My writing space is a lie. I’ve never written here. I
put the desk together myself during late-summer, whilst video calling
a friend, in cheap cotton panties and a camisole. Those metal legs
are chill year round. I haven’t been gagged with the unicorn duct
tape, the truffle-coloured bunny remains nameless, I am forever
European. Out of sight is an Ikea bookcase that displays my
collection of plastic lo-fi cameras, and five envelopes containing
poetry chapbooks. The wall to the left is crumbling from damp. There
is a promise somewhere
to fix it.
say you ought to write each day but I find I’m too precious with
words, I can’t seem to let-go. This is how I write: I’ll discover a
word, then I’ll sit on it for a while. Or a title. Currently it’s
‘Terrible Grasshopper’ which I’ve been with since before the new
year. I’ll add to it now and then – on scraps of paper, via notes on
my phone, I’ll leave a thought with someone. Until.
like to let music bleed into my work. Bjork, Maximo Park, something
poppy and melodic. Though more often than not I prefer being read to.
Salvador Dali’s ‘Oui’ is a favourite, or wikipedia articles, Nabokov.
I like the process of tuning-out, of taking no notice on a conscious
level and letting the subconscious pick up what it wants.
is a distraction. Little Cora Vespertine. My anxieties. Love. Fear of
never being read, understood, appreciated. I can’t write without a
pen; utilised as a false moustache.
most enjoyable part of writing is not writing, it’s sharing my words
and my weirdness with another who doesn’t desire an explanation. I
find this is also the least enjoyable part.
proud of everything I write. It often feels like a challenge to get
the words out – if you know me you know I don’t talk much, that
voicing my thoughts doesn’t come easy – so every finished something
is a little ‘yay’. My first proper chapbook ‘Some Pink Star’ was
released about a year ago through Eibonvale Press. David Rix did a
stunning job, and I am still besotted with it.
Right now I’m working / not-working on a series of insect poems though, of course, they’re not really about insects. I think ‘Ant Eating With Three Fingers’ is my favourite title so far, or perhaps, ‘Honeydew or Number One Sugar Daddy’ which is about aphids and age-gap relationships. I’m excited to see where I take them.
Sophie Essex is a poet, organiser of spoken word events, and a publisher. Her chapbook Some Pink Star is available here. Her small press Salo publishes both prose and poetry.
My writing space is an alcove of the dining room using a regular PC, keyboard and screen. It’s not perfect, but when the house is empty or everyone’s asleep it does allow me to create some headspace and it does mean I’m surrounded by books; including the shelves containing everything I’ve been published in (out of shot in the pic). I did have a dedicated office space in the upper part of the house where I wrote for over sixteen years. It was ideal. But when our daughter Cora was born she moved in there so my ‘office’ went downstairs. Seven years later my eldest daughter moved out, Cora moved into her room, and my old office is now my partner’s office. Go figure.
I prefer to write when there’s either no one in the house or everyone is asleep. I’m a bit of a grouch when it comes to being interrupted. If I’m writing short stories then these tend to fall out of me fully formed. I rarely have to edit those other than a few word changes or grammatical edits. I tend to write them in one sitting. Anything longer than four thousand words just depends on the unavailability of everyone else. It can take months to write a novella, snatching a bit of time here and there. So whilst my writing days are few, when I do write it is productive.
Other than listening to music to create a mood (see below), I don’t have any other stimulants. I don’t drink tea or coffee, and very rarely drink alcohol at home. I might just have some ginger beer and some peanuts within reach. Other than that it’s just myself and my imagination.
Because my writing time is rare, anything that can shut out the rest of the world is welcome. Music is perfect for this. I sit down, hit play, and I’m immediately back where I left off in the story. I won’t choose anything too abrasive or lyrically challenging, as this works against the process, but anything subtle can help with ambience. And once I’ve begun writing, the music barely registers, it fades in and out of my consciousness, even when the same song is played over and over (the record for this is “The City Never Sleeps At Night” by Nancy Sinatra which I played seventy times whilst writing a short story called “Blanche” – published in “Something Remains”, Alchemy Press).
Favourites include Bjork, Blonde Redhead, Coeur de Pirate, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (but only the album “Push The Sky Away”), late Echobelly, The Flaming Lips. I know some writers prefer soundtracks and although that’s not my thing, for one nature-themed story recently I did write solely to birdsong. A few years ago James Everington asked me a similar question and a link to his blog (with links to the music) is here.
Distractions: the 9-5 day job, the Sunday job, the freelance proofreading I do most evenings… although the biggest distraction is a seven year old who has taken to staying awake til 10pm. On the other hand, my mini-collection “The Forest of Dead Children”, is inspired by my reaction to that. So, swings and roundabouts.
can’t write without solitude. Interruptions border on the violent.
