Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland and the writer as psychic

Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead

On my desk right now: Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead

I got into Curtis Sittenfeld because of the cover of American Wife, which featured a nostalgic photograph of a hopeful woman in a skirt, on a bike, against a backdrop of some arable crop – it could be corn, or maybe wheat – and sky. It made me think of Dorothy in Kansas, but all grown up and without the gaudy technicolour magic. I kept seeing that picture in the supermarket until I bought the book.

After that I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s first and second novels, and then I was left waiting for her next, which turned out to be Sisterland, which the postman handed over to me last week, as part of a parcel of books from my publisher. (Thank you Harriet.) I finished Sisterland last night and, as I expected, I loved it.

Like Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, Sisterland is ostensibly about a story about a unique, even bizarre, situation but also, as if by sleight of hand – or, perhaps, in the shadowy room for manoeuvre created by a really strong hook – deals with something else. So American Wife answers the question, What is it like to be married to the President? And: What kind of woman ends up married to the President? But at the same time it tackles a number of other questions, which I can’t explicitly reveal without spoiling the book for you if you haven’t read it (in which case, get thee hence and tuck in), but which can be summarised as: what if you make a life-wrecking mistake when you are young? Can you recover, and if you do, will it still catch up with you anyway?

In Sisterland, the overt question – the narrative hook – is this: a psychic predicts a major earthquake. Is she right? Is it possible to accurately predict the future? But underlying that – at least, the way I read it – is another dilemma, and this is a much more universal one: is it possible to be feminine, a wife and mother, and also to use your gifts and be free? And if you have a gift and decide not to use it, what happens to you then?

Slippery doubles, twinship and writing

Sisterland sent me back to one of my favourite books about writing, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead, which talks at some length about the use of doubles in fiction, and why writers are so preoccupied by them. (Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is largely about a fraught relationship between sisters – and Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of my Dreams also explores this. But to take it further, to make the sisters twins and psychic to boot, makes it ever more apparent that you are dealing with two mutations of one self.)

There’s a passage in Negotiating with the Dead where Margaret Atwood draws a distinction between ‘the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.’

She goes on to say, ‘I am after all a writer, so it would follow as the day the night that I must have a slippery double – or at best a mildly dysfunctional one – stashed away somewhere. I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person – the one credited with authorship – is certainly not me. She could never be imagined – for instance – turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread, whereas I . . . but that’s another story.’

The twins, or slippery doubles, in Sisterland are Daisy and Violet Schramm, except when Daisy leaves home she decides she wants to distance herself from Violet (and, by implication, from her true self), and changes her name. Marriage helps, and when we meet her, at the beginning of the novel, she has become the altogether less distinctive Kate Tucker, who, as Vi points out, sounds like a Puritan.

Kate/Daisy begins to move away from Vi as an adolescent because they put on a show together and she plays the feminine role, and is afterwards praised for her prettiness. Popularity and acceptability beckon. She doesn’t want to be weird, and she certainly doesn’t want to be like Vi, one of whose gifts is a robust indifference to what other people think. (Also, Vi is overweight, whereas Kate/Daisy is meticulous about hitting the Stairmaster.)

And so Kate/Daisy ends up as a full-time wife and mother who has done her best to abandon her psychic abilities (but has she managed to destroy them entirely? Not quite, as you’ll see – gifts have a way of passing themselves on), a woman who is dangerously flattered, at a crucial point in the novel, when someone tells her how pretty and nice she is. Meanwhile Vi lurches towards celebrity, or notoriety, with her very public earthquake prediction – much to Kate’s embarrassment and fear.

It turns out that writing about psychics is a neat way to allude to the business of writing itself. Writers intuit what might happen to characters as the story goes on, though they don’t know for sure until it happens – and Kate and Vi are in much the same awkward and uncertain position. It made me smile when Vi, having achieved some success as a psychic (though, as it turns out, only with Kate/Daisy’s help), is able to make a living out of her gift, having previously struggled along as a waitress; some of the members of her old meditation group, who have not been quite so lucky commercially, are rather jealous of her. (I was wondering if something similar might happen if one member of a writing group found herself in a position to make the writing pay for itself.)

The art of making it real

Sisterland is unsettling, and creepy and funny and melancholy, and pulls off the coup of being both startling and believable. When I read, I want to be introduced to a new world and recognise it as true, while at the same time knowing that I’m being shown people and places that I’ve never seen before; Curtis Sittenfeld has the requisite twin gifts of truthfulness and originality in abundance, which is why she is one of my favourite discoveries of recent years.

