Saturday, 11 August 2012

A Sterkarm Twenty Minutes

Ice on the inside of the windows
          About three decades ago, when I was already a published writer but still lived with my parents, I wrote on my typewriter wherever I could set it up and get a bit of peace.  That usually meant on the big table in the rarely used front room.
          We didn’t have central heating and, in winter, only ever heated the living-room (and there were no fireplaces upstairs.)  Most of the house was, in winter, literally freezing.  There would be ice on the inside of the windows.
         One cold Sunday, I wanted to write.  I forget what I was working on, but I was deeply into it.  I put on my coat, thick socks, and a woolly hat.  I would have added mittens, but it’s hard to type in them. The rest of my family were gathered in the living room, about to watch a Hammer Horror film on video (I forget which one.  Witchfinder GeneralCountess Dracula?)  I said to them, “I may be some time,” and plunged into the arctic conditions of the rest of the house.
      As I wrote, my ears were nipped, my nose dripped, my toes went numb and my fingers stiff.  I kept thinking, ‘It’s too cold, I can’t stand this.  Just another paragraph and I’ll give up.’ After about twenty minutes, I reached what seemed a natural break, and I was so cold, I couldn’t stand it any more.  I charged back into the warmth of the next room, stripping off my cold weather gear as I went.  The film was just ending.
          But wait!  A different film was ending, not the one they’d been watching when I’d departed for the North Pole.
          “Did you switch the other one off?” I asked.
          They looked at me strangely.  “We watched it right through,” they said.
          “But this is another film.”
          “Yes,” they said, as if to an idiot.  “We watched this one too.”
          “But – “ I said.  But I’d only been writing for about twenty minutes.  It had been too cold to do more.
          “We’ve watched two films while you’ve been writing,” they said. “And paused them while we made tea and fetched snacks.”
          They’d fast-forwarded through the slow bits, surely?
          Not at all.  They’d watched two films from beginning to end, with breaks for tea and snacks.  My twenty minutes had been two hours.
      For the past three years I’ve been working on Sterkarm 3 (and that, folks, is why a writers’ work shouldn’t be available free-to-all on the internet, as some argue).  I’ve been working hard on it, constantly climbing a metaphorical tower (perhaps an ivory one) and scanning far horizons with my imagination’s spy-glass, trying to see where the plot-lines might converge to an ending.
      Last Friday, I thought I might be drawing it all to an end – the first time in three years it’s had what felt like a conclusive ‘right’ ending.  About 9pm I looked at what I had sketched out and thought: If I keep going, I could finish this in the next few hours.
I made a decision: I’m not going to bed until I finish this, however long it takes.
      Some head-down time after, about twenty minutes, I was wandering around a sheiling with the cattle, somewhere in the drizzly hills of the borderlands, when I glanced at my watch and saw that it was midnight.  Okay, on we go.
      I wrote and wrote.  It was concentrated work, but didn’t take very long.  About twenty minutes.  That’s what it felt like.  I reached The End.  Collapsed on sofa.  Cheered.  Looked at watch.  It was 3-50 a.m.
      I think ‘twenty minutes’ may be the writers’ equivalent of ‘a country mile’ which is defined as, ‘any distance that has to be walked.’
Deerhound striking noble pose against mountains
     Of course, Sterkarm 3 still isn’t finished.  That ending is knocked into a rough shape, but it has to be polished.  There are characters who haven’t had their say yet – and who won't rest until they do.
          And there are two large dogs running around loose, I’m not quite sure where.  I’ve got to track them down and drag them to where they’re supposed to be.  (I’m sure Madwippet would never forget her canine characters and leave them roaming loose to worry cattle.)
A collie about to round up a synopsis
          But I’m starting to feel confident that, towards the end of August, I shall have a version of Sterkarm 3 that I can send to my agent without feeling ashamed of it.  (I may even decide definitely on a title.)
          I have another synopsis to send her too, again involving dogs, though these are border collies rather than large deer-hounds.
          But I’d love to hear other’s experience of ‘the writers’ twenty minutes.’

     Edinburgh E-Book Festival
          Just a reminder that the on-line Edinburgh E-Book Festival really starts today.  There's all sorts going on over there - reviews, interviews, poetry...

             And over at the Facebook page, the cool e-readers are gathering, in their sunglasses.  Yours is invited to join.
          Right: my Kool Kindle, in James Dean style red leather jacket and sunnies, kicks back with a glass of white...
          Over to Blott...


Jenny Alexander said...

Love this post! All time is elastic, but a writer's time is off the scale, and that's why I can't understand it when writers tear their hair if they have a day/week/month 'without producing anything.' You're always producing, in the still time and the slow plodding time, as well as in those furious bursts of activity. I wrote virtually round the clock, often having that god-it's-half-past-4-might-as-well-have-breakfast-now experience, from Jan 1st to the end of March this year, delivered my manuscript, and haven't written for a contract/with publication in mind since then. It's great to hear you're on the home straight with your book now, Sue - that's a good feeling. And I love what you say about why books should not be free :)

Amy Greenfield said...

Wonderful post! I, too, have walked many a country mile with my books. I've learned that it's a smart idea to set an alarm for school pick-up time, and NOT to dash back "for just a minute" to put down that next sentence... or two... or three.

So happy to hear you're making such fabulous progress with Sterkarm 3!

Penny Dolan said...

Ha ha! "Twenty minutes?" is said with much disbelief and raised eyebrows by people in this house too.
Writing is another time zone.

Amy, hope that you hear that alarm better than I do, although I don't have small people waiting. Just burnt saucepans.

madwippitt said...


PS There'd better not be any more Cuddy-bashing though, or the wippitties will be round!

Susan Price said...

I am safe from the whippets (though I would bribe them with treats if they turned up.) No animals have been harmed in the making of this latest book. Plenty of people have been ruthlessly dispatched, but no animals, so that's all right.

madwippitt said...

Waaaah - not Andrea, please! Per's ol' mum was bad enough ... how many boxes of kleenex should I order?

PS Treats won't work. You'd need to order in a sucking pig at the very least.

Susan Price said...

I'm saying no more...

madwippitt said...

Well when can we expect to read it?
Do you need a proof reader? ;-)))))

Go on, gissa clue as to when we can get our paws on it!

PS Were your family really so heartless that they really didn't make you a hot cuppa when they made themselves one, even knowing you were in the room with ice on the windows ... or were they just too frightened to interrupt you?

Susan Price said...

I've no idea when you'll be able to paw it. Wish I did. But you know what the publishing industry's like - and I've a deal with my agent that I'll go that route first.
I had thought of asking someone to proof-read it - but that way violence lies. It's hard enough to be civilised and professional with an agent and editor, even though they're only telling you the truth.

And PS - I drank coffee when the rest of the family drank tea and - although I hadn't thought of it until you asked - I doubt it would even have occurred to them to make me a cup. I was big enough and ugly enough to make my own.

Katherine Roberts said...

So glad you have reached an end with Sterkarm 3... and without the aid of ice on the inside of the windows! (We HAD central heating, but we still got ice on the inside of the windows because my Dad paid the gas bill and would not let us turn it on.)

Yes, time does tend to vanish when you're writing, doesn't it? Luckily, it drags out when editing, so evens itself out in the end.

Katherine Langrish said...

You don't know how much it heartens me to find another writer who can spend three years on a book and still not be finished. I wouldn't mind the timeslip effect though. It clearly works wonders!

Katherine Roberts said...

And what about Alan Garner, then? 50 years!

(third time lucky on the character recognition..?)