Like most authors, there are lots of answers to this question, but the one that sustains me through the love-hate process of writing and editing and more editing and still more editing is the fact that it makes me happy in a way that nothing else does. When students (I teach Creative Writing) talk to me about their ambitions, I’m always struck by how rarely they mention happiness. Some talk about fame, some about money, and some about ‘the lifestyle’, but mostly there’s little money, less fame and a lifestyle that rarely involves leisurely days sipping wine until the muse strikes, at which points words flow pristine and perfect from the fingertips.
There are other things I could do to make a living, but none of them make me as happy as writing does. The fact that knowing this about myself is among my earliest memories has been a mixed blessing – especially given that I’m dyslexic/dyspraxic and didn’t even read properly until I was ten. The upside was that I always knew what would fulfil me and make me happy. The downside was that I knew that if I didn’t get there – if I didn’t have the right combination of talent, hard work and luck – I’d never be as happy as I could be. That’s pretty powerful motivation.
But now I’m here and I’m even happier than I dreamt I would be. I love writing even when I hate it and that’s the key.
‘Why does it make me happy?’ is a harder question. My love of writing started with my grandparents: a childhood of stories. But above all I have a greedy type of curiosity about life; I want to know everything, do everything, beeverything. I hate that I have only one life and even that is limited. There isn’t enough time. But in my imagination I can live many lives. I can pursue many careers, many possibilities. I can live myself into the past, the future, even worlds that don’t exist.
How I write
It varies for each novel but for me the key is to create a mental movie of the book. I start with 2-4 points of high emotion and work out a plot that leads to and between them: the trick is making sure that the plot squeezes the maximum emotion from these key scenes by wringing it from the characters.
As I start fleshing out the story, I also start mentally filming it. I bring in an imaginary wardrobe department to costume my characters, casting to get the right people in the right roles, props to sort out the sets and make sure there’s stuff for the characters to interact with, and cinematography to capture the sets, to set the mood and make sure the world of the story is magical and emotive. I’m the director: I ‘run’ each scene, calling “cut” when something doesn’t work, then giving out new lines, getting the various departments to make changes before I run the scene again. I inch forwards, developing the perfect cut of each scene until I have a whole movie.
And then I write up enough information to capture the important things, including key words to describe the sets, the people, phrases to use in dialogue. Finally, I set to work converting it all into prose. All of that lets me focus on creating a voice for the book and making sure that the prose doesn’t just tell the story: that it has layers and subtext.
The Bone Dragon is a mix of things I learnt while working in mental health charities and human rights editing, plus the experience of having one of my own ribs put in a pot. My second book is about intelligence and loneliness: it’s set in Cambridge, where I did my first two degrees and also worked as a researcher studying dyslexia and intelligence. An upcoming book is loosely based on my grandparents’ lives during WWII. Another started as a dream. Another grew out of reading a bad book and watching a terrible TV programme then thinking ‘That idea from X was great, and that idea from Y: I could have done so much more with those ideas.’ I also collect newspaper stories and photos and music… You never know how little things may suddenly connect: that’s the alchemy of writing. Putting things together – ideas, words – to create something that is so much bigger than the sum of its parts.