Within the first few pages of American Wife I realised I’d found a new writer that I really liked, which is one of the great pleasures of reading. The best consolation for coming to the end of a book you love is knowing that there are others by the same author that you can go on to; and reading a number of different books by the same writer helps to confirm your sense of what is unique about them, and what attracted you to them in the first place.

It’s like getting to know someone by seeing them over time, dealing with different situations and environments; you can satisfy your curiosity about what this person has done in the past, and if the writer is still going strong, you’ll be eager to find out where they’re going next.

For me, and I suspect for most of us, this doesn’t happen all that often – this finding a book you really like, and chasing up the writer’s backlist. Back in the 1990s, it was William Gibson (starting with Neuromancer ), Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin), Raymond Carver (the collected short stories),  James Ellroy (LA Confidential), Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea), Jayne Anne Phillips (Fast Lanes), and Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde). Those are all terrific books, and if you haven’t read them, I urge you to at least look them up – maybe you’ll get hooked on those writers the way I did.

More recently, there’s been Claire Messud (The Emperors’ Children), George R R Martin (Game of Thrones) and, of course, Curtis Sittenfeld. I guess you might deduce from this list that, on the whole, I love genre fiction and women’s fiction (or rather, fiction by and largely about women), and my heart is unstirred by much else, and you’d probably be about right. Why exactly it should be so I don’t know. What exactly it is that gets me hooked I don’t know. Sympathy for the underdog might be part of it, but only part; I suspect I also respond to writers who let their underdogs bite back.

The two types of love story and After I Left You

love

Aphrodite, by my daughter


Here’s a narrative rule about love stories (but rules are made to be broken) – they usually work in one of two ways:

1.)    The romance. Boy meets girl, or man meets woman, but they are separated by apparently insurmountable obstacles: pride and prejudice, for example, or social inequality and a mad wife in the attic. Eventually the obstacles are overcome and the couple are united. Jane Eyre is my favourite example of this kind of story – it’s my Ur-romance, the one I read first.

2.)    Is the inverse of 1.) The couple come together some time before the end, and the drive of the story, as it turns out, is towards separation, as insurmountable obstacles come between the lovers and force them apart.

It can be (should be?) hard to tell which kind of story you’re reading till the very last page. Both use your uncertainty and doubt, and the suspense that creates, to hook you in and pull you through. Will they or won’t they?

My second novel, After I Left You, uses two timelines to give the same two people two different love stories. In the present, they meet long after the end of their relationship; many years earlier, they encounter each other for the first time. It’s not will they or won’t they, so much as: why can’t she (or shouldn’t she)? It’s not due to be published till January 2014, though, so if that’s piqued your curiosity, there’s a bit longer to wait to see how it turns out in the end.

Love and un-love, from Casablanca to Gone Girl

I have been told that readers, and viewers, like conclusive endings, and I think that is true, but some stories make a virtue out of uncertainty. Gone with the Wind is an obvious example: will-they-or-won’t-they remains as a final hope, a grace note, conferring a tentative immortality on the sparring lovers by raising the possibility that they may one day rebound together yet again.

Here are some other classic films that fall into the second type (where the lovers fall apart rather than together):

  1. Casablanca. Here the obstacle is War, the epic backdrop against which the troubles of three people don’t amount to more than a hill of beans. But as far as we’re concerned, of course, the individuals are epic, and the war is reduced to a horizon line, its details smoothed and miniaturised by distance.
  2. Brief Encounter. Surely one of the most heartbreaking of love stories. Here the lovers are up against not just society and its values, but also their own morality – the imperative to be good and sad rather than bad and briefly, selfishly happy. I agree wholeheartedly with Zadie Smith’s assertion, in a review published in her essay collection Changing My Mind, about what makes this film so distinctively English: when the couple decide they must part, most of their agonising final encounter is given over to politely passing the time of day with a busybody acquaintance. There really is no escaping other people.
  3. Love Story. Girl meets boy, they fall in love; then she gets sick. There is nothing like definitive loss to define what has been lost.

Every love story needs opposition – whether it’s war, ill health, other people, death – to tell us what love is. But love can be so mixed up with un-love (separation, isolation, anger, fear) that it is difficult to tell them apart. Gone Girl (which might more accurately be called a hate story than a love story) gets plenty of mileage out of our instinctive understanding of this: what possibilities lurk in the un-love we might prefer not to acknowledge?

