Since this stage of a work in progress has to do with the realm of ideas and the writer's individual worldview, there are probably as many ways into a new book as there are books. These insights are not prescriptive, just my own impressions of a really fascinating stage of the writing process. In fact, I'm always fascinated to hear about how other writers go about this - and I find it reassuring that the paths are many, not one.
This is how my last three weeks have been spent:
- Firstly, I've been reading some of the writers whose work I find most inspiring at the moment, an eclectic mix of old and new influences: Derek Walcott, Raymond Carver, Kiran Desai, Salman Rushdie, Anne Tyler, among many others. Really, this is about looking at your favourite books and how they work - remembering all those insights you had while reading them over the years which you thought might help with your own writing, and also reminding yourself of how the fabric of a text works.
- Secondly, I've been reading some of my favourite writers on writing, like Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney, as well as discovering new ones - including Scarlett Thomas's excellent Monkeys with Typewriters, which I'd highly recommend, particularly for her insights on plot. It's a really excellent, comprehensive writing book, which also manages to be inspiring and open-ended rather than limiting. I read books about writing in order to remind myself of the ways that writers I respect have tackled the craft in the past and the present - and partly just to get the sense that it is a craft, with a community surrounding it and willing to talk about it.
- Thirdly, I've been thinking carefully about what my main concerns are as a writer. That might sound like a vague thing to be doing, but it isn't really. I'll try to write about this in more detail soon, as I think it merits its own post. But in essence, a lot of a writer's time early in a project is spent thinking about which stories he or she wants to tell which maybe haven't been written before, and how he or she can do them justice. When trying to get to grips with the vast sum of writing in the world (170,000 books published in the UK each year, apparently!), I tend to visualise all these voices as a kind of diverse continent, in which your aim as a writer is to add new visions and ways of thinking about the world while remaining in dialogue with the rest. So it's essential to work out where you stand in this continent. (Salman Rushdie has fascinating things to say about the writer and society in the last five minutes of this interview. He uses the image of a room instead, and the writer at the edge of this room pushing the walls outwards, which is probably a better, clearer way of seeing it.)
- And finally, I've been doing some more recognisable 'writing': drafting a rough synopsis of the book and making notes about characters, scenes and details that come to me along the way.
Out of all this, a story begins to emerge very slowly - a process Stephen King has compared to lifting a fossil carefully out of the soil, trying to preserve its inherent shape rather than dragging it out too quickly and breaking bits off (apologies to Mr King for the very rough paraphrase, from his excellent book On Writing). This process will be a highly personal one for each writer, but the things I look for at this stage to give me a sense of the story as a whole are a working title (something that captures the mood of the book without restricting it), clear images of various scenes and characters which I can build on imaginatively, and a voice to lead me into the actual page by page detail. And like magic, through the slow and careful process of illumination and excavation, the ghostly outline of a story is definitely emerging...