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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Creating a Text – Penelope Farmer

What phases are involved in the creation of a text?

‘Phases’ is much too neat a word. I don’t think I have phases. A former husband, a doctor and an academic, who when he wrote himself, progressed neatly from A to Z. was appalled by the way I worked. ‘It’s all afterthoughts,’ he said.

This is not a bad way of describing it. I might start from A usually – I have been known to draft a paragraph from XY or Z right at the beginning – but thereafter everything can be random. I may know the beginning and the end. I may know the middle and the end. I may know… well, pick your own permutations; I’ve known all of them in my time.

The idea comes first, of course. I’m not one of these writers who has endless ideas; mine are few. And most of them hang around for years before I get to serious work on them. This may be because I’m doing something else, it may be because I haven’t a clue how to develop them. Many start from places or landscapes – the one I’m working on now started from the place where I’ve lived for the past 5 years, Lanzarote, the one before was the result of a two year stay in Birmingham. But a place isn’t a plot. That comes later. Or bits of it do.

Ideas? – I suppose they are ideas. But noone else would recognize them as such; I barely recognize them as such; they’re little itty bitty things, inspiration they are not.

Some ideas never get beyond the itty-bitty stage. But the ones that do grow, grow slowly; metaphorically you could say they are rolling stones that manage to gather moss; or alternatively, they are the grit in the oyster that generate not pearls exactly, modesty forbids I call them that, but ever bigger stones. It’s when they’ve begun to grow, when I’ve begun taking serious notes, that it becomes obvious they are the germ of something.

Very often the process is helped along by the place in which the book is set. That happens especially when I’m living in the place. Local events, local landmarks help drive the plot, the story, forward; may even lead to solutions. I take notes and then run home. I write it down.

This slow growth is the more necessary because I never have a whole plot before I start, let alone a full cast of characters. Some characters turn up between two sentences. First they aren’t, then, suddenly, they are. Nor will I have begun to solve the problems that any particular idea generates. Often I’m not aware of the problems until I hit them, and sometimes don’t know they exist until I have a complete draft and go back over it.

Occasionally I don’t even solve them till the book is published and have to put them in at the paperback stage. This happened with a crucial aspect of Charlotte Sometimes – why the bed worked as it did to send Charlotte back in time.

One reason often for rethinking, for afterthoughts are the comments of other – trusted readers. Several of my adult novels were sent by my editor at Gollancz to a reader, who was brilliant. Her comments never told me what I should do: what they did was generate solutions in my head to overall problems of structure, ones I had been dimly aware of sometimes, but hadn’t known how to address.

This is the stage where the afterthoughts start seriously arriving. Indeed this is where you get the eureka moments. The original idea is rarely a eureka moment. It throws up so many questions it’s more dispiriting than anything else.

Phases? First there’s an idea, then there’s a chapter or two, then there’s half a book, then a whole one. Then come the afterthoughts… Chaos from start to finish. Or that’s what it feels like sometimes, made tolerable by moments of wonderful lucidity even light. EUREKA. But not often enough . . .

Oh and how do I write? It used to be in longhand: not now. Straight onto the laptop, notes and text. (Unless the ideas break in the middle of the night or away from home: then it’s scrappy bits of paper, which – if I don’t lose them – get transferred to the machine later.) I correct on the laptop, too, at first. But I always print out hard copies in the end and work from them. Text on screen and on paper reads quite differently. My scientist partner who works entirely on screen is baffled by this. ‘It’s just your generation,’ he says. I don’t think so. You cannot judge properly whether the text flows, whether the narrative does unless there is a hard copy. Your eyes work differently, so does your head. As long as there are writers I don’t think that will change. I’m sticking by it anyway.

Penelope Farmer lives in the Canary Islands where she writes children’s books and adult novels; she blogs at:

One Response to “Creating a Text – Penelope Farmer”

  1. max hodges says:

    How self-referentially postmodern: a blog about writing 😉