When I studied Romeo and Juliet at school, our teacher pointed out how shrewd Shakespeare was to introduce a Romeo who professed to be in love with some other random girl, and was teased by his friends for being pathetic about it. When Juliet comes along we are in no doubt that this is suddenly the real thing. It’s mutual, for a start. It’s eloquent (it speaks in sonnets). The lovers are inspired, and transformed… but the odds are stacked up against them, in direct proportion to the strength of their feelings.

A blood feud is certainly an unpromising beginning to in-law relations. Not to mention the dawn that brings the lark and not the nightingale, the charm that works all too well, the message that fails to meet its destination, and, ultimately, mortality, the conclusion that waits to sever all lovers in the end (though in art at least, even that can be overcome).

What do we talk about when we talk about love?

Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a brilliantly concise, and oblique, answer to the questions that all love stories ask: what is love, really, and how do we know when it’s real?  The story introduces two couples, who are going to discuss the subject for us by invoking the stories of other couples, all the while knocking back stacks of booze.

First up is Terri, who is, as her husband Mel says, a romantic ‘of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school’. Terri describes an ex who beat her up one night: ‘He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, I love you, I love you, you bitch… what do you do with love like that?’ Terri is convinced this was love – ‘he was willing to die for it. He did die for it,’ but Mel is not so sure: ‘I’m not interested in that kind of love… If that’s love, you can have it.’

So then it’s Mel’s chance to have his say. What does he talk about when he talks about love? Well – I urge you to read the whole story to find out (it’s only 13 pages long), but here’s a taster: ‘It seems to me we’re just beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don’t doubt it… But sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too. But I did. I know I did… How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone would tell me.’

Also, if you haven’t yet, read (or re-read) James Joyce’s short story The Dead, about another lost love. See where it ends. See where the promise of love can take you. And see if the hairs don’t stand up on the back of your neck.

What readers want to know about writers (and Stop the Clock)

Book signing at an event at Wargrave Library in 2013

Book signing at an event at Wargrave Library in 2013

Meeting groups of readers is the closest I’ve come to having the stuff I’ve made up and stuck in a book come to life. Here, suddenly, is a group of women (sometimes with a few men!) talking about my characters as if they’re real people, who might walk into the room and join us at any moment. It’s a salutary reminder of how much readers bring to a book, and what a strange alchemy reading is.

Inevitably, readers have different ideas about books, just as we all have our own views of what’s going on around us in real life – otherwise, what would book groups ever find to debate? But often there’s some consensus, and sometimes readers have similar questions to ask writers. Here are some questions that I’ve been asked by groups of book lovers (most recently the Oxford branch of the National Council of Women, who had way more life experience between them than any other group I’ve spoken to, and were as perceptive as they were good-humoured).

Do you really write every evening?

As the press release for Stop the Clock explained, it was written between the hours of nine and midnight. That’s most nights from spring 2009 to around January 2012. But, if I’m really honest, not all nights. Sometimes Homeland was on. And sometimes I fell asleep when I put my children to bed. And sometimes I had just finished a draft and gave myself a week off to watch a DVD box set (hello, Game of Thrones).

I know lots of writers say you ABSOLUTELY MUST WRITE EVERY DAY or you will turn into a pumpkin. I’m sure this is very sound advice, along with the guidance that we should all exercise three times a week and eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. I don’t always manage those either. (Ahem. I think I’m better at writing consistently than either keeping fit or consuming fruit.) So the honest answer to this question is, mostly, especially when in a deadline panic. But… not always.

How much do you plan in advance?

I know one writer (a screenwriter) who won’t allow himself to start work until he’s figured out absolutely everything that’s going to happen and can’t bear to hold back from getting on with it any longer. I don’t work like that at all, though maybe it would make my life easier if I did.

Stop the Clock started with characters rather than plot. I had a rough idea of what each character was going to go through, but although I gave them a bit of a steer, I didn’t know when I first set pen to paper exactly how it was going to turn out. What happened to them over time became apparent over successive drafts.

My work-in-progress had a slightly different starting point, a revelation scene – a revelation from the heroine to the reader – that I wrote very early on. Much of the rest of the process of writing the book was finding out how the heroine got to that point and what happened to her afterwards.

I think perhaps I plan relatively little, and then have no option but to plot: to scheme, manipulate, form alliances, and generally attempt to manoeuvre my characters – and the reader, who is just as unseen and imagined – into the parts I envisage them playing. As I go along, sequences of events present themselves and I scribble them down. Not so much planning as ‘plot and jot’.

