Like many authors I tweet, but I tweet less when I’m working towards a deadline, and not just because I’m avoiding distractions. The fact is, writing can be really quite boring to talk about. When it’s going well it involves sitting down at a desk and writing things and staring out of the window and writing other things, then reading it back and changing some of them. You do that for a bit longer, and then you go downstairs and have some soup, and catch a re-run of Father Ted while you’re eating it.
If I get stuck I might go and tidy up the kitchen or stick another load in the washing machine; when I get back to my desk something has usually shaken up inside me and come down a different way, so I can get started again.
You want to know why writers tweet about cats and cakes so much? Because if we came clean about what we really do with our days no-one would ever follow us.
Yes, this is my kitten. I don’t want to sound harsh, but when she fell out of the window it livened up an otherwise dull Twitter feed no end.
And it’s not just the mundaneity of the process which makes it poor fodder for conversation – it’s also the geological timescale it encompasses. There are, of course, wonderfully productive authors who write a book a year, and I’m sure their conversations are a lot more interesting than mine. But I take ages, and mine are like this:
Exterior: A primary school, Autumn. Parents wait for their children at the gate. An UNSUSPECTING PERSON is talking with SHELLEY
UNSUSPECTING PERSON: Hey, Shelley, how’s the book going?
SHELLEY: Yeah, OK. I’m on Chapter 4. Real progress today. My protagonist started in the kitchen but she’s moving towards the hall now. She’s definitely on her way.
UNSUSPECTING PERSON: That’s the same one…? The one you were working on back in January…?
SHELLEY: Yeah. What are you trying to…?
UNSUSPECTING PERSON: Nothing. I suppose you’re really busy with all the fun stuff, yeah? It must be so exciting!
SHELLEY: Well, I do have these different-coloured highlighters now. That’s been good.
UNSUSPECTING PERSON: No, I meant the…
SHELLEY: And yesterday, when I thought I might have a cup of tea midmorning, I just –BAM! – made a coffee instead. Totally spontaneous, just – BAM! And then I had the coffee.
UNSUSPECTING PERSON: I think the kids are coming out now.
There are people I see every few months, and it pains me more than I can say not to be able to entertain them with some derring-do I’ve indulged in since our last meeting. But there I am – still – sitting at my desk, spending a day producing two minutes’ worth of reading, inching it forward bit by teeny tiny bit. At least if I was building a cathedral they could admire the odd gargoyle on the way.
It is desperately unexciting almost all the time, and I do feel this must be a severe disappointment for readers who know about Hemingway or Hunter S Thompson. There are, for sure, the odd glitzy moments: my publisher throws a lavish winter party for all its writers; we slough off our cardigans, have the annual hair wash and spend the evening overcompensating for the other 364 days. This is primo, A-grade glamour I’m talking about: dinosaurs! the Hairy Bikers! Danny Baker!* It also happens once a year, people.
In this arcane ritual, we turn our backs on our bony god and worship Ian Rankin instead.
I’m sure some writers live a wild existence. These may be the ones who live in London and don’t have kids**. For the rest of us, we just feel lucky if we can keep the plates spinning for long enough to get a book written. To give you a recent – and very slightly bitter example, I was extremely excited about going to D E Meredith’s launch party next week – until my son’s new school announced an INSET day. Yeah, you can keep your literati and your smart book talk. I’d rather stay at home eating fish fingers and watching the Simpsons. Again.
* You can make your own joke here. I’m not going to do all the work for you.
**There’s plenty of space in the comments below for you to call me out on this, of course.