image of a drafty manuscript, a fountain pen and a cappuccino


Right now my aim in life is to finish the new novel by the end of the year, and to achieve this I have entered a period of cafe writing. It's the only sure way I know to push through the pain barrier which separates the halfway point from the finish line. To swan about in cafes when there is much to do may seem frivolous, but actually this is a very dangerous stage of the process - everything could go pear-shaped, it is tricky to negotiate.

In the beginning, the daily slog of writing a novel is fuelled by a sort of missionary fervour. Each session is punctuated by discoveries as the story, characters, landscape and atmosphere of the novel are gradually revealed. Thousands of words accumulate almost without effort. But it is vital not to seek to know everything, not rush the process of revelation. In the first year I squint a lot and allow the unconscious mind to make its contribution.

Eventually, the material that will make up the final part of the book must be acquired. Thirty thousand words. Forty. Once I have an idea of how it might end, the writing becomes a balancing act - to craft that ending while fending off boredom.

I am easily distracted at this stage, but in the cafe there is no email, no internet. In the cafe there is a time limit - the staff are busy and I cannot linger over a coffee, or even two, the entire afternoon. So I open my notebook. I take out my pen. The background noise becomes wallpaper. I have already chosen the scene I will write, one scene, how difficult can that be? And once it is written I take it home to the computer.

It is in this cafe phase, divorced from my domestic environment, that I amass the raw material that makes it possible to finish a novel, a wilderness of words in which ideas, images and themes will be flushed from the undergrowth in the slash and burn of the rewrite.

It is amazing how many blank pages can be filled in the time it takes to sip a cappuccino. My personal record is two-and-a-half thousand words in one session. Not all good words, of course, but rewriting generally sorts them out. Or cutting. Jean Rhys maintained that all writing problems could be resolved by cutting. But then, as my granny used to say, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, and for me the cafe writing sessions are one way of accumulating dozens and dozens of eggs, even if, at a later date, almost all of them will be broken.