I also listen to music. That’s my secret weapon. There’s nothing like a song for giving you a short cut to a particular mood. It’s amazing how music can bring emotions to the surface in three minutes flat that a book will toil away over hundreds of pages to elicit.

Do you do much research?

I think this is a very shrewd question. The flip-side of it is, How much do you make up, and how much do you draw from life? And it’s almost impossible to answer honestly, because just about everything is research. And at the same time, when it comes down to it, I make it all up.

The research aide I relied on most heavily for Stop the Clock – apart from my magpie memory and years of conversation with interesting friends – was a table in Sheila Kitzinger’s The New Pregnancy and Childbirth which is designed to help you calculate your due date. It was quite a headache getting everybody to reproduce within feasible timescales and when I wanted them to.

I also like asking myself ‘What if?’ and seeing what comes out.

What do male readers make of Stop the Clock?

I’ve been particularly intrigued by male readers’ reactions to this story, which is so much about women’s relationships with each other and women getting to grips with motherhood – or thinking that they would prefer not to. Some of the very earliest readers were male – my husband, the poet Ian Pindar, and the novelist Neel Mukherjee, who both encouraged me to set about trying to get it published.

Since then? The reactions have been unpredictable and surprising. I think the warmest responses have come from men of around my own age who have young-ish children. There was the twentysomething who gamely gave it a go, and diplomatically told me that he realised he wasn’t the target demographic. Though the truth is, there wasn’t really a target − if you’re at all interested, you’re it! There was also the older man who observed that it was ‘a bit birthy’. Which it is… But that’s life, I guess!

In general, amongst my very favourite reader responses are: the reader who cried; the reader who missed a tube stop; and the reader who promptly booked a holiday to Cornwall. (One of those was male, two female. The man cried.) That pretty much sums up what I wanted the book to do: to make you feel, to make you forget yourself, and to take you somewhere else.

The archetypal story you’ll end up telling, whatever you set out to write

I’ve been working like a mad thing on my second novel (title tbc) over the last couple of months. The second draft is now done, so I thought I’d take advantage of the respite to write about a book that I discovered thanks to the poet Ian Pindar, my other half, who has a knack for unearthing interesting things.

This particular find is called The Writer’s Journey, and it’s by Christopher Vogler. It’s primarily aimed at screenwriters (it discusses various films, from Star Wars to Pulp Fiction) but would probably be interesting for anyone who aspires to tell stories, because it looks at the mechanics of how stories work.

It does this in two ways: it discusses a number of archetypal characters, and then it sets out the different stages of the archetypal journey that any hero (even an anti-hero) goes on. If that sounds reductive, it isn’t – the book makes it very clear that it’s all in the telling. Part of what creativity is about, after all, is putting together elements that are familiar and shared (and what is more familiar and shared than language?) in new and unexpected ways.

I won’t set out to précis the whole book, because the edition we have runs to more than 400 pages… and if you’re keen to explore what it’s all about in depth, you’d probably be better off getting it straight from the horse’s mouth. But here’s a selective taster.

Heroes: not always heroic, especially to begin with

The hero is usually confronted with an initial call to adventure, and to start off with, often resists or refuses the call. The hero(ine) of my work-in-progress does a fair bit of this – it really takes a lot to get her over the threshold and into the next stage. It’s as if there’s a force acting to keep the hero in place, to preserve things as they are, and it takes extra impetus to get them to go forward and to begin to change.

At this point the hero may encounter a herald, who announces the call to adventure; a threshold guardian, who makes the barrier between the hero and the next stage – the special world of the adventure – even harder to get through; and/or a mentor, who is there to help the hero on her way. All these roles are fluid, so the same character might take on more than one function in the story at the same or at different times; they are like costumes or masks that may be put on or discarded.

The mentor: the quasi-parental figure who disappears when no longer needed

The mentor can be a teacher, protector or guardian, serving a quasi-parental role; they are there to give the hero whatever insight is needed for the next stage of the action. The mentor’s part in the story may come to an end as soon the hero has taken sufficient information on board.

So, for example, in Game of Thrones, Sylvio Forel teaches Arya how to fight. His last piece of advice to Arya is to run, and she does, as he holds off the soldiers who have come to capture her. We don’t actually see him die (I don’t know whether any more detail emerges about his fate later on); we assume that he has been killed, but Arya thinks back to all the advice he gave her about how to be stealthy, alert and brave throughout her time on the run, so it is almost as if he is still with her.

