I was in the pub with my brother a few months back and he asked me how you go about writing a book. We were, at that stage, reasonably tipsy, approaching that point in the evening when taking part in the pub quiz seems like a really good idea, even though there’s only two of us and I’m terrible at all geography questions. After all, how can you fail when your team name is Simply Williams? (Or Simple Williams, as I suggested afterwards).
My brother is a very practical person who thinks in, I think, a structural way. He works at the Globe Theatre making sure all the sets and props do what they’re supposed to, and designs awesome stuff with a 3D programme on his computer (he’s frighteningly clever, despite our general failure at pub quizzes). That sort of thing boggles my mind; I can no more design solid structures than I can juggle chainsaws or solve a Rubiks cube – I don’t have great spatial awareness, and tend to walk into the walls of our flat when I’m thinking a bit hard.
So I tried to think of a way of explaining it to him. I couldn’t at the time, because I was drunk, but I’ve been considering it since and I have decided it’s like this:
It’s like building a house in your head.
Only, you have to imagine all the parts separately, and then you have to keep imagining them all the time so the thing stays up. So, you have to create the foundations in your mind (for me, the foundations are probably the characters) and then you have to keep them there, solid, in your mind, while you build the walls and the floors and the windows and the roof (or the plot, the sub-plots, the side characters, the character motivations). And then when you have the structure, and you can see it all in your head at once without having a nosebleed, you can start decorating; you imagine the wallpaper and the hideous floral carpets, the curtains, the tables, the doors and the funky fireplace with a dead body wedged up inside it. You can see the details, like how a certain character speaks, their foibles and liking for cheese, and the theme is like the central heating system, winding through the house and keeping it cosy.
Eventually, you must be able to see the house in its entirety without effort. It must become as familiar and lived-in as the house you grew up in, and you will know what is hidden in every drawer and shoved down the back of every sofa, even if you don’t need to show that to anyone.
And that’s what our books become, I think; a home inside our heads. And if we’re lucky, other people will want to come and stay there for a while too.
Which is what I would have said to Paul, if I wasn’t drunk.