I recently came across this interview with Sarah Waters in The Guardian, about her experience writing The Paying Guests.
One of the best decisions I ever made as an author was to keep a writing diary, a record of each dayâ€™s advances, along with plans, thoughts and queries about my current novel-in-progress. Surveying this at the end of a project provides a fascinating vision of the evolution of a book â€“ though I invariably find that itâ€™s a catalogue of complaints (â€œhorrible dayâ€, â€œappalling dayâ€, â€œrealised that most of what I wrote last week was rubbishâ€), relieved only rarely by moments of insight and sweaty euphoria: â€œThink Iâ€™m getting there at last, thank Christ!â€
These journals are always substantial, but at more than 170,000 words my Paying Guests diary is only slightly shorter than the book itself
Although I can hardly put myself in the same company as Sarah Waters (whose amazing Fingersmith blew me away), I found a lot to relate to here. For everything I work on I start a â€œNotesâ€ file, and this doc becomes my confidant during the course of the project.
Itâ€™s usually a lot of griping or the place where I unload my emotions. I donâ€™t keep a journal, so the book diary becomes a record of all my thoughts along with whatâ€™s going on in the day-to-day.
For my Shadow Clock draft, I kept track of word count each day (because I wrote the book in one big Word file), how I was feeling (usually awfulâ€”reading back on Notes, I come off as a raging depressive). The Notes file is also my â€œwhat ifâ€ placeâ€”if I canâ€™t bear to work in the official file, I sketch scenes in Notes.
And then like a movie cast and crew who disband at the final wrap, once the book is done, the diary is done. Itâ€™s interesting to me, the Notes file is often about the same length as the manuscript, as if theyâ€™re twins, somehow growing in parallel.
Iâ€™ve sometimes thought maybe I should just keep one big Notes file about the whole of writing life. But I like looking in on each idea to see where itâ€™s stopped in time. So now while Iâ€™m waiting to see what my editor thinks of what Iâ€™ve turned in, I check in on another Notes fileâ€”itâ€™s like visiting another person in another world: full of excitement about an idea thatâ€™s just been waiting in suspended animation.