Thursday, June 22, 2023

Weird Working Habits of a Thriller-Writer: Guest Post by Sabine Durrant

I will do anything to put off writing, so I have to sort of slide into it. I like to set my laptop up in a place where it will look as if it has arrived by accident. In winter, it is by the woodburning stove in the kitchen, where I can pretend I am actually busy making dinner. There is a sofa there, and a stool on which the laptop can perch, and a dog is usually in residence and maybe a cat. At the moment, though, the laptop is on my bed, which is next to a window overlooking the garden. I can pretend I am about to have a small nap – which I sometimes also do.

My other trick is to pretend that I still work for a newspaper, which is where I spent many years of my career. I structure my day like a journalist: a huge amount of prevarication and coffee-drinking and biscuit-eating followed by a spurt of extreme activity. When I am writing a new book, as opposed to rewriting and editing, I force myself to write 1,000 words a day, and I have to convince myself I’m on daily deadline to do that, that my editor is standing by and, as the hours tick by, that the night staff is waiting for my column. I’m not precious – I tell myself it doesn’t have to be very good; I can make it better later. I just have to get it down. At the Independent, where I worked in the late 1980s, when you finished a piece you pressed a button called “H&J’ and another called ‘Send”, and I still like to end a day with an “H&J and Send”.
Journalism is good training is other ways, too. Newspaper articles need to be succinct. You have to fit as much information, or nuance, into as few words as possible. I used to write a weekly interview at the Guardian and every item of physical description had to earn its place; it had to tell you something interesting or intriguing about the person in question. A very successful writer once told me that if you plan a book in advance, it’s much easier to write because you can pretend you are simply describing something that has happened. You already know what details are relevant in the story. Over the years, I have written two and a half books that weren’t good enough to publish and in each case it was because when I started, I didn’t really what the book was about. I spent far too much time and energy on ‘writing’ for writing’s sake. 
Other possibly eccentric working habits:

1)  I often have a bath at 2 p.m. 
2)  I listen to music loudly with noise-cancelling headphones. When I first started writing this was Mozart’s Requiem on a loop (Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic, 1961). Then, one wonderful day, I realised I could in certain cases also write to jazz, or pop or rock. It had to be a track I knew but was not yet bored of. I’m currently listening to Lizzie McAlpine. For the book before it was Elvis Costello. 
3)  I email bits of my writing to myself to try and see it with fresh eyes.
4)  I don’t read my reviews.
5)  I remember every nice thing anyone has ever said about anything I have ever written.
6)  I lie awake at night remembering the bad.


Sabine Durrant is a former assistant editor of The Guardian and a former literary editor of the Sunday Times whose feature writing has appeared in numerous British national newspapers and magazines. She has been a magazine profile writer for the Sunday Telegraph and a contributor to The Guardian’s family section. She is the author of several books, including Under Your SkinLie With Me, and Finders, Keepers, and her latest Sun Damage. She lives in south London with her husband, the writer Giles Smith, and their three children.

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