Kate Kerrigan is the author of 10 published novels, but she is having to completely overhaul her writing habits – she explains why…
“Up until recently my writing techniques went something like this: Come up with an idea for a book, develop it over a few months and make tons of notes and chapter charts. Then sit down and write the first draft, beginning to end as quickly and excessively as my little hands could type it. The speed at which I wrote and typed that first draft of a 100,000 word book could vary from six weeks to six months. But either way it was always done in frenetic bursts. sitting in bed late into the night, typing. With a laptop perched on my knees and headphones on for the rest of the family watched TV. Mostly, of course in my office, hunched over a chair and a small dark desk. My favourite writing position was surrounded by cushions in the sofa in my mothers drawing-room while she bought me in hot water bottles for my aching neck and cups of tea.
I loved being a writer because it meant I could work anywhere. Then I got repetitive strain injury and arthritis in my neck and now everything has changed. I won’t go into the boring minutiae of my physical ailments, (if you are interested you can read them in this piece on evoke.ie), just to say that for a writer to not be able to physically write has been a painful experience as much mentally and spiritually as physically.
The upshot of this is that I have found myself forced to write in a new way. I’m gone way past simple ergonomics, things like replacing my chair and raising my screen can only go so far to ensuring I don’t get any worse. I will never, ever use a laptop on my actual lap ever again. Those days are gone. I am currently having to master a new skill in the form of voice recognition technology. The only other two well-known writers who have written books in this way, that I know of, Terry Pratchett and of course the late, great Barbara Cartland – except her the VRT came in the form of a highly efficient secretary. Now, sitting in my €200 office chair, enunciating at my raised laptop screen watching as words like formidably are translated as ‘for a doubly’ over and over again, I wish I could find an intern willing to sit for hours and write down my musings.
It is difficult learning a new skill at the age of 50 but once I got over feeling sorry for myself and fighting the inevitable, I am finding this new way of writing is making me approach my work in a different way. Being a professional writer of fiction for the past 15 years means that I have turned this creative way of writing that I longed to pursue as a jobbing journalist, into a deadline chasing stress ridden day job. It’s a job I love, but it still sometimes feels like a chore. That is something that I could never have imagined In those days when I was slogging away on my first, (still unpublished), novel dreaming of one day being picked up by a publishing house.
Having to limit my time at the computer has almost brought me back to those early days when writing fiction was my hobby. I’m writing this new book, largely by hand in notebooks. It’s wonderful in this hot weather, sitting in my backfield looking out at the glassy sea over Killala Bay. It reminds me of days spent as a young woman writing bad teenage poetry in my grandmother’s back garden during summer holidays in Mayo, However, this week I can already feel the strain on my wrists starting to come from holding a pen. I will have to change tack again and start taking notes verbally and my iPhone which I can download through my Dragon Nuance technology.
So I write my first draft now in a hybrid way. Some with pen and paper, some typing – although less and less – and some verbally. It is disruptive but is also teaching me that the story is the most important thing not the means by which it is delivered. I am choosing my words more carefully. A strange advantage, one I was not expecting, is that my punctuation, which is usually atrocious, has improved. Having to speak out loud my commas and my full stops has saved me from incorrect punctuation caused by typing tics more than ignorance. That’s my story anyway!
Over the years I have become entrenched in routines around how I produce a book. Selling myself deadlines then sticking to them quite rigidly, my chapter plans and charts have been becoming increasingly stiff and intransigent over the years. I use the filing system Scrivener which I’ve fallen in love with because it keeps everything neatly in one place and allows me to number things and shift things around. All of these methods, and the fact that I could type anywhere, at any time in any place with my handy laptop, gave me a sense of control. What these seismic changes in my writing routines have shown me is that I can still write anywhere because where the book lives is in my head. Whether I am typing it writing by hand or speaking it out makes no difference. In fact, I have always read my work aloud at the end of every working day, usually to my mother either on the phone or in her house. Certainly my columns for the Irish Mail and my Sunday Miscellany pieces never get submitted until they’ve passed the aural test. Terry Pratchett said that his work took on a more conversational tone as a result of using VRT. I certainly know my editor will be pleased at not having to cross out those verbose descriptive passages I produce, generally out of boredom or worse, “showing off.”
I have written 15,000 corrected but as yet as yet unedited words of my new novel. I have until Christmas to get it finished. I’m confident that it will get done, despite the fact that I don’t expect my arthritis to be treated to the level of significant pain relief I’m hoping for before the book is due.
The editing process is going to be another challenge entirely. Interestingly, my editor at Head of Zeus, Rosie de Courcy, Maeve Binchy’s editor for 23 years, still works on paper. Her manuscripts arrived with me in huge envelopes by post and are covered in post-it notes and pencil marks. It seems appropriate somehow that she should have come into my life while I was writing The Dress and my arthritis and RSI was coming to a head. At first I was horrified at the extra work that literally cutting up chapters with scissors then filing them on the floor in long strips of A4 paper, then having to retrieve floating Post Its and type up lengthy handwritten notes. But in actual fact, I found myself so astonished at Rosie’s Luddite methods that I didn’t even take them on board before deciding to embrace the novelty of it.
Now, it turns out going back to paper is what was meant for me all along.
With this new book I have the opportunity to change everything. I have decided to embrace creativity and change. As an established writer I am deconstructing the way I write. I am hopeful that far from restricting me, my new aural technology will set me free.
My ambition for tackling my edits is that by the time they come round I will be working with wireless technology in front of a projected screen and be able to work through Rosie’s rewrites while pacing in my studio. I like the idea of words being as big as art on my wall. I like the idea of my stories having to be big enough and brave enough to match this new technology like the woman who wrote them.
(c) Kate Kerrigan
About The Dress
Lily Fitzpatrick loves vintage clothes, made all the more precious because they were once worn and cherished by another woman. Thousands follow her fashion blog and her daily Instagram feed. One day she stumbles upon an extraordinary story.
Joy Fitzpatrick not only shares Lily’s surname. She was a fashion legend, famed for her beauty and style in 1950s New York. For her 30th birthday, she is said to have commissioned a dress so beautiful that nothing in couture would ever be able to match it. She turned to a young Irish seamstress, called Honor Conlon, to create her sublime vision.
The Dress interweaves the passionate and surprising stories of three women. Joy and Honor, whose destinies are linked not only by a piece of timeless fashion, but by the ruthless love of one man. And Lily, determined to find out if the legendary dress still exists, and if it does, to bring it back to glorious life.
Kate Kerrigan will be facilitating four workshops on The Nuts and Bolts of Writing at The Linenhall, Arts Centre, Castlebar throughout November 2015.