How many hours a day do you write?Two to twelve, approximately. There are more two-hour days than twelve-hour days, but I also work a seven-day week. (Yes, I have been known to take holidays, although not lately, but once I had a laptop, work came too. I find it weirdly comforting, having the thing with me, except when I'm worrying about airport xray machines or about all the bits falling out of the motherboard and settling in the bottom hinge, which is most of the time. Laptops, even in the minefield of computer reliability, are a law unto themselves. A bad law.) Fewer hours, usually, at the beginning of a book, when I'm first straining to get it down on paper. Even when it goes down fairly easily, when I know not merely the next word but the next sentence and maybe even—gosh—the next paragraph, it's an incredibly exhausting process. After two hours of this I have about as much vitality left as wet blotting paper (I feel as if I must look like wet blotting paper too: saggy and squishy and greyish and blurred). As the book gathers momentum—and pages and drafts—I can work on it for longer because there's more there to work with; I'm not trying to spin substance out of nothing any more. Mostly I don't choose what I write—as I say, the stories happen; it's up to me only to try and write them down, although it's a big 'only'—but once I've got something on paper and can begin to pay some attention to phrasing and word choice, then my conscious mind and my thesaurus can start to make their presence more or less usefully felt. My conscious mind also has to do the donkey work when inspiration has failed and, for example, chapter two should obviously come after chapter five, but how?, without making a total mess. (One of trickiest bits about writing a story is getting the connections to look inevitable. When I've managed to put a scene in the wrong place, it's not merely a question of putting it in the right place; I have to rewrite all the connections too—including checking all other scenes in the vicinity to make sure there aren't references to the newly-moved scene in its old location. And rewriting connections is a bit like reknotting the same tie or rearranging the same flowers. It's very hard to make the thing look fresh: the old creases tend to show.) One of the lines any writer is endlessly negotiating is when to let the story have its head—when 'inspiration' or whatever you might choose to call it will do the job—and when Conscious Mind should or must have a look-in. Some writers may accomplish this gracefully; I do not. If I can't 'feel' the novel today, does that mean I should let it alone and rewrite that short story that's been gathering dust for x years, or am I just avoiding a difficult bit? If I soldier on with the novel, on will-power instead of inspiration, will I get through the difficult bit or just force the storyline till it breaks? I've had storylines break and sometimes they are recoverable and sometimes they aren't, but it's always a depressing and wasteful business.
By the end of a book, when it's almost done and it and I both know it's almost done, I am just about living and breathing it and time away from my desk begins to feel make-believe, as if the book is the real world and my life is a figment, or maybe a TV commercial. And the working hours mount up. There's an actual suspense to this nearly-finished stage which I don't think I can describe; I really do feel as if I'm racing against some impending doom. The need for sleep and food (and possibly contact with other human beings) does provide a useful counterweight; now that I'm married (especially since it's to another writer who knows the dangers) I can't get away with total preoccupation the way I did before Peter. I'm also older. There have been ends-of-books I spent fourteen and sixteen hours a day over for weeks at a stretch, but I doubt I could do that any more, even if I didn't have a concerned husband dragging me away from my desk for my own good. Not to mention hellhounds to walk.