‘What’s that?’ Charlie says.We’re taking the short cut home from school, through the wood. It’s dark in here and the mouldy, damp leaves smell like rotten meat. ‘What’s what?’ I ask, stepping over a muddy patch and trying not to get my new white runners even filthier. Mum’s going to have enough of a fit already. It’s not my fault - you can’t play footie with the boys without getting your shoes a bit scuffed. He lowers his voice. ‘The rustling. I think there’s someone following us.’ A stick breaks and something moves in the bushes behind us. He’s right. There’s someone, or something there. I take a deep breath and swing around. And then I get the shock of my life . . .
I wrote these opening lines for a Bord Gais Writing Competition for children of age 7+. I said yes to doing it because I knew it was something I could do quickly. I don’t know about you, but life’s moving pretty fast these days and I’m struggling a bit to keep up with all my various commitments. But I do everything I can to supporting anything to do with young readers or writers.
The young writers entering this particular competition will be both boys and girls, so I made the two main characters one of each. I gave it a forest setting to make it a little unsettling/different, and ended it abruptly to get them instantly involved in the story, instantly thinking ‘who’s in the bushes? A monster, an alien, a girl from school . . .’.
The young writers can add to the story and make of it what they will – a ghost story, a horror blood fest, a sci fi alien invasion, a unicorn fantasy tale – whatever genre or mash-up of genres they like. It took me roughly five minutes to think up and write, and a future ten minutes to edit and play around with it until I was happy. But here’s the thing – it took me fifteen minutes in total because my mind is trained to think of stories, characters and ‘what ifs’. My writing muscles are reasonably fit and healthy at the moment (wish I could say the same about the rest of me!).
As a writer you have a huge advantage if you are writing fit. When I visit schools I always tell the children – ‘If you want to win the X Factor, you have to practice. If you want to run or hurdle in the Olympics, you have to practice; if you want to be a published writer, you have to . . . practice.’ And it’s true. It amazes me how many people think they can just pick up a pen, scribble down a first draft, and boom, they will be the next Marian Keyes or Jon Banville. I don’t think the average person has any idea how the writing process really works. The hundreds of hours that go into thinking, making notes, writing, rewriting (x 8/10/12 times in the case of most of my books), editing, copy editing.
In The Right to Write, Julia Cameron says ‘Over the long term, writing is a lot like marathon running and, just as a runner suffers withdrawal when unable to run for a day or two, so, too, does a working writer miss his writing work. A certain amount of writing, like a certain amount of miles, keeps the artistic athlete happy and fit. Without this regular regime, tensions build up. Irritability sets in, life becomes somehow far less hospitable. A good writing day rights this again.’
Julia is bang on. Regular writers get very twitchy if they haven’t been at the page enough. The page is their lodestar.
I’ve been a published writer for over fifteen years now, full time for eight. And it has taken me a long time to find a writing routine that suits me, a balance between sitting long hours at my desk, and doing other things that I enjoy – like organising festivals, doing school visits and talks, touring – all which send me back to my desk happy and glad to be writing again. I’m a very sociable person, I like company, and I’m prone to feeling down and alone, so I have to be careful to pepper my writing week with solid, fun human interaction. But I miss my desk if I’m away from it for too long – it’s all about balance.
Each writer has to find their own writing routine. But routine is the key. No practice without routine. No publication without practice and damn hard work, and as Patrick Ness always says ‘writing with joy’ - turning up to the page every day (or as often as you can), and writing as if it’s your last day on earth. And that’s the ‘secret’ of getting published in a nutshell – routine, practice, hard work, joy . . .
So it’s back to the page for me to unleash some of that joy.
Until next week, yours in writing,