The most enjoyable part of writing is actually doing it. For me, writing is so much a part of how I identify that having the space and freedom to get on with it allows me to be myself. I don’t find anything about it that isn’t enjoyable. I know a lot of writers aren’t keen on editing, but I don’t tend to do much of that and don’t find it much of an issue. Being immersed in creativity is a real high.
I think my best writing in this space has been what I’ve come to call my ‘celebrity death’ stories. For those reading this who I haven’t already bored to death with this theme, I’ve written twelve stories based on the lives of Golden Era Hollywood celebrities who died young. I really felt I was channeling something important writing these pieces – and occasionally goosebumped myself in the process. They’re intricate, multi-layered, respectful and affectionate. It’s just a shame that I can’t seem to sell them for toffee.
For the first time in about ten years I’ve lost impetus with short stories. The market seems to have shifted and (from my point of view) it appears genre boundaries have returned to parameters which are more clearly defined and my work doesn’t easily sit within that. Last year I began a novel without any idea where it might go and as it turned out it didn’t go more than 7000 words. So I’m in a rare period where I feel disheartened. As an alternative, I’m trying my hand at non-fiction, working on a book about a film. I can’t say much more than that at the moment, but this will be my work for 2020. Of course, writing non-fiction is a hundred ways different to writing fiction: I can’t write with music, I tend to eat constantly, and I actually have to remember stuff and do research. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m writing fiction again, but I am enjoying it.
Andrew Hook is an unstable entity whose material form suffers from interdimensional glitching. His fictional output in our dimension has been prolific, with over 150 stories published, as well as several collections, novels and novellas. Find out more here or just go straight to EvilCorp and buy his books.
We have a spare bedroom that I use as a writing room. It used to be my daughter’s room, but we swapped, so I painted the walls grey with some leftover paint, mainly to hide the disastrous job I did removing her wallpaper, and now it’s a bit like living inside an elephant. The Christmas fairy lights have stayed up. My wife saved the poster from my book launch last August, which is now on the wall. I can’t play the guitar, no more than a few chords anyway, but I like having it next to me. There’s a bookshelf with old notebooks, a printer, all the short story collections I own (they used to live with the novels downstairs, but we ran out of space, so this was my quick, cheap solution), books about writing, and books I’m using for researching current projects.
in the picture is a cluster of three frames on the wall — a photo
of me with my parents at Grosmont railway station, a self-portrait I
made when I was four that my sister found and framed as a birthday
present (‘This is me’), and my Creative Writing Masters
certificate. It’s a little shrine of sorts.
write every day in my notebook, often in a coffee shop on the way to
work — how I’m feeling, what I dreamt the night before, what’s
bothering me, how projects are going, that sort of thing. I’ll
usually share something on Twitter too, which I treat as part of my
creative writing practice.
There’s no routine for writing fiction. It’s led by the project I’m working on. I’ve just finished a short story, and for that I spent a couple of weeks letting ideas take shape in my head, another couple of weeks writing in short bursts, and a final fortnight editing it to completion. When I am writing drafts, I write whenever I can make a spare hour — before work, lunch hours, or evenings. I find these periods exhilarating at first, but they quickly get very tiring, and I can’t stop until I’m happy with it. Right now, I don’t want to write another word.
can’t listen to music and write. I need quiet, or the background
babble of a coffee shop. Music is too interesting.
can distract me from writing if I’m not in the intense phase of a
writing project. Over the years I’ve beaten myself up so many times
for procrastinating, but looking back, a lot of that was trying to
write something before I had a good idea. I wasn’t patient. Writing
every day, or a certain number of words per day, doesn’t work for
me. When I try, I just feel crappy, and what I write seems crappy. I
haven’t found that showing up every day and writing creates good
My ideas come when I’m not writing but doing other things — watching films, having conversations, being with my family, just everyday life. Ideas pop into my head, and they’re usually not very good, but sometimes a couple won’t go away, and I’ll do something with them.
The most enjoyable thing is editing a draft of a scene and seeing something good that I hadn’t intended. A connection appears and the story opens up a bit more. That’s a wonderful feeling. Finishing something that I know is as good as it can be is great too. The relief and letting go. That is a much rarer thing because I haven’t written many stories that get to me to that place.
Writing is least enjoyable when I’m exhausted because I’ve pushed myself too hard. I have a full-time job as a software developer, and a family with two kids, so it’s really important to me that I look after myself and stay healthy. I find it hard to step back when a writing project is in an exciting phase. Self-care is a project that’s always in the background.
Finishing my debut novel, The Complex, made me very proud, and then finding out it had been picked up by Salt changed everything for me. It made me believe in myself and the quality of my work.
