You might then begin to read or research or think around this moment, this realisation. You will flesh out the idea, find it clothes to wear, things to say, places to go. You will walk around it, looking at it from different angles. You might not sleep much, at this stage. If you have trouble switching from your real world to your fictional one, try listening to the same piece of music, over and over again, until whatever surrounds you fades away.
If you get stuck – and you will – take a walk. Where isn’t particularly important: urban, rural, mountainous, sylvan, oceanic, crowded, isolated. Move fast, as fast as you can; something in the pounding of your pulse and the rhythm of your stride will release solutions and improvements. Or go to a gallery, a museum, anywhere you can absorb the ideas of others and get away from your own. Listen in to conversations, observe people around you – what they wear, how they hold themselves, how they interact. There is great solace to be had in immersing yourself in the tidal suck of others’ lives.
Remember, always, that to be a writer, you must first be a reader. Return to the well, as often as you can, to replenish yourself. If you’ve hit a wall with your work, go back to that of the masters. Read carefully, analytically, and work out how they did it. If necessary, like a mechanic taking apart an engine, disassemble a book you admire, analyse its parts, its components.
Towards the end, it will be graft that gets you through. Know that you will redraft and rewrite your work thirty, forty, fifty times. You will examine and agonise over every comma, every semi-colon, every adverb. You will have to mine all your reserves of patience and perfectionism. When I am at this stage, I am reminded of practising for my piano exams, as a teenager: all those hours and hours with my fingers on the keys, going over the derangingly familiar phrases, bars, accidentals: tinkering, polishing, perfecting.
When you finish, you’ll know your book inside out and back to front. You will dream its cadences, its images, its conversations. You will look your characters in the eye and ask them, did I get it right, did I come close? You won’t know until a few years down the line, when it gradually becomes clear to you where you hit the mark and where you didn’t. Every book teaches you something, at the same time as filling you with a desire to put this new knowledge into practice, to try again. It’s all part of the process.
Words by Maggie O’Farrell. Maggie's latest book is I am, I am, I am.