CORDELIA APPLEBY

Writer of children's stories, passionate about writing. Author of Black Water.

Travelling Blind

I didn’t plan Black Water. I just sat down and started writing it.

After a while I got scared, writing month after month with no idea where I was heading and yet too invested in it to turn back. I didn’t know who it was for, or what it was about or even where the story started. I kept thinking I’d written the beginning, then realise that I hadn’t and a lot needed to come before it. Consequently almost every chapter was the beginning once!

I wrote the story over and over in numerous different ways, each time finding new layers of meaning in it, until at various points the narrative became overwhelmed by ideas rather than following one through to its conclusion. It was like being locked in my own circle of hell.

I put the book together in different ways, and took it apart again. Characters came and went.

My readers asked, ‘Who is it for?’ And I couldn’t say. I wanted it to be read at different levels, so that it would appeal to adults and children alike. They said: ‘That’s ridiculous.’ ‘It’s too complex.’ ‘You can’t plan to write a crossover novel, it just happens’. They said I should target my readership more precisely and stick to that. They said I should give up on it and start again.

In despair, I wrote to Philip Pullman for advice and this was his reply: ‘The quick answer is that I’ve never given a moment’s thought as to who might read my books. Apart from being a great distraction, it’s a waste of time: you simply don’t know who’ll be interested, and you might be utterly wrong about it. You might think you’re writing a tragic love story, and you find people think it’s a brilliantly funny satire. My advice is to write as if publishers and readers didn’t exist at all. Aim to please yourself alone. That’s what I’ve always done.’

‘It’s alright for him, he’s made it,’ said my readers. ‘He can afford to think like that.’ But the more I thought about it, the more I thought he was right.

I don’t know what books other people want to read, I only really know what I like. And who knows what an agent might want? If I did what my readers suggested and gave up on what I was writing, which really interested me, in order to write something to please an imaginary somebody – there was no guarantee of success, and I would have sold myself out.

In any case, even though I didn’t know what the story was about, I had a commitment to it: I couldn’t let it go.

I was in a writing group at the time with someone called Marissa de Luna, who had as the motto of her website: ‘Write what you want’.

So I did, and I’m glad I did – because whatever anyone else thinks about it, it’s mine.

And in the end I found out what the story was about, and I made it the most powerful that I could at the time. That is why I write.

Thank you Marissa de Luna and Philip Pullman, for reminding me.

1 Comment

  1. I write much like you: little planning and lots of rewrites! I learned a great deal from writing my first novel and almost all what I learned, I learned the hard way. It’s easy to get lost and to start worrying about whether anyone will even want to publish it let alone read it, but I think your friend and Philip Pullman are spot on. If you don’t love what you’re writing and don’t have absolute faith in your story and characters, what’s the point in writing at all?
    Traveling blind is nerve-wracking but trust your instincts and you’ll hopefully find yourself in a wonderful place!

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