My next novel has a title, some locations, and characters. I haven’t written anything yet. It’s still swirling in my mind. I’m not sensing the need to start writing — but I do have some books I want to read related to it. The big projects are still pretty mysterious to me. A short story might take a couple of months, and I fancy writing another one, but The Complex took three years. I don’t know if the next novel I write will go the same way. Christ, I hope not. That one hurt.
work and school, we focus on collaboration and working in teams, but
there is something healthy and magical about working on something
alone. Writing is how I explore personal issues creatively. I’ve
learned over time that for me it is an essential activity. I’ve had
writer’s block for long periods, several years at a time, and it
was debilitating. Writer’s block can make you feel like utter shit.
value of what we write isn’t always obvious. Writing makes no
financial sense. I’ve wondered many times if it is the best use of
my life. But I can’t argue with how I feel when I don’t have a
writing project on the go, even just as an idea that is percolating.
Most days, writing is a slow trudge through daily experience.
Slowing down and noticing how I’m feeling underneath the rush of daily life has become necessary if I want to stay healthy. It’s a manic world and there are plenty of ways to avoid your emotions, including reading and writing, if done in a rush. Creative writing isn’t just stories and poems, it can be writing about your day in your notebook, for nobody’s eyes but your own. This is most of my writing. And
it’s a whole-body activity. Writing feels better when I exercise,
eat lots of vegetables, get enough sleep, and stretch my aching body.
I’m not getting any younger.
Michael Walters’ acclaimed debut novel, The Complex, is published by Salt and available now. Find out more here or tweet Michael @michaelwaltersx
love my writing space! I have a study which I decorated and set up
and filled with lovely things, so I feel very lucky. Our house is
really old and the study has an ancient fireplace and creaking
cupboards and a very wonky floor, so I decorated it in quite a
traditional style with soothing greens. The desk though is modern
(IKEA – Shhh!) and I put it together myself, which I discovered I
really enjoyed doing, though it was tricky finding the precise spot
to balance it on that wonky floor and I’m pretty sure it has a bit
of a slant.
The green shelving was originally in another room but I pinched and painted it so that I could fill it with pen pots and cards from friends and ceramics and pictures and other nice things to look at when I’m supposed to be working. Oh, and it has a skull-monster in a bobble hat who lives in a vase (but everyone has one of those, right?) Behind me are more shelves with some of my books, my to-be-read pile and some handy reference tomes. There’s also usually a sleeping dog or two in here somewhere.
pens are never far out of reach. I’ve clearly become slightly
obsessive about them, and indeed pen pots (it’s all fellow writer
Priya Sharma’s fault), along with my favourite Leuchtturm
notebooks. I have quite a stash of those ready to use and I really
need to stop buying stationery, but just… not… yet!
My mornings are mainly about feeding and walking my two Dalmatian dogs, then once I’ve woken my head up with some fresh air, I can get stuck into work. I usually start off with any adminny stuff before I get my head engaged properly (or maybe that’s just called ‘procrastination’). Sometimes I’ll be drafting a novel, or I might be researching and jotting down ideas or working through piles and piles of editing. Some days I just sit there in a kind of catatonic state staring at the screen hoping that words will magically appear. Those are not good days.
I can’t listen to music while I write. I know some writers have playlists to go with whichever book they’re working on, and that’s all very cool and I love the idea, but somehow can’t do it in practice. I have images of myself happily typing away only to find I’ve typed out the lyrics of whatever I’m listening to, over and over…
There isn’t much I can’t write without, though my chair is one of those easily overlooked things that’s actually pretty important to me. It’s super-ergonomic and rescued me from some nasty neck/upper limb problems a few years back. It’s snazzily attired in a snood a friend gave me because it matches the dogs.
Speaking of which, my main distractions come in canine form. They’re really good at snoozing the afternoons away while I work, but that hour before lunchtime is another matter. Vesper can be especially insistent that it must be time to eat – she’ll paw at my desk and rattle my chair or nudge my arm or jump onto my lap or disappear under my desk and scratch at the footrest or whatever her latest ploy is. I should probably threaten to make her into a snood.
The most enjoyable part of writing is the writing and the least enjoyable part of writing is the not writing, if that makes any sense! What I mean is, there are days when my head’s down and I’m in the zone and don’t notice time flowing past. Those days are golden. Then there are days when it’s treacly and one word won’t seem to follow the next and ugh ugh ugh. That happens sometimes mid-book, because I’m not a very thorough plotter and I’ll sometimes write past the point where I know what happens next. I do like to allow for some flexibility in the middle of a novel, but it can also be frustrating.
Of the books I’ve written in this room, I’m probably proudest of my first historical novel, The Hidden People. It’s based around some of the dark fairy folklore I love – I’ve always found the idea of changelings delightfully creepy, whereby people are stolen away by the fairies and doppelgangers left in their place. It’s also the first book I wrote where I got halfway through and realised there was far more going on than I’d planned, and that the plot was going to get more complex than anticipated. I love it when a project takes on its own impetus and starts to surprise me.
At the moment I’m working on a mixture of things. I’m editing a novel based around the Cottingley fairies and indeed fairy lore, tinkering with a Victorian piece about – well, doppelgangers, but not changelings this time, and I’m starting to piece together a whole new idea which I’m excited about but it’s just too early to give any details. It feels like that would be putting an industrial fan in front of a little cloud of dust that’s just beginning to coalesce in the air. Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive.