Arya’s not the only character on a heroic path in Game of Thrones, mind you, not by a long chalk – it’s an epic spaghetti junction of individual journeys, at least some of which end in death. I’m only on the second book, and that goes for two of the heroes already.

Sometimes whole stories turn on the hero-mentor relationship – the film The King’s Speech is a good example. And sometimes the mentor function’s of imparting knowledge is partly accomplished by the hero spending a couple of hours on the internet, as in the sequence in the film of Twilight when Bella does her research and figures out what Edward really is.

Mentors aren’t always lovely and kind and inclined to do the best for their charges, either – they may not even want to let them go. Jeremy, Tina’s blunt and rather appalling boss in Stop the Clock, is a mentor of sorts, as is her married lover, but they are not exactly straightforward role models, and the lessons she learns from them are ambiguous and uncomfortable. Perhaps they both include a tinge of shadow (of which more later).

The special world: different to the ordinary world, not always in a good way

On to the next stage: the hero’s arrival in the special world. I love this concept: the special world is the world of the story, the place where change is possible, but it isn’t necessarily magical – it’s just different to where the heroine started out.

So, for example, Sara in A Little Princess starts off rich, and finds herself reduced to poverty and servitude, from which she eventually emerges having learned, among other things, how differently some people will treat you when you’re well-off compared to when you’re not (in the words of the song, Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out.)

Jane Eyre goes through more than one special world: Lowood, Thornfield Hall, the moors after her flight from marriage to Rochester, and St John Rivers’ house. For Thelma and Louise, the special world is the road trip; for the king and the therapist in The King’s Speech, it’s the treatment room.

Once you’re through to the special world, you’re particularly likely to encounter allies, tests and enemies, and the shadow may make a particularly forceful appearance. Jane Eyre’s already had Mrs Reed and John, her horrible cousin, to deal with: in Lowood there’s Mr Brocklehurst, shadow par excellence, whose hypocrisy and cruelty represent a kind of false goodness – false Christianity, even – that Jane will set herself against as she learns to trust her own heart and instincts.

Bella has James, the tracker, on her trail – and he finds her at the conclusion of a sequence which confirms her (sometimes unstable) alliance with the Cullen vampire family (when they go out to play baseball – what an all-American ally scene that is! – showing that they’re on the way to becoming a team.)

Here’s an interesting point about something that often happens at this stage: the visit to the watering hole – often, literally, a bar, as in the fantastic alien space bar sequence in Star Wars, which is probably one of my favourite film moments ever. The watering hole is a place where characters can clash (or flirt) and the truth may be revealed, like the cafe scenes in Stop the Clock when Natalie finds out more about Adele. (Allies – the pack of friends – have a huge role to play in my work-in-progress, and it has a lot of watering hole scenes.)

The shapeshifter: doubt, suspense, romance

Adele in Stop the Clock is a shapeshifter – Natalie is never really clear about what she wants, or intends (but then, Natalie is uncertain about her own desires too). Shapeshifters often crop up in romance: Mr Rochester even goes so far as to dress up as an old gypsy woman. They may be lethal (the femme fatale type). They bring doubt and suspense and are a catalyst for change (Adele is most certainly that).

The Twilight saga is full of shapeshifters, obv. I guess Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades books fits the bill, too, with a bit of mentor and shadow thrown in – is he a lover, or a horrible controlling sadist? He’s certainly in charge of an occasionally alarming special world.

The shadow: depending on your point of view

So… what about the shadow? Shadows aren’t necessarily all bad, and, indeed, in their own eyes, they may be perfectly reasonable (I’m sure Mr Brocklehurst thought of himself as a good man, a hero even, and regarded Helen Burns as a repository of villainous tendencies). Their function is to challenge and oppose the hero… and the hero may behave in a shadowy way himself at times.

The shadow’s story may be the inverse of the hero’s, with moments of triumph when the hero is at his lowest. I’ve just seen the film of Les Misérables, and was struck by how the relationship between the implacable policeman Javert and the former convict Jean Valjean follows this pattern.

Valjean goes on to forge a new identity, but Javert cannot bear to let him go. Valjean’s freedom torments him just as the prospect of a return to captivity torments Valjean. They represent wholly different and incompatible views of the law – Valjean believes in forgiveness, mercy and redemption, Javer only accepts the rule of right and wrong, and cannot contemplate the possibility that someone could be capable of change. Ultimately, one of them will have to be extinguished in order for the other to survive.

