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The Strange Business of Writing (1)

Somerset Maughan once said "there are only three rules to writing, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are". And he was dead right about that. It’s a funny business to be in, and often, I find, a business that you’re not really in control of. If you’re a lorry driver, your job is to deliver a load from point x to point y, and barring accidents, it’s a pretty straightforward run.

For a lot of writers (and I’m one of them) you know where you’re starting out from, but you don’t always know where you’ll arrive (or, sometimes, you’re certain at the beginning that you know where you’re heading, only to discover – in the middle of the book - that you’re being pointed in the opposite direction).

How and why does this happen? I don’t know, but the more I write, the more I come to believe that while I don’t know where I’m going, there’s a mental satnav, hidden at the back of my brain, which has it all mapped out.

(OK, I admit these are all satnavs for motorbikes - in honour of the fact that I used to love riding them ...)

Thus, a character can often surprise me by saying something that I never expected him or her to say, and I realise that he or she is not the person that I thought he/she was (this is, I believe, something that happens to other writers).

When this first started happening, I used to think that I would have go back in the text and make substantial modifications, but then I discovered this was usually not necessary. I might not have known until page 146 that this particular character was traumatised by seeing the milkman having sex with his mother, but nevertheless, his earlier behaviour – as written by me! – clearly indicates that something like that must have happened to him.

Alan Bennett (a writer whose Hush Puppies I am not worthy to lick) was on the radio yesterday, and he said that when he was writing “Bed Among the Lentils”, one of the Talking Heads series, he did not know, until he was a considerable way into it, that the vicar’s wife was an alcoholic.

He probably didn’t, but I’m willing to bet that due to the work of his hidden satnav, anyone else reading what he had written to that point would already have realised that.


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