Katy Regan: Every Book is Different
Now this is nice. This is pleasant. It’s sunny inside, a blossom-laden tree is lolling against the window. I’m sitting in my local cafe typing this, coffee and banana loaf on the go, enjoying the very act of creating something. THIS is what I signed up for when I became a writer.
It is still work, after all; I am still having to fully engage my brain and shut out the chatter of the Philosophy group behind me (I have been here half an hour and not understood one sentence the guy with the American drawl leading the group has said. I swear he’s not speaking in sentences) or the two women sitting on the sofa, one of whom is following the Dukan diet and going on about the evils of fruit (really?) whilst the other tucks into a piece of red velvet cake. I really want to punch Dukan woman on red velvet woman’s behalf; she is sooooo smug.
Anyway, apart from these (honestly now..) I am shutting out all chatter in order to work. Some people would argue this earwigging is work, since many a character has been born from listening in on other peoples’ conversations. I also have a terrible habit of staring. I like to look at peoples’ body language and faces. I like to watch how woman-eating-red-velvet-cake has one eyebrow cocked as she listens to Dukan woman. Please someone shoot me if I ever spend fifteen minutes talking about the evils of bananas.
Yes, definitely, this is what I imagined life to be as a professional writer: cake, cafes, noting peoples’ conversations in fancy notebooks from Paperchase, typing away gaily…
What I didn’t expect was what a slog it would be (a fulfilling, joyous slog sometimes but a slog all the same) or how tiring it would be (and I thought going into an office every day was tiring. I could at least hold a conversation after that, now it’s all I can do after a day’s writing, to slowly anaesthetize myself with wine and watch Saturday Night Takeaway On Demand, because anything else is too demanding!) The other thing I didn’t realize – the main point I want to make here, I suppose – is how no matter how tiring, how much of a slog, or how much fun it is to write a book, one thing I could rely on, is that every book would be different. Like starting a whole new relationship every year (because it IS one a year they expect from you. That is the job. That is the contract. You don’t just write a book ‘when you feel like it’, as one woman at a book reading said to me recently. I used to think that was how it was too..)
It’s something my agent once said to me when I was struggling with book two: “Don’t worry, every book is different”. I thought it was one of those reassuring things people say; a writing cliché a bit like, “a good way to create characters is to listen to peoples’ conversations in cafes.” Well that turned out to be true! And I can now report, so did my agent’s comment.
I have only written (almost) four books now (nearly five if you count the one I had to bin at 40,000) and am in no way a veteran or even a pro. But I feel like I have enough experience to realize that every book really is different and there’s a paradox in that, because I thought with experience, every book would get EASIER. I wasn’t interested in this ‘different’ business. Oh no. I was all about the EASIER. Because surely as you honed your craft, it would get easier. By tome number five, I’d be rattling it out in weeks!
Not so. In fact the reason this little session writing a blog has been so pleasant is precisely because the last two weeks working on book four have been so hard. I have just finished writing a chapter breakdown of the last third of it. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? I’ve written chapter breakdowns in a couple of days before. But this one took me two weeks of working solidly for eight to ten hours a day and even then, it was so unwieldy, it was more of a dissertation than a chapter breakdown… How could this be, I thought, as I wrote? How could writing book four be so much harder than book three? Surely that goes against the laws of nature? But as I said, every book is different; every book is like embarking on a new relationship, every year. You have to figure out the dynamics of this relationship, whether this new entity in your life is going to bring joy and make life easy, or if it’s going to be a total b***rd; keeping you up at night and leaving you with nothing left to give at the end of the day, if it’s going to start slow, come to a halt midway (this really isn’t going anywhere… ) or be all so perfect in your mind, but not translate in real life. And we’ve all had relationships like that.
I’ve asked myself why this book has been such a struggle. Maybe I’m doing something wrong? (many things, I should think…) It’s the first book I have written which has required proper research for a start: The protagonist is a mental health nurse which has meant a whole new layer of talking to people and sometimes I still only feel like I’ve scratched the surface, like I should have gone in there and shadowed a mental health nurse for six months. I have wasted (although I don’t like to call it wasted, I prefer to say, ‘spent’) weeks, barking up the wrong tree, coming at it from the wrong angle, trying to find out what the heart of the book is, and what it’s actually about. The structure has been a killer too: melding the past with the present, making sure the present time plot has enough pace, even when lots of it depends on things that happened in the past; making sure there is light and shade, even when the subject matter is darker than I’m used to, writing in the voice of a character who starts off sixteen and gets to thirty-four. Many times, I have thought, I can’t do this. Many times I have wondered whether this is the right book, but then I have remembered that every book is different….and there’s some strange comfort in that.
The last book, number three, was a breeze in comparison. HOW WE MET had a linear structure which meant I knew exactly where I was going; and the main characters (and I thought this was also a cliché until it happened to me) literally came fully-formed, like they’d been sitting around fermenting in my brain for years. Which they probably had. It was almost like, the outline of that book was in my mind and I just had to colour it in.
With this book, it’s been like, I’ve had to source the materials to draw the outline, draw the outline, rub it out several times, then import colouring materials from far off lands learning the language in order to do that as I go!! In terms of my second book, The One Before the One, the less said about that the better (I wrote it in five months after I had to ditch the original second book at 40,000 words) and I only really enjoyed the last few chapters. The first, One Thing Led to Another was partly autobiographical and it was my first, so the main issues there were learning how to write fiction in the first place, deciding how to fictionalize a story that had started life as a column, teaching myself dialogue and learning how to structure a story. Pretty basic stuff then! It’s a good job I didn’t attempt a research-heavy story too. I didn’t have to do any research, because I had lived it myself. Or lots of it anyway.
Sometimes, I wonder if I over-researched this book. If I bombarded my brain with so much stuff, I just literally lost the plot. The thing is, still, that I know there’s a story there, a story I really want to tell – it’s just how to tell it. I also know, I shall get there in the end with this book, just like I got there in the end with the others and like all relationships, it might have been hell at times, but hopefully (hopefully!) I will have learned something.
(c) Katy Regan
Katy Regan set off to an auspicious start when, at primary school in Morecambe, she managed to do what millions of other children don’t: get expelled. Unperturbed, she eventually managed to do rather well at school, ultimately heading to Leeds University to study English and French.
It was there that she discovered her passion for writing as features editor of the student newspaper.
After a brief stint at the Northampton Herald and Post, she fancied something a bit glitzier – and focused on a go-getting career in women’s magazines. Cue a move to London and a new job at 19 magazine as features writer. Marie Claire soon came calling, and, in her role as writer there, she undertook such challenges as spending ten days in the buff at a nudist resort all in the name of her craft.
Then, bang: she got pregnant by her best mate at the height of her roving reporter career – and life took on a whole new beginning. Seeing the creative possibilities, Marie Claire persuaded her to write a column for the magazine about her situation. It was called And Then There Were Three… Sort Of, and was so successful it ran for two years before being turned into her must-read blog. You can catch up with Katy here.