Right, it’s time to stop pretending I’m all healthy with that big glass of water on my desk and make a proper strong cuppatea…
Alison Littlewood is the author of several acclaimed books, including The Hidden People, The Crow Garden, and her latest, Mistletoe. She won the 2014 Shirley Jackson award for short fiction, and her first novel, The Cold Season, was picked for the Richard and Judy Bookclub. You can find out more about her work here.
Once upon a time, longer ago than I’d care to admit, I attended a writing course at a local college. I was fresh out of university at the time and I was settling in to my first honest-to-god actual job at an online bookshop.
“You’ll never have to buy another book,” I was told during the interview. As you can imagine, I tested this hypothesis thoroughly until the first dot com bubble burst.
Back then, I lived in a shared house with my
own room. I even had my own computer, a big unwieldy thing that wheezed when it
accessed the internet. It had a heavy CRT monitor that took twenty minutes to
warm up and hummed like a microwave once it had.
The first assignment in the
writing class was one of those whimsical ones designed to break the ice and
warm people up. We were told to write a poem about an animal we identified
with. Then we had to read it to the class.
You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I wrote. What I do remember is that I chose a sloth as the animal, and that the poem included the following couplet:
I would write down what’s in my head, Were my computer closer to my bed.
Being in a relationship with another writer is remarkable and privileged thing. I suspect, during the years we’ve spent together, I’ve learned more about putting pen to paper than any number of college courses could have taught me. Half our conversations seem to be workshopping one thing or another. It goes both ways and it’s weird and lovely and fizzes with a sort of mad, infuriating invention.
Sometimes I wake up in the
morning and Helen’s just lying there waiting for me to stir.
“Listen,” she says before I can
rub the sleep out of my eyes. “How about if–“
And she’s off. An idea has struck
her, a broken bit of a dream that woke her up and suddenly that irritating bit
of the story she had been working on makes some kind of sense. She’s not after
my opinion, exactly, she’s just saying it out loud, cementing it into something
real, testing to see if it flies.
Sometimes I wake and she’s already up. Bedside light on, she’s reading a book about brutalist Communist architecture or Siegfried and Roy or paging through an article about a very specific kind of sentient sludge that might prosper on Mars.
Sometimes she’s already on her
“Hey,” she says, when I wake up.
“Are you going to the cafe today?”
I started writing in cafes when I had a day job. Since I was laid off, I’m now freelance, which on good days means I’m absurdly, stressfully busy and on bad days feels like a word invented by people who don’t want to admit they’re unemployed.
Before that, I worked for various
small publishing companies, aid organisations and one online bookshop — office
jobs, the sort of which I always swore I’d never settle for, invariably located
in awkward parts of town.
I realised early on that the only way I would get time to write anything for myself was to actively put aside time to do so. So, I set my alarm forward an hour and stopped off in a cafe on the way to work each morning.
This way, five days a week, I had
one hour a day to write. It worked. I got used to getting up early, used to
leaving when the morning was still fresh and brisk, used to getting into work a
little bit late and a little bit spent.
In the cafes, I set myself rules. Whatever I write is allowed to be rubbish. If I don’t write anything, that’s okay too. On some days, I can rattle through a thousand words; on others, I can only manage twenty. Sometimes I’ll just revise something I’ve written the day before and on many occasions I’ll just stare at a blank page and that’s fine because I know I’ll be back the next day, same time, same place, and maybe I’ll do better then.
I don’t know if it was because I
became invested in this routine — because it started working for me — that I
now have difficulties writing at home and I envy those who can.
The house has too many other
distractions. There are other things I should be doing and the things I
absolutely shouldn’t be doing seem too easy to waylay me. Being freelance means
that technically I have the time to write from home — it’s where I do all of
my design work after all, and given that the price of all those posh Americanos
start to stack up, economically it would be a sound idea. But when I try
writing in the house, I feel I should be doing my design work instead,
something that will help pay the rent.
Interlude: There was a time, a few years ago, when I did try and write from home. I ignored the cafes and got up early to work in the kitchen instead. For a time, I thought it was going to work. It felt like a stubborn attempt to realign the routine that I realised I had locked myself in to, the same way that I had taught myself to get up early in the first place.
A few months before this experiment, Helen had moved into the shared house I was living in. After a while, she would hear me get up in the morning and she would come down to get a coffee. We’d end up chatting instead and I would get no writing done at all.
One morning, she came down and
asked me if I wanted to go on a date. She just came out with it as she was
topping up her coffee cup.
You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I said in reply. What I do remember is that it included the following couplet:
kjhafdkj kjalsdk jf;alskjf a klajsdhfl kajsdh; kjfas!!!!!!!!!!!
