I think writing is one of the toughest jobs in the world.
Okay, so that’s not really true. In fact, it is one of the most pleasurable jobs in the world, and the only one I can think of where you never actually have to do any work!
So much of the writing process happens, for me at least, while I’m doing other things. I never plan my books, beyond a very rough, very changeable outline. I don’t like to know what’s going to happen before the characters do, because it seems to remove their motivation, gives them a safety net and stops them behaving the way real people would (none of us can see the future, after all). Instead, I just spend time getting to know the people in the story, and the world they inhabit. Essentially, this means daydreaming. A lot of daydreaming.
It’s one of the most exhilarating and mesmerising parts of the process, the act of just sitting or walking or running and thinking. In the weeks or months before I start actually writing a novel, I immerse myself in the world as much as I can, I just spend time there. For The Fury, that was actually pretty easy, because I set the book in my home county, in one of my favourite parts of the world – the Norfolk coast. We’re incredibly lucky to have a huge, varied, beautiful coastline here, one full of salt marshes, sandy beaches, rolling dunes and striking cliffs, quaint harbours, holiday resorts, fishing villages, Roman roads, and pretty much everything else you could imagine. It’s a real haven, and the perfect place to sit and plan a story.
Much of my writing day during The Fury was actually spent in the least furious way possible: wandering around the coast with a notebook, eating cream teas in cafes and ice cream on the beach, exploring the wilderness and playing the arcades in the resorts (gruelling, I know). I did everything I could to try to soak in the atmosphere of the story, the sun-drenched summer holiday feel that works as a backdrop to the horrific events. Being able to visit a place like this (hopefully!) helped me make the story so much more real, like you’re opening the book and stepping through a door into an English summer. And it was like being on a permanent vacation (which is kind of what writing is like anyway, to be honest)!
I think writing The Fury taught me quite a valuable lesson about location, actually. I used to think that my writing worked best when I wrote about exotic locations, places on the other side of the world to where I grew up – so much of the stuff I wrote when I was younger was set in foreign countries that I had never visited, or on other planets, places I used to think were exciting purely because of their distance from my house. But roaming around the coast, seeking adventures in places that were half an hour away but which I had never thought to visit, showed me that the exotic can exist right around the corner. This small corner of the country – like everywhere else, really, when you truly look – was like the whole world in microcosm.
I think that’s one of the reasons I have so much affection for The Fury and its characters, because this story is personal to me in a way that maybe my other books aren’t. This one is set in my back yard, with people who could be my neighbours, who could be me. This is my part of the world, and seeing what happens to it – whole swathes of the coast I love so much are brought to ruin by the events in the book – seeing what happens to the people who live there, was almost heart-breaking! I felt like I was inside this story because I knew the world so well, because I could feel the sand beneath my toes and hear the gulls crying and taste the salt air on my tongue. I was fighting tooth and nail for this place alongside the characters, this was my war as well. It was a fascinating, and exhausting, experience!
Other than trips out, my pre-writing writing day (if that makes sense) is usually spent reading books, watching films and playing video games. Yup, I told you it was a tough job! This is what I always tell students when I do school visits – especially the ones who hate the idea of being a writer – that actually, for me, so much of writing is about looking for inspiration, character details, atmospheres, and so on. These inspirations are everywhere, and I find them by reading, watching, playing, then letting all those experiences percolate through my brain and trickle out as something else. It’s a great excuse to play video games all day, and call it work (although I used to have real trouble trying to explain this to my parents). Music, too, is so important. I have taken to going out for walks every day, or maybe even a run (although I can’t really run for longer than a single musical track…), with my headphones in, listening to movie soundtracks by composers like Hans Zimmer. It’s seriously impossible not to be inspired when you listen to good music, it just fills your head with images and scenes and characters and ideas. Just remember to take a notebook, because I find those inspirations are like water in a leaky bucket, they spill out so fast.
Everything changes when it’s time to actually start writing. This is the part of the process that I can’t wait for, and yet dread at the same time. For me it’s like a pressure cooker in my head, I can feel the whole thing building from the moment I first have the idea, and the more research I do, the more I think about the story, the closer the thing is to exploding. Then, one day, I’ll just sit down and write, and the story escapes like steam, rushing out so fast that I’m writing to keep up with it. It’s an amazing feeling, because some of the things that end up in the story seem to have come from somewhere else. They’ve been written inside my unconscious. Sometimes the twists and turns in the story are so surprising that I am shocked, because even I didn’t see them coming. I think this is my favourite thing about writing this way, you’re writing to find out what happens to these people you’ve spent so much time with, you’re writing because it’s the only way you can know how the story ends. In some ways, it reminds me of when I was a kid, out with my friends in the woods, just making up stories and acting them out and really believing there were monsters in the trees. It’s a wild, wild ride, and I love it.
But it can be hard, too. It’s difficult juggling those roles of writer and participant – you really feel like you’re inside the story, and sometimes I find myself waiting to see what will happen, waiting for somebody else to take the reins. You get so wrapped up in the story that you kind of forget it’s a story, and that you’re supposed to be telling it. When things really heat up all you want to do is bury your head in the sand, start writing another book, something much easier. But you can’t. Like the characters, there’s nobody there to save you, you have to plough on, keep fighting, keep writing. Those moments, where you’re in tears because you don’t think you can go on, where you have to watch somebody you care so much about die a horrible death – a death that you technically have the power to prevent – when you seriously don’t know what you have to do to save everyone, those are absolutely the most difficult parts of writing. And there were quite a few moments like that in The Fury. It is, without doubt, the hardest book I have ever had to write. But I guess those bits are what make the story worth reading, they’re what make the story feel real. I hope, whether people like the book or not, they know that I poured my heart and soul into it, blood, sweat and tears!