“What’s that?” asks my five-year-old, pointing at the typewriter gathering dust in the corner of my office. I look at the contraption. It appears genuinely ancient. The sort of thing that makes parents look antediluvian to their children, something that draws a line in thick indelible marker between us and through-coming generations; like LPs, cassette decks, Atari consoles and the concept of economic growth.
“It’s a machine for putting words on to a piece of paper,” I tell him. “You pull a lever and put a sheet in the top, then turn the roller to get it to sit straight for you. Then you press the keys and another lever flicks up and the letter you want appears on the paper.” There is a pause while he digests the information. Then an expression of wide-eyed amazement appears on his face and he gasps: “You mean it’s a machine that reads your mind!?” At which I make a note to myself that I really do need to improve my powers of description.
I managed to make him understand it in the end. I added some detail about ribbons, ink, the little strips of Tipp-Ex correction tape that you could use to erase mistakes. He got it eventually, although I’m also pretty sure he thought that - as a way of getting words on to a page - it sounded like an enormously convoluted process.
They send you the final proofs, and you are proud and afraid. Proud because it’s the fruit of your own labours; afraid because you have to let others read it
“The writing process” is what it’s all about here, that mysterious thing that lies between you and the finished article, whether it be a research paper, a thesis or column of random thoughts. I never used to give much thought to it before. I figured it was a pretty mechanical thing, like turning some handle inside your head and churning out the requisite copy. That was until, in a moment of weakness, I decided I’d try to write a proper book.
”Extremes,” I called it, a good strong working title. “Life, Death and the Limits of the Human Body” came the catchy subtitle. Sadly the next 100,000 words didn’t come quite so easily. If I had been using a typewriter (I did not - this is the 21st century after all) there would have been hundreds of balls of scrunched-up paper on the floor. It took me ages just to get started. And then - as somebody elegantly put it - you reach the point at which the fear of doing it badly is superseded by the fear that you might not do it at all. And even then it felt like tough going.
In desperation I asked other authors how they had managed. Everybody seemed to have a different answer. Nobody suggested it would be a walk in the park. In fact some of them made it sound like doing a tour of duty in Vietnam during the Tet offensive. But all of them talked about it as though it were a process, without ever being clear about what that entailed. (This, I think, is part of a cruel initiation ritual that experienced authors put newbies through.)
And so at first I was able to convince myself that anything was part of the mythical bloody process. Gazing wistfully from my bedroom window, having unusually long baths, watching the complete box set of Battlestar Galactica; in my mind I kidded myself that all that counted. But the metaphorical pile of scrunched-up paper kept on growing.
Consequently I never settled down to a routine. I didn’t become a nine-to- five author. There was no definite where or when. That’s part of the curse of the age of portable devices. In the days of the giant immobile typewriter I guess you set up shop in your house, shed or wherever and that was that. There was none of this wandering from café to café in search of wi-fi and blueberry muffins.
For a while it felt like I was never going to finish. And then you somehow get to the point where the roughly hewn blocks of text you’re laying down take shape. And you dare to hope that it might be OK after all.
And then one day they send you the final proofs, assembled like a proper book, with an index and some cover art and you’re suddenly proud and afraid. Proud because the text on the pages is the fruit of your own labours; afraid because you have to let other people read it and form their own opinions.
That bit was tricky. I gave the proofs to select mates to read first. I chose them carefully, handpicking people who I thought would be brutally honest, but in a tough-love kind of way. I think I did a pretty good job of that. One of them, having leafed through the first draft, handed back the manuscript with a bundle of notes and corrections and a firm instruction that I should never - ever - be allowed to try to use a semicolon again.
And so now it’s finished and printed and waiting to hit the shelves. It’s like doing your GCSEs, this bit. You hand in the work and then wait a couple of months for the marks. Almost as excruciating as the writing bit. In fact the writing of the book is a warm, fuzzy, almost pleasant memory now. And I’ve finally worked out what the process is. My little boy had it right all along. You press the keys on the keyboard and wait for the machine to read your mind.