I find it hard talking about works in progress. There are reasons. Fear of having my ideas stolen is not actually one of them! Partly it’s because I am a panster, not a planner. In the first draft of any book, I’m flying by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go along. I usually put a lot of time and thought into world and character building before I start, but the story I have to find as I go or I get bored, and don’t finish it. Once I have a first draft, there’s a reason to knuckle down and turn it into something that works. So, I am wary talking about a book while I’m writing it, because a great deal is likely to change between now and when I’m finished.
There’s a superstitious feeling that if I talk about it, some of the magic will get away. However, I’ve pushed that one in recent years because I share my first draft with my husband Tom as I’m going along. I find the instant feedback useful. As we’re collaborating on a number of projects, we have an established working relationship and a sensitivity around not standing on each other’s toes. I can trust Tom not to tell me how to write a story unless we’ve agreed that we’re co-writing.
This is a bigger deal than you might think. One of the reasons I stopped talking about work in progress was a run of several boyfriends who felt entitled to tell me what I ought to be writing. How the story should go. What the characters should be like. People who were readers, but who did not read the books I read, and who wanted me to write the books they wanted, not the books I wanted. A boyfriend is someone who, if they get in your book and start making demands, can derail the whole process, as I learned to my cost. I’ve had it from people who were virtually strangers, too, who asked what I do, and when told, started telling me what I should write about. At best it’s bloody annoying. I’ve never once found that an unsolicited suggestion for a novel plot has done me any favours at all.
I like a challenge though. The editor who asks for a 750 word article by the end of the week, or more recently a request for a 250 word tale (more on that as it comes). A frame and then freedom to create within it suits me well, and a remit from a professional is very different from someone who has never written anything trying to tell me what my book should be about. I try not to be snobbish about these things, but it is a truth that if you’ve never tried to line 75,000 words or so up in a way that makes sense, you really don’t know what writing a book is like.
That work in progress then. I may have settled on a title – Spells for the Second Sister. I’ve probably got some 20,000 words of it now, and a structure, and the plot is just starting to make sense to me. I started with a place and a person, an implied back history and a thing I knew was going to happen. Other characters have sauntered in since. I’ve fed the story by reading a lot as I’m working. I know some authors shun the work of others for fear of being influenced. I set out to be influenced as much as possible by the ideas, creativity and awesomeness of others. I figure, if I can find a dozen things to be influenced by, I won’t come out too much like any one other thing, I will have learned useful stuff and I’ll know where the bar is set.
Spells for the Second Sister currently owes a lot to my admiration for Alan Garner’s work. It owes to fairy tales, and Talis Kimberly’s song about the middle child of three, even though there are only two sisters in this, and every folk song with sisters in it – usually murdering each other – and all the fairy tales with siblings setting out and being tested. It also owes something to Adam Horovitz and his A Thousand Laurie Lees, and to Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time, and the way that took me into writing where the land is personified, and the questions around gender politics and colonialism this raises for me. Which doesn’t really tell you anything about the story, and for now, that might be just as well!