Dispatches From The North

Tania Kindersley lives in the North East of Scotland with two amiable lab collie crosses and one very grumpy Gloucester Old Spot pig. She co-wrote Backwards In High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, with Sarah Vine.

How is it done?

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 13 June 2012

There was no blog last week because I was running up to deadline for my book and all ability to do any other thing was temporarily lost. So now I emerge, blinking into the light, like a faintly deranged woodland creature. (Not one of the adorable fawn-like ones, but one of the lowly, scuttly, muddy ones.)

Sometimes people ask me about writing, as if I should know. I damn well should know. I’ve only been doing it for twenty years. And here is the strange thing: I know exactly how to do it, and I don’t know how to do it at all.

I sometimes say that, after all this time, I can just about carry a tune. What I mean by this is that I have a certain confidence in sentences. I can string them together. I enjoy stringing them together. Occasionally, one of them might contain a little bit of drollery. (It really annoys me that I can’t do that wild, properly funny writing that people like our own Esther Walker can; and I’m not just saying that to suck up to The Lady. In life, I can make people laugh a bit, but on paper there is some reticence, I have no idea what it is, which mitigates against laughing out loud. So I have to settle for the occasional mild drollness.) Sometimes, one of my sentences might even make a point.

Beyond the sentence, there is the wild prairie of the book, and this is where it becomes hit and miss. I once wrote a novel that I thought was absolutely bloody brilliant. My publisher and my agent thought it was so ghastly that they both sacked me, and I lurked in the wilderness for three whole years. It doesn’t matter how much experience I have under my belt, each time I set out on a book, I am braced for failure. Not in a dark, negative way, but in a practical, realistic way. If one becomes too convinced of one’s own brilliance, the crash will come.

The odd thing about all this is that I really do know what I ought to be doing. I give writing workshops, and I hear myself telling my students absolutely shining pieces of writing wisdom. (Almost all of which, I freely admit, I have shamelessly scrounged from elsewhere.) I sound so confident and convinced. I give them stern advice about doing a really rotten first draft; I tell them that the most important part of writing is rewriting. I explain about character and motivation and dialogue; I quote Chekhov until they beg for mercy. (If you see a gun go off in the fourth act, you must see it loaded in the first.) I become extremely serious about the simple declarative sentence, and the use of plain words. (House is always better than residence; car is always better than vehicle.) You should hear me; I sound like the complete professional.

Then I go home and squint at the computer screen and think: how do you do this, again?

One should not grow mystical about writing. It mostly springs from relentlessness. I bless my cussed streak, which makes me do a semi-colon edit and a cliché edit and a platitude edit. I roam the paragraphs, on endless dangling modifier patrol. And yet, there is an essential mystery. Even coruscating, storied writers will sometimes write a rotten book. Some writers only have one good book in them. Harper Lee took this to wonderful extremes when she gave the world How to Kill a Mocking Bird, and then decided that was quite enough.

All the time, one hopes for the tiny spark of magic. You can know quite precisely what it is you should be doing, and there are times when you can’t quite make it happen, and you never really know why.

At which point, I think: well, at least I have the horse.

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