Shadows may come in unexpected (shapeshifting) forms; Cordelia in Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye is a monstrous shadow whose activities very nearly lead to the destruction of the heroine.

Ordeal and climax: life and death – twice over

Stop the Clock has a crisis scene that draws together the major characters about two-thirds of the way through. But that is not the end of the story, the final unravelling of the knots; for each character, there’s still a further confrontation to come, some more unfinished business to be dealt with.

The Writer’s Journey makes an interesting distinction between crisis or ordeal and climax. It quotes Webster’s definition of a crisis: ‘the point in a story or drama in which hostile forces are in the tensest state of opposition’. The ordeal effects a brutal and irrevocable transformation in the hero, and is a scene of death and resurrection. This is subtly different from the climax, a final confrontation, showdown or test which shows how the hero has changed and been reborn.

In Les Misérables, the crisis of the battle at the barricades puts Valjean and Javer on opposite sides of the uprising. It is followed by an astonishing sequence in which Valjean carries the injured Marius – his adoptive daughter Cosette’s hope of future love – through the sewers of Paris, emerging into the light to find Javer waiting for him.

There is a further climax to follow: Valjean must overcome his shame and tell Cosette who he really is. In doing so, he brings back not only Cosette’s mother Fantine – as if they have actually been a family all this time, separated only by death – but also the wider family of the comrades on the barricades. It’s like the sequence at the end of Titanic in which Rose returns the jewel to the sea and reclaims not only her long-lost love, but everybody else who was on board.

It may be that the point of the crisis is that it resurrects the hero, while the power of the climax is that it brings life back to everybody – even the reader (or viewer), creating a strange emotional rush that will send you on your way conscious that you’ve been somewhere else, and are now back in your ordinary world, but subtly changed. 

More tips for writers: how to get to the end

Here are some more tips for writers on how to get your first novel out. It’s not just about creativity and imagination – it’s also about stamina, bloody-mindedness and keeping on going. Inevitably you’ll have other demands on your time, so how do you fit it all in, and stay the course till you get to the finishing post?

It is quite normal to have to work for a living as well as write. James Ellroy was a golf caddy. Sylvia Plath did shorthand (for a bit). William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working the night shift at a power plant – at least, that’s what he said later. (Writers! You can’t believe a word they say!) You may not be able to crank out a masterpiece at quite such a breakneck pace – I certainly couldn’t – but you can definitely push out a first draft if you work most evenings over the course of a year. I wrote pretty much all of Stop the Clock between the hours of nine and midnight, when my children were in bed.

Don’t worry if what comes out to start with doesn’t look all that great. Write secure in the knowledge that you will re-write. A novel is infinitely perfectible. The words you scribble down on your notepad can be reworked, polished up, transformed into e-book or printed page – but only if you’ve set them down in the first place. You may find longhand is better to start with. A keyboard gives rise to the temptation to edit as you go along.

Take notes. All kinds of writing are useful for getting you in the habit: dry-as-dust research reports, accounts of fetes and conferences, long, crazy love letters – it’s all exercise of one kind or another. If you’re not ready to commit to a novel, try short stories, a diary, a blog, flash fiction, whatever. Keep pen and paper to hand, because when you’re in the habit of writing phrases will present themselves to you at odd times. Don’t lose them. Write them down as fast as you can.

Don’t believe the spiel about the enemies of promise. This was a list dreamed up by Cyril Connolly, and it included the pram in the hall and journalism. It’s a funny, well-written essay. That doesn’t mean it’s true.

It’s nobler to try to make something than to knock it – even if you fail. It is always, always harder to create something than to destroy it. Don’t let meanness or indifference put you off. The act of putting pen to paper, regardless of outcome, is what counts. And as Brendan Behan says in Borstal Boy, F**k the begrudgers.

Remember, as the screenwriter William Goldman says repeatedly in Adventures in the Screen Trade, nobody knows anything. Be prepared to listen to advice, especially if it comes from someone whose judgement you trust. However, when it comes to your work, others may be able to offer a view or a steer, but ultimately, you are the one in charge. You decide. You judge. You choose. As a novice writer, you are simultaneously without status and magnificently powerful.

When you put your shoulder to the stone, something magical happens: forces conspire to help you shift it. When I was a student I interviewed the polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes, and he said that when you commit to an expedition, however impossible it seems, things fall into place to get you on your way. That can happen with novels, too.

