Writing with a gun to your head

MiniaturistCould you write with a gun to your head? The most startling revelation at the Meet the Authors evening at Dulwich Books was that all three authors said they felt some kind of fear which drove them to keep writing. Jessie Burton, author of the intricate and fascinating novel The Miniaturist, went one further, explaining that she writes using the infamous software package Write Or Die.

This horrific-sounding software allows you to set targets – numbers of words within a given timescale – and if you stop typing for too long before you’ve met the target, it starts to menace you. The screen goes an ominous colour, then starts flashing. Siren noises start. Too long a gap without your fingers on the keyboard, and the characters start to disappear, one by one. (The letters, not the novel’s actual characters. That would be clever, and perhaps a premise for another novel altogether.)

We were at Dulwich Books to meet three authors, all with exciting new books out, published by Picador. Apart from Jessie Burton we met Rebecca Wait, author of The View on the Way Down, and Emily St John Mandel, author of Station Eleven. Both of their books sound terrific, but I’d finished reading The Miniaturist only days before and was still caught up in the excitement of it. It was wonderful to hear from Jessie, a debut novelist and fellow south east Londoner, who’d previously been working as an actress and PA, how she’d written the book.

She explained that the premise for the book came to her during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where she saw a 17th century cabinet house which an Amsterdam woman had spent 19 years decorating with miniature furniture and dolls. The woman had spent as much money furnishing the cabinet house as she would have done on a real house. ‘It made me think – what sort of world was she living in?’ she said, describing the cabinet house in the novel as ‘the inanimate beating heart of the novel.’

She admitted to having plenty of unfinished manuscripts tucked away, but says this one felt different, because ‘I could keep going with it when it was difficult. This one kept giving.’ Even so, the process was challenging – ‘I went through 17 drafts and cut out so many characters. I didn’t feel particularly in control.’

Such words are comforting to someone ploughing through yet another draft. As was her conclusion – that ‘you can’t write a book in one go.’ Her point was that you can’t see the overall shape of a novel until you’ve written the first draft, then you can see what it was meant to be – and then you have to start getting it into shape.

All the authors were equally candid and open about their writing processes. It was refreshing to hear from three very different authors about their response to the challenges of writing novels. I came away feeling that – just maybe – the next draft of my novel could be the one that finally nails it.

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