There are a couple of questions writers are often asked – ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and ‘How long does it take you to write a book?’
The first question has no definitive answer – except ‘I don’t really know.’ But even that answer isn’t the whole story. Most of my novels emerge from a tiny kernel of an idea that has popped into my head as I read or listen to people talking or watch the world go by. One idea, for a book I’m just starting to write, simply pinged into life as I stood at the self-checkout in Sainsbury’s (‘Unexpected item in bagging area…!’).
Sometimes that tiny kernel will lie dormant for months or years until it begins to uncurl itself and develop gradually into a story on which I can set to work. All right, I know I’m getting my metaphors a bit mixed, but bear with me…
One novel, exceptionally, began with a dream. Most dreams involve oneself in some bizarre situation, but in this case I was simply looking on, observing characters and a relationship in a tiny series of incidents. It was this dream that eventually found itself at the heart of what became ‘Disordered Land’ (what happened in the dream takes place about half way through the book).
But that idea, and that novel, took a very long time to emerge in its present form. Most of my historical novels have taken about two years in all to write, when you take research into account. Contemporary novels have generally taken more like a year. The romances often took just a matter of weeks.
But I wrote the first version of ‘Disordered Land’ back in the early seventies, before ever I was a published writer. It was very, very long (much longer than the final version) and got a definite thumbs down when I offered it for publication. The manuscript then sat in a drawer for many years, while I wrote other books and saw them emerge into print.
But the characters from ‘Disordered Land’ continued incessantly to be part of my inner life, working out their stories in my head even while I wrote of other people and other times. In due course, I tried writing it again, in the early eighties, but version number two didn’t get anywhere either.
And then at last, about five years before the Millennium, the story was at long last accepted and published.
Was I satisfied? No, of course not. I suspect no writer is ever wholly satisfied with the finished novel, even when it’s a runaway best-seller (didn’t even JK Rowling admit she wished she’d done the odd thing differently with the Harry Potter novels?). I’ve always had the feeling that, for all its many versions, ‘Disordered Land’ would have benefited from yet another re-write.
Then came my chance – the moment of scanning and editing for conversion to an ebook. Did I take it? Not entirely. I’ve found it’s not that easy to rework a book written long ago. I did tinker with a few things – particularly where I’d since become aware of an anachronistic thread within the book.
But in the end there was one thing I meant to do, which I found I couldn’t quite bring myself to do after all.
I think that on the whole ebooks need to be rather shorter than print novels. When you’re reading a book on a Kindle, it’s not so easy to skip the bits that don’t interest you, and for some readers of ebooks a long novel is a bit daunting. ‘Disordered Land’ is very much a long historical novel, for those who are really interested in history. Its aim was to give a wide view of the Civil War, as it affected so many different people and places in so many different ways. One reader of the print book, a Civil War enthusiast, wrote to me to say it was in his opinion the best novel he had ever read about the English Civil War. But for anyone without a great interest in history, simply looking for a romance or a light read, it might not seem so ideal.
So I thought perhaps I’d issue the ebook in an abridged version. But I soon found I just hadn’t the heart to spend so long on re-writing it as I knew I’d have to, if it was still going to make sense. It’s the book I wrote after living with it for decades, and I loved writing it. So it’s staying as it is, more or less, in the hope that some readers will enjoy it as much as my enthusiastic fan did long ago. No book’s going to please everyone, after all.
In future, when I’m writing a novel I shall have the ebook version in mind, and I know my books will be shorter, and different in many ways. It’s odd really, as I don’t think I’d realised before that a writer does after all have a readership in mind when writing, even though she’s writing for herself first of all.
But then this new world of ebooks and self-publishing confronts the novelist with a whole lot of new challenges and experiences. That’s all part of the fun.