Writing in the company of strangers
Pre-pandemic I did most of my writing on trains and in cafes. I have a study, and I do use it, but the majority of my work was done while commuting to and from work. Journey time one way was around fifty minutes and I would arrive a bit earlier in the morning and start writing on the platform. I don’t need peace and quiet. Perhaps I did when I first started writing novels, but finding time was the issue, and this was a good chunk of time I had available to me. I adapted and learnt to write in the company of strangers, with all the noise and bustle around me.
When the pandemic hit and I started to work full-time from home, I was back at my desk in my study, in complete silence. I found this unnerving, and it did disturb my natural writing rhythm. The Kill Chain was the first novel I wrote in lockdown in 2020, and it was tough going, with little progress made from day to day. I recall I wrote a fifty thousand word first draft of The Copernicus Coercion in seventeen days while commuting by train. The Kill Chain took me twenty-seven weeks and then I realised I needed to rewrite in the first person. It was not a pleasant experience. I drafted the sequel of The Copernicus Coercion in October and November 2021, and that was a combination of some commuting and some desk time and it was completed in around five weeks which is typical for me, so I’m back to where I was pre-pandemic.
I’m back in the office one or two days a week, and I’m certainly getting writing done on the train. I’m finding it far easier now to write when in my study, but there is something about being back out and creating while being surrounded by people going about their lives. Cafes are cool places for writing. I know that comes over as a cliché, but I get decent work done in these environments, fuelled by coffee and the buzz of the place.
Writing is about protected time. In my case, I had to write on the train so I had to become accustomed to doing so. It was the ideal opportunity to create and I drafted ten novels while commuting. I wasn’t prepared for the shock of trying to create while sitting in a silent environment, but I’ve got used to it now. I do listen to music while editing, but only on the evening commute, and never when writing the opening draft. I don’t know why, it’s just what I do. I’ve never been the sort of person to listen to music while studying as I always end up listening and not studying. Editing while listening to music – songs or instrumentals, it doesn’t matter – I can handle. I don’t have noise cancelling earphones and still have the noise of the train cutting through, but it suits me.
I’ve just remembered while writing this. I wrote my first set of short stories while on holiday in Ibiza. I planned to write some stories when there, and at the time had decided that science fiction was where I needed to be at. I managed to draft six in six days before flying home on the seventh. Each morning I would go for a swim out in the bay and then go back to sit beside the pool on a sun lounger and write in longhand in a journal I had bought for the occasion. Yes, no laptop, very old school. Each draft was completed by lunchtime, and the afternoon was spent thinking about a new story and then the next morning I would write it out. I’m thinking I need to do that again one day.