Those who know how I usually
ration my use of exclamation marks can probably appreciate how that might sound
My problem with working in cafes is
that I’ve always thought that people who write in cafes are wankers. This is
obviously grossly unfair, but it’s a prejudice that, once fostered, needed time
and effort to disabuse.
I am now one of those wankers and
I’m mostly at peace with it.
I know there are some who will go
to the same cafe day in day out, set up their little offices and block an
entire table for the mornings with a peculiar sort of pride, but for the
longest time, I found the whole thing acutely embarrassing and rather precious.
Maybe this is why so many of my stories end up being about the horrors of
social awkwardness in public places. They all stem from everyday cafe punters
seeing me in the corner, back against the wall so no-one can see I’m trying to
write dialogue rather than a business email, crouched and reddening behind my
I used to have a rule that as
soon as the cafe staff knew what I was going to order before I said it out
loud; as soon as I became a regular, I had to move to another cafe and
never go back there again under any circumstances. In the last town we
lived in, I got through eleven cafes that way, so in some ways it’s a good
thing we ended up moving or I’d have probably run out.
This complex has mostly passed.
I’ve now resigned myself to
returning to the same couple of cafes each morning. I plug in my headphones and
put on something wordless and noisy, not to block out the sound of the cafe so
much as to augment it. Today, I’m listening to Treetop Drive by Deathprod and
Garden of Delete by Oneohtrix Point Never. They’re an unholy racket to a lot of
people, I suspect, a weirdly melodic white noise that makes the cafe around me
sound as though its glitching.
Even though my time is mostly my
own these days, I still find I can only manage an hour or so in the cafe each
morning before I feel like I should be somewhere else, doing something else.
The pressure to get some work done that will actually pay has a tendency to
cloud over everything else and I pack up my things and surrender the table to
I go for a short walk, try and
straighten out whatever it was I was working on, trying to rationalise how and
what it was for, and hoping to figure out a hook that will help me get started
the following day.
Then, I go home.
On some days, during the holidays
or on her writing days, Helen is exactly where she was when I left in the
morning. She’s in her office, her computer on her lap, the cup of coffee I
brought her that morning now cold on the bedside counter.
She looks up and smiles when I
“Listen,” she says, her eyes bright. “How about if–“
Malcolm Devlin is the author of the critically acclaimed and award nominated short story collection, “You Will Grow Into Them” and many other things. You can track him down here.
My boyfriend (the brilliant Malcolm Devlin*) describes my writing space as “paradise”—particularly when I kick him out of it in the morning so I can write. Which is to say, I write mostly in bed, mostly in pyjamas, surrounded by piles of book. Despite what he says, I suspect this practice is neither paradise for my book nor good for my soul but it seems to be working at the moment. Because I’ve moved around quite a bit over the last ten years, it’s been ages since I had something like a formal office. I do have one where I work at Anglia Ruskin University, but because I share it with two other colleagues, it’s more of a meeting place than a space for deep concentration. I’ve had to become quite good at adapting myself to wherever I am. I often try out different writing areas to help me break out of various ruts: editing at the kitchen table, rereading and redrafting from my couch, writing by hand in the back garden. But the bed seems to be my preferred place at the moment.
And if you’re feeling sympathetic to poor Malcolm, please note that I gave him the office for his design work. Also, those are his beautiful feet in the picture—his feet, my thumb. (This will be the title of the next short story I write.)
This is where I finished the editing of The Migration, my debut novel which has just launched from Titan in the UK. As my first full-length novel, it was an exercise in stamina that required repeated redrafting. Much of that I did in this bed, between the hours of four and eight in the morning before I went in to the university. I’m proudest of the process of writing The Migration in large part because it challenged me to keep going even when I had completely lost confidence in myself. Sometimes you feel proudest of the stories which come out easily but I find myself wanting to focus on the ones that take real effort.
I don’t have a set routine per se
because my schedule changes so much. What I’ve found is that I write best first
thing in the morning. So I try to schedule my day—where possible—to give myself
a couple of free hours before I check my e-mail or my social media. Whatever I
start doing while I’m drinking my coffee is what I’ll end up doing for the
first half of the day. If I can make that writing then I’m a happy camper. When
I actually sit down to write, I tend to start off by reading something written
by someone else for the first twenty minutes, largely to quiet my brain and to
begin to get into the rhythm of writing. Poetry works best for this, I find,
because it is imagistic and the language is so condensed. Currently I’m reading
Simon Perril’s lovely book Archilochus on
the Moon which is both on-target enough for my current novel about travel
to Mars, yet oblique enough that it doesn’t feel like research. Quite often I
read until I find myself wanting to write something new of my own down. Other
times, once I feel in the groove then I’ll go back and reread and lightly edit
what I wrote in my last session. If I hit a wall, then I either go back to reading
or I try to do something physical but not brain-intensive (like cleaning or
going for a walk) so I can distract myself while my subconscious turns the
problem over in search of a solution.
