It’s a sunny Friday morning, I am in the kitchen of a very dear friend’s house. My tea steams in a pale green china cup and a clock with a mottled face ticks behind me on the wall. Sitting brightly at the periphery of my sight there is an orange on a pretty saucer that has shards of peel removed, I suspect for some description of cocktail purposes. Outside birds chat on the feeders a few feet from the kitchen window, hopping now and then back into the adventure playground of the bare hedge. The long lane outside the front door is quiet.
This is day three of a happy, mini-road trip, set up on the coat tails of being invited to participate in an event at Plymouth University, where I spoke alongside three other writers on the theme of my journey into writing and read an extract from my book Twice the Speed of Dark. As a resource to students and staff, whether engaged in academic or other writing the University runs a Writing Cafe where anyone is free to engage with mentors or peers to discuss and develop their work. It is incredibly vibrant and busy, a wonderful resource. They are currently trying to develop strategies to prevent it becoming a victim of its own success. It is fantastic to know that such initiatives exist.
The event was, without there being any negative associations with the sensation, nerve wracking. Partly because speaking in front of people usually is and partly because I’ve never done it before and though I am fully aware that there is of course inevitably going to be a wide variety of responses to my book, my blithe contentment with that knowledge was suddenly and unexpectedly replaced with the thought “Oh my god! They might HATE it!” It’s fair to say that whilst I have always understood that there will be plenty of people whose response will shade anywhere from indifference to fierce dislike, I never really considered being in a room with them. But I put my big girl’s pants on and it was fine. Better than fine actually. I think people responded well and there were some lovely comments.
It was very a enjoyable and interesting evening. There were lots of things that came up that I hope to think further about and write about too. One of them was how we think about the audience or reader and what that means, but more of that another time.
There was one question from an audience member that I wanted to answer but didn’t because at the time I was concerned that my answer would sound dismissive or discouraging. So I’m going to answer it here. The questioner was, I think, a student at the university. She asked all or any of us “Do you plot out your whole book before you start, or do you just start writing and see where it will get you?” I guess this must be a common question in writing classes because an answer was given that I’d already heard once that evening (though not before) that there are ‘Pantsers’, who write by the seat of their pants and ‘Plotters’, who, well, it’s self explanatory.
There were fuller answers given too. But I found this binary answer glib and inadequate. It might be true much of the time, but I thought it was unhelpful. It seemed to me that the girl was asking how she could start to write a book, armed with a strategy or insight that was going to make it work. I thought that what she wanted was to be reassured that this complicated, mysterious, slow, sometimes frustrating, uncertain process could be given some kind of treatment that would remove most of those difficulties. I don’t doubt that she was serious and prepared to be dedicated. But she perhaps wanted to make sure all the work she could imagine that lay ahead actually counted.
The only answer to her question is to be found in her attempts and in her growing experience. Only she will know, once she has started. There aren’t any strategies that apply to everyone. Try them all and see what works. Throw away loads if you have to, start again if you have to, fly though it if you are able. Suck it and see. I didn’t answer because my experience with writing is relatively short, I’ve never attended courses, let alone taught them. As I imagined saying the words it sounded dismissive of her and more experienced peers and perhaps discouraging, which is the opposite of what I wanted to be.
What was most enjoyable about the event was seeing people full of curiosity and presumably some intent to be writing themselves. To feel that I was in a position to help in however small a way was a great privilege. So, to the girl at the end of the evening, I would say just throw yourself in, find out what you know, be open to what you will learn, mix grit and glee and see what spell works best for you. It is a great adventure.