Not Losing the Plot

I’m sometimes asked how I manage to combine sheep farming with writing. A follow-up question is often about the difficulty of getting back into the swing of writing, after a period away from it. I suspect both would be answered in different ways by different people. Indeed, as time passes I find I’m developing different ways of coping with what is essentially a modern phenomenon: the need to multi-task. With me, it’s lambing or filming or gardening, but I suspect there are very few people who have the luxury of doing just one thing – and as they’d probably be monks or nuns, I doubt if I’d be reading their books, anyhow.

Again this will vary from one person to another, but I find I need to stay in practice with my writing. Even if I’m away from my laptop for just a couple of weeks, the words won’t flow quite so fluently when I restart. Incidentally , although I find that words generally flow quite well, I do have to edit and adjust a great deal. In fact I reckon I spend twice as long moving text and re-shaping sentences, as I do actually putting words on paper. I also find that writing technical reports and heavy-duty academic papers very much easier, as a writing process, than my more popular books. And fiction is the hardest of all, requiring a great deal of discipline. And it isn’t just a matter of readability. Certainly academic papers are almost expected by journal editors to be full of jargon and obscure, clever-sounding, phraseology – and strange as it may seem, that sort of prose is easier to write. It requires less thought to describe a straight ditch as a ‘linear’ than to state clearly what its original purpose might have been (say a field, garden or road boundary). The public wouldn’t let you get away with such language out in the real world.

I won’t go so far as to say that you have to practise writing like a musician: eight to ten hours a day, without fail, but it’s certainly helps if one can spend an hour or two every day at the keyboard. As followers of this blog will know from that disgraceful incident with the poultry tea-cosy, I do most of my writing early in the morning, as I’m doing right now, after my Good Friday dawn inspection of the lambing pens (when, thankfully, everything was quiet). This blog has proved a very useful way of keeping my hand in, as it were (perhaps not the happiest turn of phrase for a sheep-farmer in the midst of lambing). In the past I used to keep an e-diary, which sadly has withered and died. Maybe I’ll post a few entries from it, here one day. All of these things help with the flow of language from me to the written page, but they can distract from larger projects, too. And such distraction becomes worse at busy times of the year, such as now.

So this year those few early mornings when I’ve been able to escape for a short time to the laptop, have been spent working on my current book for Penguin. It’s all about bottom-up change and how ordinary people have affected the course of Britain’s development. In a way it’s a prehistorian’s reaction to the increasingly top-town, over-politicised governance that is so characteristic of Britain in the early 21st century. I had a bit of a rant in the Independent blog and, indeed, here. Anyhow, I did a quick word-count and I’ve managed to add about 7,000 words since lambing began. Now I know that’s not much, spread across three weeks, but it helps; but more to the point: I haven’t lost what is becoming an increasingly complex plot, with a series of inter-weaving themes and sub-themes. Indeed, that’s one of the difficulties of writing popular archaeology, that you don’t need to worry about with the more technical stuff: popular books need to hook and retain their readers and you can only do this through stories and a strong narrative thread. Descriptions and facts are all very well , and obviously you  can’t do without them in non-fiction, but they shouldn’t become the entire point of the book. If that happens it becomes, for me at least, unreadable.  And believe me, it can be very easy to lose the plot, even over a short holiday of a few days. In fact sometimes it has vanished over-night and the dreaded writer’s block of the next morning (or two) can be ghastly. When that happens I’ve learned to turn my mind to something else entirely – quite often this blog. Eventually my themes and thoughts return, and often they seem to be better than before the ‘block’ . So there can be an ‘up’ side.

Lambing in 2012 happened when I was working on drafts 10 or 11 of my detective/thriller, The Lifers’ Club. And frankly it was torture: I have an Excel spreadsheet to help me navigate the complexities of the various plots and sub-plots and somehow it got out of step with the time-chart which was on a Word file. So I had Alan Cadbury be in Leicester when he’d told his father in the previous chapter that he’d be digging a graveyard near Boston. Rather like the multiple births that were a feature of the last lambing, things became hopelessly entangled. To make matters worse, I also had several good ideas which I tried to work into the narrative, not always very successfully. In the end I decided I had to make the time to spend three whole days sorting everything out. And it worked, although I was very bad tempered for the first day, when everything seemed like a vast cock-up.

Meanwhile, back to the present. As I write, The Lifers’ Club has reached 42% of its target of 500 subscribers. Before lambing began it was increasing by 1% or 2% a day, but then it stayed around 41% for at least a week. So I’ve got to get off my bottom and get things moving again. I think my next target will be the local newspapers in the Fens. Let’s see what they can do, but I suspect it’ll take some time to get the momentum going again. So if you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe. In an ideal world I’d like to hit the target in May – ideally before I do Hay-on-Wye on Monday the 27th at 7.00, when I’m on the panel with the Unbound Live Road-Show (or some such).

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