Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Writing Life

There was a time, not so long ago, when I lived in Duke Street, opposite the Duke pub in the centre of Dublin. Outside my window every summer evening the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl would start its journey around the city’s pubs. The Irish literary greats – Joyce, Beckett, Wilde – were discussed with vigour and humour by two actors, and the pub crawl is a must-do for tourists. But in all the time that lived in the city (almost twenty years), never once did a tour guide pointed up at my flat and say – ‘and this is where thriller writer Stephen Leather is working on his latest bestseller.’ But during my first twenty years as a full time writer, that’s how I worked. I delivered a book at the end of June and every May, like an elephant returning to die, I would go back to my one-bedroom flat to finish whatever book I was working on.

I would unlock the front door and make my way up the stairs, laden with bags of microwaveable food from the Marks and Spencer food hall in Grafton Street. I would open my laptop and start to write. And that’s all I would do for the next three or four weeks, rushing to meet my deadline.

I always liken writing a book to riding a rollercoaster. Back then a book took me a year, pretty much, from start to finish. I would spend the first three months dithering about whether or not to get on the rollercoaster. I would meet contacts, I read, I trawled the internet. I would go drinking with cops, spies and villains, looking for characters and plots to use in the book. That’s what most writers call research but in my case it’s just me postponing the moment when I start to write.
I tend not to make notes while I’m researching, maybe just the odd scribble on a Post-It note. I do rip cuttings from newspapers and magazines, and use a highlighter on passages in books that interest me. When I do write I tend to give each character an index card and make notes about their characteristics. That way when I write a scene with several characters interacting, I have the cards next to me so that I can easily recall hair colour, favourite drink, jewellery, type of watch, all the niggling details that are so easy to forget.
Before I became a full-time fiction writer, I was journalist. I wrote my first book –Pay Off – while I was working for the Daily Mirror newspaper in London, and I wrote my second and third – The Fireman and Hungry Ghost – during a three-year stint in Hong Kong as Business Editor of the South China Morning Post. But it was only after I wrote The Chinaman while working for The Times in London that I started writing full-time. And for the first twenty years of my writing career I had only the one deadline – to deliver a book by the end of June.
Journalists are famous for always meeting deadlines at the last minute, and I’m no exception. Even when I finally did open my laptop computer and start to write, I would only do four or five hundred words a day, equivalent to just over a page. I didn’t write every day, and it wouldn’t be unusual for a week or two to go by without me opening the laptop. This period of writing is the rollercoaster equivalent of the long haul to the top. I would laying down the plot, defining the characters, setting the scene. It was actually hard work and not much fun.  In May each year, as my deadline loomed, I would lock myself away in my flat in Dublin. While I was writing, I wouldn’t answer the phone or the doorbell. My friends knew that there was no point in trying to contact me in May or June. It’s the rollercoaster equivalent of hurtling down the ride and once I reached that point there was no stopping me.  It’s the part of writing that every writer loves, the point where you’re so involved in the story that it becomes real, where the characters take on a life of their own and where all the writer is doing is describing what’s happening. It’s the point where my characters start speaking with their own voices and they surprise me and make me laugh at the things they say. I love it. It’s what I live for.
But that was when, back in what some writers think of as the golden age of publishing. Writers were expected to deliver a book once a year. If you offered a second, generally it would be refused with a smile, or the suggestion that you publish it under another name. There was a rhythm to publishing. You wrote a book and it would be published almost a year later as a hardback, at which time you would be delivering the new book. The new book would then be published the following year as a hardback, and the old book would be reissued as a paperback. That’s how almost all writers worked.
So what changed? Publishing did. In fact it didn’t just change – it was revolutionized. By the arrival of eBooks, and in particular by Amazon and their Kindle eReader.
Now printers, distribution networks, warehouses and shops are no longer necessary to sell books. Readers can download books straight to their eReaders, and now that shelf space is no longer an issue, writers are no longer tied to one book a year. In fact in the bold new world of ePublishing, writers are encouraged to be as productive as possible.
In my case, I write two books a year for my publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, then I write at least one more novel which I self-publish, plus as many as half a dozen short stories. Whereas I used to write about 120,000 words a year, now my output is closer to 350,000. Yes, I now write three times as many words a year as I used to. That’s one heck of a jump in productivity. And I don’t live in Dublin any more. The credit crunch put paid to that, I’m afraid.
I’ve always written with the television on, typing on my laptop which I put on the coffee table while I sit on the sofa. I’ve always worked with the television on. I was brought up in a house with four younger siblings so silence is an anathema to me. My working life as a journalist was spent in busy newsrooms and now the only time I need silence is when I sleep. The rest of the time I have the television on constantly.
Apart from the background noise, television is actually a big help creatively. Say I need a type of car for a character to drive. There’s bound to be a car on TV that I can use. Say I need the name for a new character. I wait until credits start to roll on a TV show and I get dozens of possible names. If I have to describe what a character is wearing, a few minutes watching a film or a soap opera will give me lots of possibilities.
The downside of working on the coffee table is that it plays havoc with my spine. In 2007 I started to get pains in my arms and it got worse in 2008. My GP prescribed anti-inflammatories and for a while they worked, but the pains kept coming back, coupled with frequent pins and needles in my hands. Eventually I went to a physiotherapist – a great guy who used to work on the New Zealand test cricket team. He reckoned that my working position was causing the pain, and that bending over the keyboard for twenty-odd years was finally taking its toll. That and the fact that I tend to sleep on my front with my head to the side. Anyway, he encouraged me to raise the keyboard and to keep my back straight as I type and it seems to have done the trick.

Do I miss the golden age of publishing? The days when I was expected to produce one book a year? Not really.  I enjoy stretching myself creatively, and I welcome the opportunity to tell more stories.