The write tools
I’ve followed Damon Young’s blog avidly ever since I read his book Distraction, which I reviewed here. Damon has a clear, sharp way of thinking and writing about the world. When he recently asked me to write about my favourite writing tool, to cross-post on his blog, I was stumped. All I could think of was chocolate. Or was it coffee? My lap top? My note book? Then I gazed up at the wall above my desk and realised my favourite tool was right in front of me. Damon has managed to convince some fabulous writers to discuss their favourite tools in a series posted on his blog called ‘The Write Tools’. You can find this blog cross-posted at ‘That Young Philosopher’.
When I was seven years old my younger brother accidentally slammed a car door on my right hand and severed the tendon between my middle and ring finger. As a result, I have such appalling handwriting that I’m in awe of people who can write elegantly with authentic writing tools, such as fountain pens. Perhaps I was always destined to have illegible handwriting but I have been able to justify my addiction to keyboards on the tiny purple scar on the back of my right hand.
But it’s not my keyboard that I’d classify as my favourite writer’s tool. In terms of writing novels, my dependence on the keyboard is second to my dependence on the big scarred, canite pin board that covers the wall above my desk. Without it, I don’t think I’d be capable of writing another book. Having just found my way to the end of my ninth novel, the board is in a state of semi-undress. It grows organically across the course of a year until the visual clutter becomes overwhelming and I’m forced to spend an afternoon fiddling with all the images and notes that cover its surface. I use it every day, to review materials, to visualise the tasks ahead of me, to secure stray documents, and it provides a method for holding and accessing all the disparate threads of a major story without having to resort to endless flicking through notebooks and files.
Before I turned to full time writing, I worked in visual and graphic arts. I have always been deeply visual in how I experience time, place and narrative. For me, a story is a series of images that grows into a canvas strewn with words. I see the story played out in my mind long before the words come to make the novel.
My first novel, ‘Zarconi’s Magic Flying Fish’ was roughly 55,000 words in length but the greatest challenge was not simply producing the words but creating a structure for the flow of the imagined events. At that stage, I hadn’t discovered the beauty of the pin board. I wrote an outline of each chapter on a continuous roll of computer paper and wallpapered my office with it so I could walk around the room and visualise the sequencing.
In writing my second novel, ‘Market Blues’, I discovered that the entire premise of time travel is structurally flawed. The computer paper method didn’t work. When I was at my lowest ebb, my husband, a playwright and puppeteer, explained the virtues of storyboarding the scenes and I adapted this to the novel with liberating effect. With the aid of my first pin board and a stack of index cards, I broke the book into its parts and moved the scenes up and down the board until I had a satisfying sequence. Since then, this method has become an intrinsic part of the process of structuring every novel. If you think visually, containing tens of thousands of words and images inside your brain can be a tedious business. Allowing them to spill out onto the pin board frees up so much headspace.
If you look at the photo of the pin board, you’ll notice a stack of blue index cards to the right. They are the chapters of my latest book. They move up and down the board depending on how each chapter is reshaped, rethought and repositioned in the manuscript. Above the computer are roughs for the new cover. Above and to the left of the screen are maps of India at different times in its history. Then there are lists of characters, images relevant to the pivotal scenes, notes, publishing schedules, chapter summaries, calendars from 1909 and 1910, edifying slogans of encouragement and visual prompts and references for various scenes.
In another month or so, when I’ve finished the rewrite of this novel, the board will look completely different again. My pin board is an organic, ever changing landscape, a background to my writing days. Like the shelves of a pantry of essential foodstuffs, it is constantly in need of maintenance. In any given week twenty things are stripped from it, consumed, digested, passed into the recycle bin and another generation of images, ideas and notes come to take its place. Sometimes they lie one atop the other until the detritus becomes unbearably deep and I’m embarrassed by the state of the wall.
Frankly, photographing it for this blog post was traumatic. It probably looks scrappy and cluttered to everyone but me but that’s my writing life – mess, clutter, words, images, the endless battle to impose some order on the whole explosive mess and then, finally a new novel.