My biggest distraction from writing is
the massive, ever-present to-do list in the back of my head. When I wake up my
impulse is to sort through the small tasks that I find slightly scary—like
e-mailing people—so that I don’t need to think about them anymore. But I’ve
found this is a mistake because if I start by doing those tasks, then I seldom
come back to writing later in the day. I’ve found the trick is to put my
writing first and add anything worrying me to an on-going digital to-do list.
That seems to give me permission to forget about it for a bit.
I find music with lyrics of any sort to be a massive distraction. I did write one short story while listening to the same song over and over and over again until the lyrics became so rote they seemed like white noise.
Sometimes writing just flows out of you
and it feels effortless. When I’m in the “zone” I feel as if I’m entertaining
myself, surprisingly myself, making myself laugh. A lot of writers talk about
this feeling and it can be a rush. But there are other aspects of writing I
enjoy as well including the careful editing that puts paragraphs in the right
order and clarifies sentences. But the greatest part of writing, I’ve found, is
the permission it gives me to be myself in the fullest way possible, to value
the unique perspective I have on the world. When people tell me I’m a bit
weird—which happens all the time—I
don’t see it as a problem anymore. The weirdness is me. It’s what I’m here for.
The least enjoyable part of writing is
not writing. I get antsy if I don’t manage to write for three days. I get antsy
if I try to write and I don’t get
anywhere. Mostly I find that the anxieties and experiences of writing that I
see in my students are the same anxieties I still have whenever I’m trying to
write. They think getting published will solve the problem for them. It doesn’t,
not really. The only thing experience really teaches you is that there are good
writing days and bad writing days. Bad writing days are part of the process.
Don’t beat yourself up when they happen.
I’ve started work on another novel called The Floating City, which is something of a ghost story set on Mars about the processes of colonization and the unforeseen impact we can have on an environment. It’s an attempt at something closer to science fiction than I’ve really done before and so it’s been more research-intensive—or rather, research-intensive in a different way than my previous books. But it’s challenging me to learn new skills and that’s never a bad thing. If you happen to know anything about sentient sludge, please get in touch!
[*Malcolm Devlin is next week’s escapee.]
Helen Marshall is the World Fantasy Award winning author of two short story collections. Her writing has received critical acclaim far and wide, including from author Neil Gaiman. Helen’s excellent debut novel, The Migration, is available now. You can find out more about Helen here.
this: it used to be my dining room, then it became my Dad’s room when he lived
with us for a while in 2016-17, then it became my dog, Rufus’, room. Rufus now
allows me to work there in return for snacks, unconditional love and frequent
walks out. And more snacks.
As rooms go, it’s like a box of memories. It’s in the quietest part of my house and looks out over my (hideously messy) garden. There’s a flat attached to my house that I used to use as my workplace, but I think I prefer this room. It still has pictures of my Dad on the wall, it still has his set of drawers and some of his books, and it still has some of the ornaments he kept to remind him of my mum. It also has three huge bookcases full of some of my books, then there’s my piano, clarinet and my father-in-law’s old harmonica because every now and then I (quite literally) have to burst into tune, because writing is an intense business, I find, and it’s essential to lift yourself out of these other worlds you’re creating, especially if, like mine, they’re a bit…dark. On the subject of music, I’m interested in people who can work with music going on in the background. I can’t. I’ve tried, but it makes me itch, music, sometimes, when I’m working. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been inspired by music, and I think of myself as a musician of sorts, but NOT WHILST I’M WRITING, THANK YOU.
Rufus won’t mind me saying that, though I love him (unconditionally, remember) he sometimes smells a little…doggy… so I’m a sucker for a scented candle, or two, or three, and because he’s a very good listener, he often works (unpaid) as my audience.
Shall we talk about writing routine? In the past, every day, I have done this: woken up at 5am; written until 7.30am; taken Rufus for a walk; gone for a run; answered emails, dealt with admin, worked on some projects I’m involved with and worked on my PhD; written some more; taken Rufus for another walk: watched Netflix; read; slept. Productive stuff, that. But lately I’ve been doing some lecturing at the University of Wolverhampton, which has included (deep breath) preparing lectures, and (look away now) marking papers. Look closely at the picture there. See my laptop? See all that paper underneath my laptop? Marking. Or rather, not-yet-marked papers. So, I put aside two days of the week for lecturing stuff, I take one day off completely and the rest is the above routine, otherwise, I confess, I get no writing done at all. Walking Rufus is a great way of clearing my head, I’ve found – in fact, I’ve always found walking a great mind-clearer, so, actually, I see that as part of my writing process.
In the past, I’ve been massively distracted by social media. I mean, what is it about Facebook that sucks your life away? I’ve learnt to compartmentalise that, I think, and to use it, for inspiration. I mean, have you read some of the stuff people put on there? Trauma after trauma.