If you find it difficult to get started, try writing in bed. Like reading in bed, it’s a way of tricking yourself into thinking that you are resting and indulging yourself, and about to go to sleep any minute. It worked for Proust…

Carry on reading. But don’t force yourself to read books you think you ought to. Read whatever you like, and plenty of it. If you feel stoppered up, try a page-turner. I read the Twilight saga when I was writing Stop the Clock in the hope that the flow of it would rub off. Read books that are similar to the one you want to write and see how they’re put together. Borrow other people’s tricks and make them your own.

Keep going. Music can be useful to psyche you up and push you on, just as it is (I believe) for runners. Be stubborn and bloody-minded. You will be peculiarly pleased with yourself when you get to the end.

Here are some more tips on how to write a novel in next to no time.

Tips on how to write a novel in (next to) no time

Novels are time machines that take in hours from their writers and convert them into the ability to transport their readers elsewhere. They eat up evenings and weekends and whatever you throw at them. It’s amazing how long you can spend agonising over a couple of sentences. On the other hand, it’s equally surprising how much you can produce in just five minutes.

If you’ve got a job, and/or caring responsibilities, and want to write a novel but have no spare time, how are you ever going to fit it in? Part of the answer is sleight of hand. You need to kid yourself that it’s feasible until you’re so deep in that there’s no way you’re going to give up. You have to get over the hump.

Here are some tricks and ruses that will help to get you started and keep you going. The time your novel takes up is going to have to come out of somewhere, sadly; you’re never suddenly going to get a whole new load of hours in which to write it, unless a very wealthy and obliging patron comes along. So, what gives?

If there’s anything you routinely do that you don’t really like doing and would prefer not to bother with, why not cut back on it? In my case, that has meant embracing my inner domestic slut. The inner domestic goddess is no help at all on the writing front – we’re barely on speaking terms. And to paraphrase Rose Macaulay, better a house unkept than a life unlived (or a book unwritten).

I do feel ashamed of my writerly sluttishness, but console myself with the thought that Iris Murdoch apparently had a very messy house. And as for Quentin Crisp – he maintained that after the first five years, the dust didn’t get any worse.

You’re almost certainly going to have to cut some corners somewhere.

During your precious writing time, resist interruption. According to Anne Stevenson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame, when Plath was a new mother living in Devon she tried to write in the morning and leave housework till the afternoon. However, she was liable to be interrupted by surprise visits from the local nurse and midwife, who would head on upstairs and find Plath working away, undressed, the bed unmade, and the chamber pot unemptied.

The Person from Porlock called on Coleridge and Kubla Khan ground to a halt. If you can avoid letting the Person from Porlock in, then do. It may be necessary to cultivate a bit of writerly ruthlessness.

Be very, very selective about what TV you watch. Consider abandoning all reality TV. The reality you invent will be much more compelling. Maybe this will mean some holes in your water cooler chat, but you’ll manage.

Get to know some other writers. If one or two of them are published, so much the better. It’s proof that it’s possible. I met Jenny Colgan socially back in the mid-90s and a few months later there were posters for her debut novel up all over town. It happens.

One way of meeting other writers is to do a creative writing course, selected according to the funds and time you have available. The Arvon Foundation runs week-long residential courses that don’t cost the earth and there are various online options. Some terrific writers have done creative writing courses. Many have not. It isn’t a pre-requisite.

Set yourself a deadline and make sure that someone else knows what it is. The carrot – publication, praise, renown, money – is far off, and likely to keep on getting jerked out of reach, so a stick is more likely to help you on your way. A deadline is an excellent stick.

When I was writing Stop the Clock, I set myself the target of writing a chapter a month, for twelve months, at the end of which I figured I’d have a novel, of sorts. I handed over each chapter on the due date each month to a colleague at work (in a brown envelope so no one else would pick it up and start reading.) I missed one month’s deadline, which was when my children had chicken pox. Just knowing someone was expecting me to deliver spurred me on.

Find yourself a reader, or readers, but choose with care. With an early draft, you don’t need detailed feedback. That can come later. In the meantime, while you’re trying to get the damn thing out, ‘I liked that bit’ will probably suffice.

You may not need much more than to know that someone has read it. You certainly won’t want detailed criticism. Hint: your ideal reader will probably share some of your tastes and values, but is unlikely, especially in the early days, to be your spouse.

