The photo shows the table in the coffee shop where I wrote most of the first drafts of my last four books, give or take. I’ve really enjoyed the juxtaposition between this quiet space and the places I’ve ended up on paper. The new book being published this year – Greensmith – has some really strange adventures in it, and I like the idea that this was the unlikely starting point for all that. Writing is just so weird, isn’t it? The unmatching interior and exterior life.
I don’t have a dedicated writing space, but I like lurking in the coffee shop in my village for first drafts. Sometimes I stay home and get set up at the kitchen table or by the sofa, or out in the garden if the weather’s good. I’m not keen on the idea of needing to be in a certain place to write. At one point I set up a permanent desk next to a bookshelf holding many of my favourite books, thinking it might inspire me, but it made me feel a bit presumptuous, so I gave that up.
Buses and trains are good for getting ideas down. I’ve written in lots of places and people are usually very good at letting me get on with it. Quite a few people have their own routines which involve my local café, and we tend to nod to each other and then settle down to work. I did have a running good-natured feud over a particular table a few years ago – in a different coffee shop – with a man who was writing his dissertation and had taken a shine to the table I also preferred at the time. Then I moved away. He might still be there, victorious, wondering if he drove me away. Or maybe not. I hope he got his dissertation done.
At home, if there’s housework or whatever to be done, then I can find it difficult to settle down and write, which I suppose is why I tend to go out. The internet really doesn’t help in some ways, but if I’m in a distractible mood then it doesn’t matter if my phone is within reach or not; I can end up ripping napkins into shapes or doodling for hours. Practically every page of every notebook contains doodles. It’s fine. I tend to think of it as part of the process. I like the very productive days but I try not to obsess over finding them.
I start with a longhand first draft, usually written in the mornings. Then I type up in the afternoons – not the thing I’ve written that morning, but something else. If I’m writing a novel then I’ll start typing up the first bits once I’m about 10,000 words in, for instance, to always keep a bit of distance. Or I’ll always have a short story idea on the go. I might go back to writing in longhand in the evening if I’m really grabbed by something, but I prefer to read later on in the day.
A bit of background noise helps (thank you, other patrons of aforementioned coffee shop). If I’m at home then I usually listen to jazz or classical music, or soundtracks. Music without words. So far this year I’ve been listening to Oscar Peterson and Monteverdi and the soundtrack to Phantom Thread (by Jonny Greenwood) a lot.
When it’s going well I love writing a first draft in which I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. There’s a time when I get past the distractions and there’s a background hum in the coffee shop, or some good music playing quietly at home, and an hour or two pass so quickly. Those experiences don’t always lead to the best prose, to be honest, and quite often they need a fair bit of editing to get them right, but I think they often retain a raw excitement for me. Maybe it doesn’t come across to the reader, but I can still feel it when I read them back.
The worst bit is the waiting. Any time when I get to write or edit, I’m pretty happy because I’m back into control of the prose. But waiting for edits or feedback to come from other people, wondering if they’ll spot some fatal flaw that makes the whole thing fall flat, leaves me a wreck. As soon as I get the feedback I feel better, even if there are significant problems. Then I can crack on with attempting to do something about it.
I’ve started work on a new thing which I think might become a novel and it’s got a hint of Daphne Du Maurier to it in my mind, which is why I’m listening to the Phantom Thread soundtrack a lot. Am I the only one who thinks that film has got a strong Du Maurier influence to it? I loved it. I’m hoping I manage to do this idea justice, but only time and lots of cups of coffee will tell.
Aliya Whiteley is the author of acclaimed and award-winning novels and short stories. Her latest novel, The Loosening Skin, is available now from all the best book suppliers and her blog is here.