How I Write: the Pull of the Sentence
‘It must be very different from writing academic work…’
This, or something very similar, is what many people have said to me on finding out that I’ve been moonlighting: surreptitiously writing a novel for children alongside my academic work.
If I were writing a scholarly article on this, I’d dig deeper that the first hit on Google; but for a fleeting barras scene, this is enough.
In many ways, they’re right. At least for the moment, I have no deadlines, other than those I’ve self-imposed. My creative writing still feels like a leisure activity; one that (as I wrote over here) fits into my reading time rather than my working hours. And certainly my approach to research is not scholarly. In a university context, I’d encourage my students to dig deeper than the first couple of hits on Google, a not-entirely-reliable reference from Wikipedia, or a book they happened to pick up in a second-hand bookshop. But for my novel – set in a city very loosely inspired by early 20th century Glasgow – I’ve taken a magpie approach to research. This approach has provided me with fascinating tidbits, such as when bananas become items of mass consumption in the UK (the late 19th century, apparently). If I were writing a scholarly article on this, I’d dig deeper that the first hit on Google; but for a fleeting barras scene, this is enough.
And yet, when I think about the assumption that writing academic articles is a very different process to creative fiction, I’m not so sure.
I typically start any academic article by mind-mapping all the concepts, contexts, secondary and primary research I want to include. At this point, I tend to have a fair idea of the overall argument I want to make, but the map helps me see where the weight of that argument might lie, and what the force of its interconnections might be. I started the novel I’m currently writing from a different place: with a character, up on a West End tenement roof. And yet very quickly – as my notes reveal – I’d created a similar map of some of the ideas and concepts I wanted to include in this children’s book. Big, sweeping themes: structures of power, parallel worlds of poverty and affluence, ignorance and wisdom, gender and class…
The pull of the sentence, for me, comes from wanting to find out where the ideas are taking me.
Equally, I don’t find the process of writing – at least writing line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph – that different. The pull of the sentence, for me, comes from wanting to find out where the ideas are taking me, or how I’ll get my characters out of whatever predicament they’ve found themselves in. I often don’t know where these sentences are going, though I have a sense of the bigger picture. The logic of the sentence unfurls; grammar requires a particular direction; one idea or plot twist leads to another.
At its best, this process of writing is a process of thinking through writing. I don’t plan on a micro level – I enjoy the sense of suspense and surprise, and the intellectual challenge of making things coherent and logical. At its best it makes my heart beat faster: at the daring exploits of my own characters and the jeopardy they’ve ended up in; but also at the ways in which ideas and argument are carried by descriptive and analytical language.
Discover more writing blogs in our How I Write series.