You will also need at least some people around you who believe that what you are trying to do is worthwhile, even if you haven’t yet shown them what you’re writing. If your spouse or partner is one of these, count your lucky stars. However, you should beware of telling the world at large that you are writing a novel. Play your cards close to your chest until you’re really getting somewhere. This helps to create the psychological space and sense of freedom you need to make stuff up (which is what you need to do for writing to cease to seem like hard work, and become a pleasure).

More tips to follow…

Destruction, revelation, survival: stories about writing

They say you should write about what you know… and one thing writers know about is writing.

Here are eight novels in which writing, or the desire to write, plays a sometimes destructive, sometimes liberating role. One thing’s for sure, writing in literature is not a fast route to a happy ending. Often it’s done in secret and then exposed. Sometimes it brings the truth to light. Usually, for good or ill, it’s an agent of change.

Look out for artists, actors and musicians in fiction – sometimes they’re useful proxies. Journalists, too.

In my book, Stop the Clock, one of the characters starts writing a newspaper column which causes all sorts of trouble. Her friends think it’s about them. Maybe it is. They don’t like it.

Frost in May by Antonia White

After Watership Down by Richard Adams, this was the second novel that made me really cry. Nanda Grey, a Catholic convert at a super-posh Catholic boarding school attended by lots of aristocratic Europeans, decides to start writing a story, which she keeps tucked away out of sight. She decides to make all her characters really really bad, and into various nameless vices (she doesn’t know much about vice so this requires some imagination) in order for their eventual redemption to be all the more dramatic. How does it work out in the end? If you don’t know, I’ll leave you to find out.

Antonia White wrote another three books about the same character, and they’re all very much worth reading. The last one, Beyond the Glass, describes what it’s like to have a mental breakdown and end up institutionalised, which was something else the author knew about.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

So: a first novel about the writing and publication of a first book, with dramatic results. Skeeter has an impossible deadline to meet, and faces an impossible challenge: persuading the black maids she is meant to be writing about to risk sharing their stories. Still, if Aibileen and Minny help her, maybe she’ll make it…

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

Until I read this I had the vague idea that Peyton Place was a wishy-washy soap opera. Then I discovered the book on which the long-running TV series was based. Published in 1956, it’s a pretty angry book about a pretty New England town where the falling leaves mask something nasty buried underneath the sheep pen… It’s like the world of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet 30 years later, where evidence of grimness lurks just beside the white picket fence.

One of the central characters, Allison, is a lonely innocent (played by a young Mia Farrow in the TV version) who dreams of becoming a writer. Her mother, Constance, grew up in Peyton Place, moved away, and then returned with Allison. Constance is doing her damnedest to preserve a facade of respectability, even though her relationship with Allison’s father (who worked in publishing) wasn’t quite what she would like others to believe.  And then Allison befriends local beauty Serena Cross, who knows a story worth telling, though for now she’s keeping it to herself…

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra Mortmain is hungry and penniless, but she lives in a (rundown) castle and has a journal to write in. She also has a beautiful sister, a daffy stepmother called Topaz (a former artist’s model), and a hopeless father who wrote a cult hit years ago, but now hides himself away and produces absolutely nothing.

Cassandra’s journal is going to be exchanged for a succession of grander volumes as her fortunes change (but at what cost?) This book includes a scene described by Antonia Fraser as one of the most erotic ever written, according to the introduction. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say it is not explicit.)

A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee

After his mother’s cremation Ritwik takes flight, leaving India and his brutal childhood behind for Oxford, where he has a scholarship to study English literature. One evening he is picked up by a stranger; he is afraid, but still goes along with the encounter, which is both vivid and dreamlike, absurd and otherworldly.

When he gets back to his college room a story presents itself to him. What if he were to write about Miss Gilby, the prim Englishwoman who made a fleeting appearance in a film, Ghare Bairey, that he had seen nearly ten years earlier?

Adrift in London without a work permit, he continues to pursue the story of Miss Gilby in India in the 1900s. She struggles to establish herself as a companion and English tutor to an Indian woman, and witnesses the unrest and resistance stirred up by Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal into Hindu and Muslim states.

Miss Gilby, like Ritwik, is a migrant, trying to live in an often unreadable world. But will they both be able to survive the time and place in which they find themselves?

The Ghost by Robert Harris

By the time you read this… what has happened to the writer? If what you write fails to please, or falls into the wrong hands, what’s going to become of you?

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The first Margaret Atwood I read. Features a story within a story within a story: but who’s telling what?