On writing and the room of requirement
Guest blog by J F Kirwan
Some people write five hundred or a thousand words a day, every day, come rain or shine. I’m happy for them. Whatever works. But that’s not my writing process. I only write when I have the inspiration. No inspiration, nothing to say (or write). But when you’re writing to a publisher’s deadline, this approach can get a little scary…
I’m a psychologist, and during my training I studied creativity. The biggest breakthroughs, e.g. by Nobel prize-winning physicists, were often a product of years of bashing one’s head (figuratively) against a wall. Of course there was a ton of painstaking research as well. This is how I still think of writing: there is the skill, which every writer has to master, and there is the spark, that ‘aha!’ moment where you realize you’re onto something and your writing takes off, and you can’t type fast enough…
I’m a Harry Potter fan, and I always liked the concept of the ‘room of requirement’. If you really need something, it will come to you. But you have to really need it. It is as if the conscious part of your brain, where the skill resides, must do a deal with the other part of the brain, the creative but not particularly eloquent part. Left and right sides of the brain, if you want to simplify it. But how do you get them to talk to each other? How do you convince your creative-but-dumb brain to work with you, especially to a deadline?
When I was a kid, I used to go to the cinema every Saturday morning with my older brother, and watch The Adventures of Flash Gordon. Every week, by the end of the episode, Flash would be about to be killed. There was NO WAY he was going to get out of it this time! But next week he did, only to end up in some equally dangerous situation twenty minutes later. But I’d have to wait a week to see if he lived.
I write thrillers. Thrillers are meant to thrill, to have you on the edge of your seat, to make you sweat, to have you flicking the pages as fast as you can read, not wanting to put it down, because you absolutely need to know what happens next… So, I don’t know what other thriller writers do when they are writing. Perhaps they write in a leisurely fashion, sipping from a glass of Merlot, relaxed, having planned out every last detail months ago, writing to a trusted formula. Perhaps. But what I do, is push myself into a corner, and spend a week thinking, okay, how is Nadia going to get out of that one? It creates tension, and I let it build. And then I wait. What do I wait for? How do I know when I’m ready?
I’m waiting for the line.
I wake up one morning with a line in my mind. A single sentence. Literally, it’s there in my head, and I ‘read it’, I turn it over a few times, and then I get straight out of bed, fire up my computer, and start typing. Fast. Here’s the line I woke up with this morning:
Jake awoke in absolute darkness
In the Nadia Laksheva series, Jake is Nadia’s on-off love interest. The line came with a concept. Jake thinks he’s been blinded. And so I wrote the first paragraph in ‘stream of consciousness’ mode, as he tries to suppress rising panic because he really can’t see anything. Three hours and three espressos later, I had a two and a half-thousand-word chapter. And where had Jake ended up by the end? You guessed it. Worse off than at the beginning.
Writing like this – urgent and raw – has other benefits. When I’m racing to get it down, I’m not spending any time trying to pad out my writing, or letting the pace slow, or trying to use clever dialogue. Of course I have to do a lot of editing later, make sure of the sense of place, polish everything, merge everything into the larger plot, etc. But that primal sense of urgency remains, and the most common feedback I get is that the books are fast-paced, page turners, hard to put down. Not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure, but this is the only way I can write.
Maybe one day it won’t work. Maybe the room of requirement will be empty. Or maybe that’s the whole point, and that’s what actually makes it work. I don’t know. I don’t want to know. As I said before, whatever works.