Breakneck Speed

I like writing late into the night when the house is quiet. The early hours are conducive to getting into that brooding frame of mind. The witching hours when book characters step out from the shadows, without having to go searching for them. Let’s face it, it is hard to write about the dead of night and blood-curdling screams while downing a lunchtime cheese and pickle sandwich between emails.

Thinking about it, I am creatively ineffective before coffee time. And after lunch. And after work. Hmm, and often at work for that matter. Could it be that I am fundamentally undisciplined, a terrible time-keeper and completely disorganised? Well, it has been said and yes, more than once. I am full of admiration and not an insignificant amount of bile for those authors who can jump up at 6am and religiously write their 2,000 words before breakfast.

I am not an insomniac and normally sleep like a log. Which is odd really because when I was writing my debut novel Below the Strandline, I found that I had to urgently get my thoughts down well into the early hours. I never made it beyond four in the morning, but that was late enough. Maybe the sequel will see in the dawn.

On some of those nocturnal write-a-thons, I experienced for the first time the disconcerting feeling when a character grabs the wheel and takes control, leading it off in their own direction, not one that I had planned or consciously conceived. The poor sleep-deprived author just had to go along with it, scribbling it down quickly and suspicious of where it might lead, ready to edit it out in the cool light of day. Occasionally the diversion did make it to the final cut. The character had got their way in the end. But more often than not, I felt the need to wrestle the plot back and bring them into line.

It would be fun on a more casual writing project one day to give the characters completely free rein, to write loose and fast, without backspace or eraser. To let those lines fly off the page and just see where it might lead. It must be a similar mental zone to speed drawing.

To briefly explain, I signed up to a few tutored life drawing classes after work before the first Covid lockdown put a stop to it. Every one of the dozen or so artists standing at their easels had a different style. Some drawings were overly tight and heavy, others over-worked. One was textbook anatomical but bore little resemblance to the poor model standing there baring her all. My working area was the dirtiest by far, with broken charcoal and pastels ground into the floor. I drew at arm’s length at breakneck speed, hacking and smudging at the paper with charred willow sticks that shattered and flew all over the place. I was quietly pleased with the results and the tutor, a snowboarder and wise beyond his years, was encouraging of my free-style approach.

It would be enlightening to apply this free-wheeling method to a dialogue-heavy piece of writing, using sleep deprivation and a shot or two of vodka to release the imagination. I’ll try this approach with a short story on day, sketch out an opening scene and leave the characters to take it forwards, throwing words down on the page. A bit like falling without a parachute. The writing output might never see the light of day, but I’m curious to see how it will turn out.

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