1932: ‘This. Is. En. Enswering-Mechin…’ which made me laugh and leave them a message about techmolology for the hard of thinking.
I left that message a couple of hours ago. But, because it is Sunday, and, according to the rules in Switzerland-on-Thames where they live, Sunday is special, marked ‘family-only’. They probably won’t come back to me until everyone’s recovered from their hangover.
Week days are too busy, you see. They work hard. They’re tired. The children have homework and then there’s supper. You might catch Bannister at 7.53pm but she will sound harassed.
Bannister’s not as bad as Rabbit and her husband. If I ring them at 9.30pm, they will be in bed and they will be frankly incredulous that I have had the insufferable gall to ring them at such an unGodly hour.
I just don’t understand this at all. I only bothered becoming a grown-up for the staying-up-late-and-eating-sweets-whenever-I-want-thing.
I don’t really get rules about writing either. I went through a phase of trying to write by numbers using Syd Field, the screenwriting guru, and his fellow traveler Robert McKee. I have nothing against either of these two gentlemen. I even think they are broadly a good thing as they present their craft as open to all, accessible and unmysterious. I don’t question their credentials, not that either, to my knowledge, particularly has a blockbuster to his name.
Their rules didn’t really work for me. The energy of my words leached away, almost palpably, in plot points, reversals and myriad technical devices they prescribe. I felt bored writing like that and the results were definitely underpowered and underwhelming.
Now that I’m trying to write a novel, I’m having to think about structure and pace and all that storytelling stuff. It’s very intimidating. I long for rules that I could apply mechanically in the sure and certain knowledge that a beautifully realised work of fiction would spring to life at the end.
And it’s true that I do have a sort of storyline in mind. I know roughly what’s going to happen in a loose kind of way.
I need that looseness though, and I guard it. That looseness has the space for ideas and new directions. Sudden inspiration might overtake my keyboard and then who knows what might occur? It could happen.
I think almost all my ‘good’ ideas (ones that tutors have praised or that I even like) have been accidents, last-minute additions or even predictive text/formatting errors that I only realised later were the best bit.
I wish I could be a bit more rigorous or in control, but I seem to be left with intuition and ‘feel’ neither of which are very reliable or stable.
I sit and stare at my screen, fiddle with twitter, do laundry and mutter setting, character, plot, change, scenes a lot, which is what Marti Leimbach drilled into me in her magnificent series of workshops. Or think about what Stephen King says in his brilliant book On Writing which is, and I’m paraphrasing, that he just gives his characters a problem and sees how they try to solve it.
I make a lot of tea.
I like my friend the novelist Amanda Jennings‘ system for making changes. She puts a bloody great white hole in her script and writes the new idea in capitals back in the place where it should occur and then carries on from where she is actually writing at that moment as if the change has already been fully integrated. That’s my kind of ‘technique’.
I do think about more formal technical stuff too, like point-of-view and narrative distance (I know!) but I don’t think about these things in any systematic way. It’s all very muddly.
And you can phone me on Sundays and quite late at night. Standpipe might give you what-for down the line. But I’m on for a chat. Usually.
I don’t babysit though.