Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to my Blog!

Thursday 16 June 2011

On Writing in Chaos and other Necessary Habits.

Well, I have just finished The Sixth Key, my latest book, and as usual, basking in the warm, afterglow of publisher approval and editorial self-satisfaction, I turn a little reflective. I do this with every book. I like to retrace the creative impulse; to look back at those early drafts trying to remember  those difficult first pages, those anxieties, those self-doubts and sleepless nights, like a woman who gives birth looks back on nine moths of indigestion, varicose veins, swollen legs, urinary frequency and light-headedness - wistfully and happily. She would do it all again to have that baby in her arms! 
   Conception in all its manifestations is the result of a creative impulse from the father and a receptive gathering up and a combining of this impulse by the mother, with the germ that is inside her. In the physical sense one generally knows when one conceives and who has contributed to this magnificent creation. But for an author, in fact any artist I would dare to venture, it is by and large a mysterious, magical process. Inspiration enters in and then one conceives - 'the Idea'. It bubbles up from some strange fount and one has to have the presence of mind to combine this 'idea' with one's abilities and skills in order to create the 'ideal' or else it dries up and dies, like a seed that falls on barren ground.
  Every author will tell you that he or she has developed little habits over long years of practice,  mechanisms proven to help in the conjuring forth of those magical words and those brilliant sentences. Habits which, they will tell you, must never be altered or dispensed with, lest terrible, unthinkable consequences befall them. In fact many writers are as superstitious as old sailors. Break a ritual, change a routine and who knows what calamities may be unleashed upon the fragile little vessel sailing through the wide and turbulent sea of inspiration? Bad luck, you see, is waiting just around the corner in the form of Writer's Block' personified as a grim-reaper holding a scythe, barring the way to that paradise that awaits every writer over that dreaded threshold known as the 'Dead-Line'. On this side lies a ruined reputation, a nervous breakdown and the inevitable return of an already spent advance, on the other  side is the possibility of recognition and perhaps, who knows, even financial independence? Ha ha!
  I have  always been fascinated by how writers write and before I divulge my own writing secrets, I thought I would share some of the habits of other writers.
  Stephen King has his own 'Den' which is off limits and in which he writes at least ten pages a day without interruption.  Earnest Hemingway wrote in the early hours of the morning when everyone was asleep; Vladimir Nabokov wrote standing up; Truman Capote lying down; Richard Powers in bed; Junot Diaz in the bathroom perched on the edge of the tub with his notebook; Hilary Mantel of "Wolf Hall" fame jumps in the shower if she has a problem (something I also do!); while Victor Hugo wrote naked and William Wordsworth composed out loud to his dog - if it barked he knew a revision of his work was necessary!
  What about me, where and how do I write? Well, Temple of the Grail and The Seal were both written while my children were very young and so I wrote in my husband's study in the early evenings or when my son was at school and my daughter took her nap. I wrote on a very old lap top but in those days there was no internet as such and so when my daughter was a toddler she spent a lot of her waking hours in libraries! Whether through necessity or ability I've always been able to write in the midst of the chaos of family life, that is, before and after P and C meetings, around car pooling, piano lessons, HSC exams, parent teacher interviews and concerts, house renovations, helping with homework and while cooking dinner sometimes!
  When it came to writing The Sixth Key things had to change - or so my husband told me. I had a new publisher and a tight deadline to meet - a deadline that he called 'mission impossible' with a grin on his face that could have led to dire marital discord had it not come with a dose of practical help. He bought me a very compact lap top and suggested that we go to our little boat tethered to a good marina in order to escape the drudgery of house work and the obvious distractions that had always plagued me. Why not? He said. After all, the children were now older and independent. 
  I wasn't totally convinced - but thought I'd give it a go.
  So each morning I packed a dozen or more books into a bag gathered up my laptop and our dog and a coffee on the way and we set off for uncharted territory - the territory of silence and inspirational bliss. It would be my own Nepal, a tranquil paradise of unlimited contemplative surrender.
  Actually, for a time it was just that. I spent the cold winter months on our sunny boat working to the sound of the gentle lapping of waves, the calling of sea gulls and the sounds of boat engines chugging over the bay. Sometimes I listened to music - soundtracks mostly, writing solidly for about seven hours only breaking for lunch. My only distractions were the odd friendly boating neighbour, who, upon walking past would call out either, 'How many pages now?'  and 'What's the book about?' or 'Is it about boats because I would buy it if it was about boats!' However sooner or later life does have a way of pulling you in, and chaos, my old friend, returned via technology - Mobile phone and emails - at all times of the day! I'll leave it to your imagination!
   But setting that aside, How do I write, what is the process you might ask? Well every book has been the same in this respect, it usually starts out with a question. In this case it was: What is the connection between the Apocalypse of St John, the Templars and the Cathars in the South of France? It then evolved into what did Otto Rahn have to do with them and with the mystery surrounding Rennes-le-Chateau? When I have my question I set out to answer it. I write in one large block without looking back. I don't formally plan anything, just small sketches of ideas. I do a lot of doodling and one day I'll show you just how much! Of course I do know who my characters are going to be, roughly, and what the story will be about but I allow the characters to tell me what to do next and that way each chapter leads into the next one and I never really know the story so its fresh. In fact in my office at home, which looks out to sea I have a note taped to the wall which says: 
  'This book must be written in the same way an organism arises: one thought grows out of a previous thought, a chapter out of a previous chapter.'
  I usually write the end first, strangely enough. The end is usually at the beginning and it meets itself again at the end - somehow - but I never know how! This means that what arises in the middle has to connect the two - and it always miraculously does! For the Sixth Key I had three concurrent interweaving time-lines and I only had to do some minor tweaking at the end! My motto is to stay open minded and to not allow habits to alter my flexibility. Perhaps that is my habit!
  To sum it up, every writer has his or his own way of getting through the various writing stages until finally we are all faced with that inevitable, nerve racking moment when our words say goodbye and walk out of the house to live in the hearts of readers who may or may not be kind to them! 
  I do miss my characters and I often go to my bookshelf to pull out The Seal so as to visit with Etienne or Jourdain, or else I pull out Temple of the Grail to listen to Christian and Andre arguing about heresy. When I do, I have an added bonus - I recall exactly what was happening at the time I wrote something. I remember that at a particular point in my writing my son was composing a piece of music for his final exams and that my daughter was rehearsing for a play. I will always remember where I was in The Sixth Key when my daughter called about her orthodontist appointment; when my son rang looking for the Teriaki tuna recipe; when a fellow 'boaty' came aboard for a cup to tea and a chat or when I helped to organise a petition. 
  I look back at fifteen years of writing and I can honestly say that not a lot has changed! I'm still writing around the chaos of life with all its minor disasters, joys and frustrations - and I admit that I wouldn't have it any other way!


  1. Thank you, it's great to learn from you as I always struggle with myself how to start my book about Steiner, Wegman and their present incarnations or sth. similar (:

  2. I'm glad I could be of help Michael! I always found it inspiring to read about other writers. Writing is such a solitary pursuit, its nice to learn about how other writers tackle their situations and how they find inspiration and time.. etc. Your book sounds very interesting. My advice to you is just start, that is the most important hurdle, I always find the first seventy pages the most difficult and after that things do start to flow. Trust in yourself and your muse and enjoy the ride! :)