This post has been written exclusively for Sassy Redhead Book Reviews. Thank you very much for the opportunity!
Catherine Fearns: My Writing Habits
I write in snatches; snatches of time, snatches of space. I never have a free day to myself, and there’s no private space at home, so I am an opportunistic, furtive, stealth writer; words always at the ready in my head. Five minutes in a supermarket queue is a chance to type a few lines on my phone. Ten minutes sitting in the school car park and I can jot a paragraph in my notebook. These writing habits are not borne of choice but of necessity. I’m a stay-at-home mother with four small children so my time is constrained by their needs, which are immense and different every day. But I don’t lament this at all; indeed if I wasn’t in this position I’m sure I wouldn’t have become a writer. When I had a normal job, a long time ago now, my head would be filled with that all day, and in the evening I would flop, mentally exhausted, in front of the television to clear my mind and regroup. There was no room for anything else, other than vague fantasies. But now I grab each tiny moment of headspace in my day – a toddler napping, a baby breastfeeding, a child late out of karate class – I combine it with my craving for creative stimulation, and words come together.
If I did have a whole day stretched out before me to write, I would probably waste half of it messing about on social media and procrastinating. As it is, I am focused and efficient, carrying a notebook wherever I go; in fact I find that the discipline of writing long-hand helps my focus. If I have research to do then I make sure the relevant books or print-outs are in my handbag just in case I get a chance to read. I have never considered using a dictation app, because I absolutely loathe the sound of my own voice! In any case, I’m a very fast typist and it takes me only minutes to type up the day’s scribbles on my laptop before bed; sometimes it is just lists of words, phrases and ideas, sometimes concrete paragraphs. But it builds and moulds and eventually a coherent story is formed. I would much rather end a day with 1000 words of drivel than one or two perfect sentences, so I don’t worry too much about getting it right in the early drafts.
I do my best writing when I’m out of the house; at home I have to write at the kitchen table and am distracted by household tasks and the internet. I prefer to go out and find a public space, and I discovered that I prefer nondescript, bland, liminal spaces to atmospheric or beautiful ones. My city is filled with hipster coffee shops and lake view cafes, but I find them distracting and I feel exposed; I prefer fast-food joints, train stations, park benches; places where I can tune out of the world and sit unnoticed. My current favourite writing location is the McDonalds inside my local indoor shopping centre. Cavernous, windowless, with the white noise of piped music and some surprisingly decent coffee, I go very quickly into a sort of writing trance. I can get down 1000 quality words an hour in there, and then do the grocery shopping on my way out.
I have only been writing seriously for a couple of years. There was never a moment when I decided to write a novel, I just suddenly had the urge to write, perhaps because it was the only thing I could do in the short bursts of time available. It began with a blog. The age of thirty-seven was a vulnerable time in my life; pregnant with an unexpected fourth child, a husband often absent with work, a few months from yet another move to another country as a trailing spouse, and the knowledge that I was still very far away from being able to return to the career I always thought I would have. I began writing the blog as a sort of diary, and the style was light-hearted but looking back, it was infused with pain and possibly some postnatal depression. The blog took its toll on my already-strained marriage, since my husband was suspicious of what on earth I was getting up to on my computer late at night. Sometimes I would wait until he had gone to sleep then sneak back downstairs so he wouldn’t know. When I finally showed him my writing he was very hurt; I hadn’t mentioned him or the children in the blog, but he still saw the outpouring of feeling as a betrayal. There was nothing suspicious about it though; for me this was a necessary catharsis, and in contrast to an outpouring it was in fact a taking back of the private life I had been denied for a long time. The blog coincided with me learning to play the electric guitar and rekindling my childhood love of heavy metal, so it became a sort of metal-parenting blog, and eventually led to me getting work as an online music journalist. This is where my writing confidence really took off; not only was my work being validated by real journalists, but it was being professionally edited, an essential lesson in discipline after the unwieldy freedom of a personal blog.
Reprobation was not my first attempt at a novel; a 60,000-word manuscript for ‘The Veilmaker’ lies hidden password-protected beneath a series of subfolders on my laptop. This was the unpublished novel where I taught myself how to write. I cringe to think that I actually submitted it to a few agents, and it has now been abandoned. Soon after though, the idea for Reprobation came to me unannounced, and I knew this one had potential. The book was written in a matter of weeks, in a flurry of inspiration, and fortunately was picked up by a publisher very quickly. No doubt in a couple of years I will cringe when I read over Reprobation as well.
My writing style is still developing. When I was a teenager my style was more florid and descriptive, but after university I became a financial risk analyst and any literary tendencies were quickly beaten out of me by the need for precision, conciseness and legal accuracy. I am still trying to get away from this enforced brevity, and my main problem with the first draft of Reprobation was that it was simply too short; I had said all I thought I needed to say in 50,000 words. With its sequel, Consuming Fire, I can feel myself becoming more expansive and descriptive; plus, I’m using some more experimental literary techniques, since part of the book is a gothic ‘found text’, so I’m writing some extracts in eighteenth century pastiche.
If I were to write this post one year from now it might be completely different. So far I have managed to become a writer, of sorts, without impacting too much on my husband and children, but I am starting to yearn for more structure and more time. I do feel that if I had longer periods in which to work I would reach coherence more quickly. I may have gotten away with one furtively written novel, but I can’t carry on sneaking around between McDonalds and the school car park and expecting to be a serious novelist. With the publication of Reprobation in October and Consuming Fire in February, the next few months are going to be seminal, and I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.