Thursday 22 November 2012


What is writing like? Someone asked me this the other day and I’d honestly struggled to provide a decent answer. What does it actually feel like, on the whole, the act of being engaged in writing?

Button and hat-cord maker, Nurnberg, 1669
Later that week I was on a train heading eastwards with a pile of scribbles that I was trying to cohere into a short story, (at least once the crazy lady with plants in the luggage rack had got off at Romsey). The scribbles, so far, seemed to be amounting to the right kind of atmosphere, they sketched out a proper length and I could almost picture the arc of their finishedness neatly ahead of me. Now it was time to gather together the moment of crystallisation, or punctuation note, which I’d already planned quite a while ago on another piece of paper. I read through that, and thought it might work best as dialogue, straight from the voice. My biro marked out some arrows to help me remember what I’d decided. I drew a snail in the margin. But still something was missing. It became horribly clear that I needed a sub-moment; that in fact nothing was done and it would all have to be reworked if it was to work at all, to hang properly. But what was the missing thing? I read it through a few more times and the lacuna gaped at me all the way past Havant, getting larger and larger until it ate up the point of the scribbles. There was nothing in my head for that bit, nothing at all. The last of my coffee got cold, the fields outside slid by.

Suddenly a man moving along the aisle let out a loud, startling grunt and bent over to pick up something from the carpet right by my seat. ‘I need one of those!’ he shouted, delightedly, to anyone that had no iPod in their ears, and held up a white button in the air like a little trophy.

And at that moment I was struck by how writing is so often like that - always waiting for that lucky button to appear. At first it’s all about laying down the groundwork, preparing, limbering up with thousands of words, and then it’s just a wait for the right thing to come from nowhere, when you least expect it, like heading back from the buffet car in that jacket that doesn’t button up anymore.

Of course – what you come across might not be quite the right shade or size, but it might be useful. Some days there’ll be some kind of button, some there won’t, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the last few years it’s that you have to be looking, looking all the time, scribbling with the pen, staying alert. It’s not the camera that will steal your soul – it’s novelists. Novelists would steal any aspect of your life if it were interesting enough or relevant enough to whatever they’re currently doing – they’re out there, waiting to pounce on any fragment the unwary might let slip, to use straightaway or to save for later. There should be signage on trains like there is for pickpockets; Novelists operate in this area. Next time the person beside you is furtively scribbling something down – beware.

Jane Borodale’s novel 'The Knot' is currently out in hardback. She is working on her third. Her website is


Unknown said...

I love the button man! It's funny how tiny things make all the difference. With me it can be a snippet of conversation or a glimpse of a darkened alleyway.

Susan Price said...

I know exactly what you mean! And I've always found that people are extremely nervous and suspicious of anyone they see writing. You could be writing a shopping list (though, of course, you're not, but you could be) and they still get skittish and clam up.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, people are often nervous of me in case I put them into a book, but it is only part of them that I nick, and probably they wouldn't recognise it. My characters are most of all made out of bits of myself, a kind of multiple personality order, if you like.. then there are the other people who WANT you to put them, or their life, or something that's happened to them, into your next novel. I always say to them that they should write it themselves..

adele said...

Lovely post! Love the button image.

Mark Burgess said...

Great post, thank you. I just loved the idea of that sign - a bit of cheer on a blusterous afternoon in Somerset!

Theresa Breslin said...

I enjoyed reading this so much. Once on a very long train journey a girl across the aisle from me made a remark to her friend which triggered something in my brain. I wrote like a fiend on the outward leg and finished the (short)book on the return journey. They'll never know but you're right Jane, there should be signs on public transport about Careless Conversations being Noted by Novelists.