A new blog post! It's like Christmas around here, only without the snowman (whom, according to my daughter, is the one that brings us all our presents: I believe she gets this, somehow, from Raymond Briggs, but God only knows). Anyway. I've been invited to take part in a bog tour about writing processes by my friend and PhD colleague here at Manchester, the poet Janet Rogerson, whose own contribution to the tour is here. Actually, if you want to know about Janet's PhD experience, seeing as I'm clearly a massive failure when it comes to blogging about it, check this out. Janet's way pithier than me - maybe it's a poetry thing, hey? But, so, read on here if you want to know more about how/why I write.
What am I working on? Well! Because I'm doing a practice-based PhD, I've been working on the same book for the past eighteen months, and will continue to do so for at least another eighteen months, if not longer. It's a book of interrelated short stories, or a short-story cycle, and it's set in contemporary(ish) Manchester and is about the intersecting lives of a group of neighbours. There's all sorts of infidelities and disappointments, and I suppose one of the main themes in there is disconnection, or the way you can perceive yourself as being alone, even if you're in a relationship or surrounded by a community of friends. I'm not sure yet if I'll shove in a glimmer of hope. I probably ought to, right? We'll see.
How does my work differ from others of its genre? I'm not so sure that it does, categorically - these cycles have been around for a while, as have these themes. But while it's not strictly what I'd call formally innovative, it's perhaps not a commonly read or recognised form and so it might appear innovative to the more casual reader. God, that sounds awful, doesn't it? The critical element of my PhD project is partly concerned with historicising this type of construction, and so I'd imagine I've read more short-story cycles than is probably normal. Perhaps my work might be interesting because of the way it's very rooted in its Mancunian setting? Maybe I bring some sort of Irish aesthetic to the North of England? We shall see! It's still a work in progress, so bear with me.
Why do I write what I do? I'm intrigued with the way interconnected stories function, and how that differs from what we might more commonly recognise as a novel, or at least, a novel in the tradition of nineteenth century realism, which is a mode out of which many novelists still seem to prefer to operate. I love short stories: I think we're so brought up on novels that stories can be, especially to occasional readers, an acquired taste, but it's one that I've definitely acquired. I write about fairly grim scenarios most of the time because I find them interesting: how do people cope with difficult or weird circumstances? How to they relate or fail to relate to one another in these situations? But I like a lot of humour, too, and so I try to throw in plenty of funny stuff, for better or worse.
How does your writing process work? Slowly. Very. very slowly. It takes me ages, a month or two, to figure out what I want to write, maybe a horrible couple of weeks or more to get a first draft down (anything between 5,000 and 8,000 words), and then months and months of drafting and redrafting. Maybe halfway through this rewriting process I'll realise what I actually want to write about, or what I ought to be writing about, so there'll be huge changes to make. Sometimes I start with some dialogue or a setting and work a plot out from there. Plotting is my downfall - I struggle to get that right. My PhD supervisors are excellent sounding boards - I'll think I've nailed something and they'll point out that a huge chunk is ill-conceived or redundant, or that a character's motivation is far too unclear, and I'll be back to the drawing board - but they've always been right. It's now February 2014 and I've just finished the eight draft of a story that I started in September 2012, if that gives you an idea of my pace. I remember once reading an interview with somebody, perhaps Alice Munro, who said they took six months to do a story, and I thought, huh, that's not very fast - right now six months seems super zippy and efficient. I have a bunch of stories for this book - six or seven - that I've been working on since 2012 or early/mid 2013, and I know it'll be a long time yet before any of them are ready. I've got my critical thesis to do (which is what's taking up most of my time now, and will do until this summer at least), and various part-time jobs, plus a home life with a small child, but it's not really a matter of time constraints; I think it just takes me a while to process, internally, what a story requires. Often if I'm spending all my time on a piece, especially in the earlier stages, it becomes hard to get an overview, so doing it in fits and starts and pondering a lot in the interim can be quite helpful. Having these excellent readers helps. I know I'm getting better at it, and I'm coming to the conclusion that I need to take more time at the start figuring out the core ideas and development of the story before I put pen to paper. The blank page bit is the worst. And I can't start unless I've got a good scene or a great line in mind right from the off. Starting wrong-footed is a nauseating feeling. But knowing what needs to be said and paring away at it until you've drawn that out - that's brilliant. I wish I had a drawer full of dozen of completed works, but, as we've established, I'm very slow and I'm very fussy. I kind of hope that the result will be, if not a very prolific output, a solid and coherent one.
Have I put you off yet? I'm supposed to nominate three other writers to follow in my footsteps and carry this blog tour onwards, but I'm doing it wrong and just naming one: Claire Snook, my former MA classmate and excellent friend, a great writer who gets more work done in a month than I do in a year, and who has a brilliant agent, to boot. She'll post her entry next Monday (March 10th), so keep your eyes on this space.