The writing process

After a long, long time searching London for the perfect writing spot, I think I have found a favourite for the summer. Many cafés have been visited, many wines sipped in bars, many sharing platters sampled, from the quirky Alfie’s rooftop café on Church Street, to the sleek Hoxton in Holborn (confusingly), MaE in Marylebone, and in Villiers at Charing Cross. But they were all beaten by the members’ bar at Picturehouse Central (Piccadilly) with its delicious cocktails, three storeys of seating and views (including a glorious roof terrace), and the not insignificant benefit of seven cinema screens. I came across this hidden gem while seeing Lady Macbeth with Ashley this week as we caught up to discuss the editing process on The Beachcomber. And I’ve decided (much to the delight of my creative senses, and my wallet) to make it my version of Soho House for the summer months. Finally finding my writing spot also made me think more about the entire creative process, as I start work this week on a new novel – the first serious writing I have done in quite a while.

All good writing apparently starts with an idea. Certainly it is true that you need something to fasten on to, something to motivate you through what will undoubtedly be a long process. A single idea also suggests focus, and it is crucial to getting your work read that you can distil it into a single memorable line. However, there can be a danger in over-refining at the outset. I find writing extended fiction much harder if I have put too many hours into planning minute detail; bullet-point lists describing every moment of a scene can sap your energy, and leave you wondering why you even need to put pen to paper now the whole thing has been plotted out. Equally, short work – which often tries to capture the fleetingness or spontaneity of a single moment – can wither in the face of even the shortest of plans.

I think research is important, though I am not a subscriber to the school of thought that you should know every detail about every character in your story. As Aaron Sorkin teaches in his excellent Masterclass on screenwriting, you want to be well versed in the world that your characters inhabit, such that you can inhabit it too, but being able to describe what your protagonist ate for breakfast a decade previously is just too much. For my new book, I am trying to do ‘environment’ research: I’m speaking to doctors about the atmosphere of the hospitals they work in, I’m reading about amnesia, about loneliness and silence. How will that impact my writing style? I’m hoping it will provide a sense of reality without too much baggage – I want this to be an enjoyable, relatively light read, despite its dark moments. I am also midway through rewriting a poem about London, and that has plenty of space for me to get heady, emotional language out of my system.

Where you write is very important for some writers, not so much for others. One thing I admired about the stunningly beautiful Lady Macbeth was its choice of locations. Ashley noted that, though set in the suffocating antiquity of a manor house, the cinematography of Ari Wegner opens up the space, giving the characters room to breathe and live. Whether or not it is so easy to write a novel in such an atmospheric space is another question; personally, my choice of hideout has transitioned from tiny cafés of antique furniture, through commercial coffee chains, to gardens, and now I prefer bustling and modern settings, ideally with some music. I think there’s an interesting tension in both extremes: I was horribly spoiled in being able to write in the prim order of Oxford’s quads for three years, and the quiet does allow you to focus, but at the same time I quite like the way that writing in a busy environment forces you to connect with people, even if they can be distracting.

One thing that also intrigues me is the huge disparity in drafting timeframes between different writers. From those who take years on every story, to those who need to challenge themselves and write a draft in a month or so, and those who are different on every project – starting a novel feels like embarking on a bewildering and sometimes overwhelming journey at the beginning, and I wonder if that ever changes, even for those on their twentieth? Certainly on this project, I have set the remainder of the year as my window, while I juggle The Beachcomber, life as a city lawyer, and a variety of other endeavours as well.

Find out more about Picturehouse Central’s bar here. And I should note, this is not a sponsored post – it really is a writers’ paradise (and Lady Macbeth is truly amazing). Watch this space for novel news throughout the summer.