Which brings me to what I’m working on just now. I made a vow that I’d write more short stories this year, and have had one published with Fictive Dream, and another due to be published with The Incubator. I’m involved in a couple of academic projects. One is research into smells and memory, the other is my PhD on Psychogeography and Black Country fiction. I’m basically a geeky type I suppose, so these give me massive pleasure. I’m also involved in two other projects, one is a documentary film about the Black Country and the other is awaiting funding for a ‘Psychogeographic Walk & Talk’ down the Birmingham Canal. And I’m working on my third novel, which may or may not be called God’s Country. Possibly not. I haven’t yet decided, but I had to call the file something. It’s a dark one, set on a farm in the Black Country and it’s developing in an interesting way. So, back to it. Actually, I really should be marking those papers…
Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a Black Country legend and the author of two outstandingly excellent novels, The Black Country and Gamble, both available from Salt. She has a weebly website here.
I moved into my new flat two days ago. My own space, for the first time in my life! (I’m 51). I’m now overlooking a street in the middle of Penzance and already feel settled. My new space is going to be very productive. I need to get a higher desk because I have to stand up to type, but if I’m writing longhand (I always draft longhand) then I can do it anywhere. I still prefer to be at home. I feel centred in Penzance and I badly needed to move back here. Having my own place means I can write at any time, night or day, and won’t be bothering anyone. As you can see, it’s sparse but it’s early days – the vibe’s right now.
Writing has always been quite chaotic, I think. The best way for me to write at home is to leave my notebook out and come and go to it throughout the day. I can’t concentrate for very long at a time. But I often sit in a cafe for an hour or so, writing and drinking coffee. The launderette is also a great place to write. A lot of work gets done in those times. I’ve also written when I’ve been away from home, either alone or with a partner. To me it flavours the writing to be elsewhere, although I wonder if readers notice a difference between sections written in different places?
I usually listen to music when I write; although it slows me down, it’s worth it for the results. Gazelle Twin, Coil, Kate Bush, Throbbing Gristle, Diamanda Galas – all get me into the strange frame of mind I like to write in. Sometimes the right music brings on an altered state – I want my writing to be part of a magickal process; me being changed by what I write and the writing guided by whatever’s been brought on by the music.
Anything can distract me from writing. Tiredness, the internet, the cat who lives in the house opposite staring at me from its window, the urge for coffee and biscuits. Any excuse, eh? All down to the fear of failure, that I won’t be able to come up with anything of any use – but perhaps I need to get in that state to get working.
Everything affects one’s writing, of course, but a couple of massive events in the last few weeks – the ending of a 15 year relationship with someone who I thought was my Life Partner, two house moves and the realisation that I probably have Aspergers – will no doubt have a huge impact on what and how I write. I’m interested to see where it takes me! The Asperger’s thing has actually been liberating – I don’t have to look to be ‘fixed’ anymore from a lifetime of horrible symptoms. I just need to understand my different wiring, and I’m embracing it. Luckily for me, I have a bunch of wonderful friends who also embrace my oddness.
At the moment I’m working on some fiction – A Cure For The Common Cold, which explores my obsession with 1970s weird phenomena and has a very powerful woman at its centre. I’m also working on lots of non-fiction – editing Cunt-Struck, an article about lesbian themes in current cinema releases, and various other bits of writing and art for Dykes Ink, my new ‘zine.
The last year or so has been massive in terms of creativity and I just can’t stop.
The photo shows the table in the coffee shop
where I wrote most of the first drafts of my last four books, give or take. I’ve
really enjoyed the juxtaposition between this quiet space and the places I’ve
ended up on paper. The new book being published this year – Greensmith – has some really strange
adventures in it, and I like the idea that this was the unlikely starting point
for all that. Writing is just so weird, isn’t it? The unmatching interior and
I don’t have a dedicated writing space, but I like lurking in the coffee shop in my village for first drafts. Sometimes I stay home and get set up at the kitchen table or by the sofa, or out in the garden if the weather’s good. I’m not keen on the idea of needing to be in a certain place to write. At one point I set up a permanent desk next to a bookshelf holding many of my favourite books, thinking it might inspire me, but it made me feel a bit presumptuous, so I gave that up.
Buses and trains are good for getting ideas down. I’ve written in lots of places and people are usually very good at letting me get on with it. Quite a few people have their own routines which involve my local café, and we tend to nod to each other and then settle down to work. I did have a running good-natured feud over a particular table a few years ago – in a different coffee shop – with a man who was writing his dissertation and had taken a shine to the table I also preferred at the time. Then I moved away. He might still be there, victorious, wondering if he drove me away. Or maybe not. I hope he got his dissertation done.
At home, if there’s housework or whatever to be done, then I can find it difficult to settle down and write, which I suppose is why I tend to go out. The internet really doesn’t help in some ways, but if I’m in a distractible mood then it doesn’t matter if my phone is within reach or not; I can end up ripping napkins into shapes or doodling for hours. Practically every page of every notebook contains doodles. It’s fine. I tend to think of it as part of the process. I like the very productive days but I try not to obsess over finding them.
