The conversation goes something like this:
(Grudgingly) ‘So what d’you do, then?’
Me. Thinks: ‘I’m a writer, I’m a writer, I’m a writer.’ Out loud: ‘Oh, management consultancy’.
‘Er … are there any more of those crisps?’
It’s a killer, every time. I understand Stella Rimington used to say she worked in HR, rather than as chief spy-catcher for MI5. It had the same effect.
Occasionally, out of boredom or desperation, I would try a different tack.
(Grudgingly) ‘So what d’you do, then?’
Me: ‘I’m trying to be a writer.’
‘Oh. So what have you published? Have I seen it somewhere?’
Me: ‘No. Nothing yet. I’m working on something. It’s a story about a girl who …’
The eyes glaze over. The gaze strays towards the place where the crisps might be.
Either way, I’m done for.
This lasted for ten years. But the feeling of being a writer on the inside and something else entirely, and guilty about it, on the outside, has persisted for thirty, since before I was in my teens.
I’ve written. I’ve written professionally, even. If you can count interviews and reports and meeting write-ups, which I do. I’ve written a thesis. I’ve written three detective novels, countless short stories and a screenplay. I’ve filled shelves full of notebooks with ideas and first chapters. I’ve written a LOT.
But not for publication, apart from a 500 word piece for a Times travel competition, which is still in my parents’ loo. Nothing that might hit a shelf in a bookshop. Nothing that I might spot a stranger reading in a bus or on a train. Nothing to justify my inner existence.
Until a few months ago.
All I can think of is that I started acting like a writer. No, I don’t mean drinking, hanging around louche clubs in Soho and practising extra-marital sex (although I have a feeling typical writers don’t do this sort of thing so much any more). I mean going to the library at 9.30 every morning, turning my laptop on and writing till 5.30.
Of course, not exactly that. I mean, going to the library, reading the papers, finding a café with wifi, checking emails and googling for a couple of hours, then writing till 5.30.
I started a blog. My fourth, actually, but the first that didn’t have a strong ring of management consultancy to it. This one had more of a ring of fashion to it – my favourite obsession after writing and children. I use it like stretching exercises. If the book won’t come straight away, and it normally won’t, I can jot down 1,000 words about something frivolous but important to me and gradually get the words working.
I also heard about Elmore Leonard’s writing approach on Radio 4. (Question: Where do you get your ideas from? Answer: tube posters and Radio 4.) According to the programme, he writes every day on a pad of yellow paper and scrumples up the pages that don’t work and throws them in the bin. By the end of the day, the bin is full to overflowing and he has some pages he can use. And I thought – well, if Elmore Leonard can write stuff he doesn’t think is up to scratch, I sure as hell can.
So I started throwing more away. Just because it was funny, it didn’t make the cut if it dragged the story off at an unnecessary tangent. Just because it perfectly matched my chapter plan, it didn’t make the cut if it wasn’t funny enough. Just because it was funny and on-plan, it didn’t make the cut if I’d suddenly made my narrator bitchy, which she isn’t by nature. And I didn’t simply amend the bitchy lines. If a scene had a bitchy feel to it, it went. And the next one was better.
As a result of which, I have 34 drafts’ worth of story and one manuscript that will go public. So I’ve got enough backstory to last a lifetime. Certainly to keep me going through two sequels.
I think that’s the key. I’m not a writer, any more than I ever was. I’m a re-writer.
Something else. Years ago, I did a screenwriting course. I couldn’t bear to study novel writing. After nine years of studying literary criticism at school and university, the idea of going to classes about how to write the stuff was too painful. But screenwriting was far enough removed to be OK.
I chose a course run by Elliot Grove of the London Raindance Festival. The lessons seeped through to my book. It was like being taught gymnastics and then asked to complete an obstacle course. Not exactly the same thing, but there were some tricks I could apply.
My characters would be in a scene, talking about something, and I could hear Elliot saying ‘show, SHOW’ – so they’d stop talking and go back and do it. A character wouldn’t be quite right and Elliot would be whispering ‘make her a guy, make her old, make her an angel’. Elliot believed in taking a story, shaking it up, intensifying the colours. Nothing was sacred. If the action can take place in three days, why not three minutes? How do the characters get from A to B? Who cares? Go to B. As long as you know how they got there, it will make sense.
I realise this is obvious to lots of people who study writing properly, but it was news to me. It helped a lot, though. It helped so much that the last ten drafts flew by.
So I’m not so much a re-writer as a re-screenwriter. Perhaps not a typical voyage of self-discovery, but it works for me. It works so well, in fact, that it’s created a new problem.
In September, my book will be on real bookshelves in real bookshops, with my name on. And unless we experience a Farenheight 451, they’ll always be there. Remaindered, possibly. Ancient, eventually. But always there.
It makes me so profoundly content that I hardly dare talk about it. As Elliot said: ‘Happiness writes white’. What is there left to say?
So the conversation now goes like this:
Grudgingly) ‘So what d’you do, then?’
Me. Thinks: ‘I wrote a book. It’s being published. If I tell you, I will self-combust from sheer joy.’ Out loud: ‘Er, I used to be a management consultant. Fancy a crisp?’
Sophia Bennett lives and writes in London. She is working on a sequel to Threads , when not playing with her children, visiting the V&A, drinking cappuccino, or reading Vogue and Grazia. She has also written for the Guardian. Threads, is published by Chicken House in September.
To visit her blog click here.
Photo credit: Sarah Whitaker