I start with a longhand first draft, usually written in the
mornings. Then I type up in the afternoons – not the thing I’ve written that
morning, but something else. If I’m writing a novel then I’ll start typing up
the first bits once I’m about 10,000 words in, for instance, to always keep a
bit of distance. Or I’ll always have a short story idea on the go. I might go
back to writing in longhand in the evening if I’m really grabbed by something,
but I prefer to read later on in the day.
A bit of background noise helps (thank you, other patrons of aforementioned coffee shop). If I’m at home then I usually listen to jazz or classical music, or soundtracks. Music without words. So far this year I’ve been listening to Oscar Peterson and Monteverdi and the soundtrack to Phantom Thread (by Jonny Greenwood) a lot.
When it’s going well I love writing a first draft in which I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. There’s a time when I get past the distractions and there’s a background hum in the coffee shop, or some good music playing quietly at home, and an hour or two pass so quickly. Those experiences don’t always lead to the best prose, to be honest, and quite often they need a fair bit of editing to get them right, but I think they often retain a raw excitement for me. Maybe it doesn’t come across to the reader, but I can still feel it when I read them back.
The worst bit is the waiting. Any time when I get to write or
edit, I’m pretty happy because I’m back into control of the prose. But waiting
for edits or feedback to come from other people, wondering if they’ll spot some
fatal flaw that makes the whole thing fall flat, leaves me a wreck. As soon as
I get the feedback I feel better, even if there are significant problems. Then
I can crack on with attempting to do something about it.
I’ve started work on a new thing which I think might become a novel and it’s got a hint of Daphne Du Maurier to it in my mind, which is why I’m listening to the Phantom Thread soundtrack a lot. Am I the only one who thinks that film has got a strong Du Maurier influence to it? I loved it. I’m hoping I manage to do this idea justice, but only time and lots of cups of coffee will tell.
Aliya Whiteley is the author of acclaimed and award-winning novels and short stories. Her latest novel, The Loosening Skin, is available now from all the best book suppliers and her blog is here.
My writing space is not here. In fact it’s anywhere but here. I don’t find it easy to settle down to writing at home, so I tend to be one of those cafe writers. You know the ones with their laptops and their carefully-paced consumption of one-drink-per-hour, hogging the table by the power point closest to the window for the decent light but furthest from the door to be out of the draught. The ones whose orders the barristas know by heart. I’m one of them.
Since I’ve been writing in cafes for a while now, most of what I’ve published over the last ten years or so has been at least partly written in one or other of the cafes I use. I’m proud of everything I’ve written, most recently my novel, Queen of Clouds, which is currently on submission.
Over the years I’ve built my writing into my working week as well as my weekends. I write in a cafe for up to an hour before going in to work every morning, and then have another stint at lunchtime. At weekends I’ll spend somewhere between two and four hours in the cafe across the road from our flat.
I listen to music all the time when I’m writing. I’ve got a playlist of writing music on Spotify that contains a collection of instrumental music such as movie soundtracks and abstract compositions. The big thing for me is that it acts as a barrier to the outside – in effect, becoming the walls of my writing space – without itself being distracting. So: no words, no hugely distinctive melodies. Currently my list contains work by Max Richter, Johann Johannsson, Dario Marianelli, Olafur Arnalds, Poppy Ackroyd and Mogwai.
The biggest distractions for me while writing are people talking and the internet. I use music to cut myself off from my environment and I use a phone app to make myself focus for 25 minutes in every half hour which seems to work pretty well. The only thing I can’t write without is tea. Which tends, I think, to make me look like a bit of a cheapskate when there’s so much fancy coffee on offer in the places I choose to work in, although the reality is that I’m simply not a huge fan of coffee while tea runs hot and steaming in my veins
The two most enjoyable things about writing for me are 1/ creating things that have never existed and 2/ making the words on the page sound good. As a reader myself invention and craft are what I value above all else in a book and nothing beats the feeling of reading something back that I’ve written and being surprised, even delighted, by the art I’ve made. Knowing that readers are going to have that same experience. The least enjoyable thing about writing is making the little bits of logic all fit together. The longer the story is the worse that is, and you find yourself constantly stopping to check whether what you were just about to write clashes with something already in the story, or might clash with something in the future. That’s such a frustrating experience.
I’ve not long started a new novel (currently) called The Poisoner’s Road. It’s more of a traditional style fantasy than I’ve done before and features a wandering poisoner master, a runaway warrior and a holy transcriber joining forces to save a sculpted forest city under seige by an army of napalm-filled paper golems. Among other things. It’s keeping me busy anyway.
Neil Williamson is a writer of short stories and novels. His most recent novel THE MOON KING is available from all reputable vendors (and some disreputable ones too) and his website can be found here.