Wednesday, 9 November 2011


Being commissioned to write something for money is probably the dream of most authors of fiction. Few of us write anything knowing it will be published, or even if we’ll be paid for it. (I gather it’s rather different for scientific writers who have editors badgering them to write books for which there's a guaranteed market of academic libraries. Sigh…) No one had ever commissioned me to write before, so when Dr Paula Martin included this request in the job description of the CELEBRATE SCIENCE residency, I was excited. In fact, I felt honoured. Little me?...

Dr Paula Martin
These very pleasant sensations lasted until I settled down to write. I’d been asked to produce a mere 3000 words, but the work needed to be polished as it would be shared publicly. As I applied myself to the task, I realised I wouldn’t be able to work in my usual way. Normally I start writing fiction without many preconceptions about the end product. I always know it will be a novel rather than a play or a short story, but I don’t know how long it will be or what genre. I often know little about the plot. For me writing a novel is a process of exploration – of a group of characters, some themes and a skeletal story line. After one or two years and a huge amount of editing, I end up with something fit to be shown (tentatively) to my agent, a few family members and writing friends. After that, there’s another long editorial process before the finished manuscript – something between 85,000 to 125,000 words – can be handed over to my agent to sell, if she can.

So the gestation period of a novel is elephantine. Yet I find this timescale reassuring. You have one or two years to get to know your characters, have second thoughts, develop plot complications and most importantly, do research and digest it, so you can use it judiciously.

As it happens, we’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in which many writers – some professional, most of them not ­– will be trying to produce a 50,000-word draft of a novel in 30 days. I tried to do it last year and gave up halfway through the month at around 26,000 words. Although I can write fast, I discovered when I attempted NaNo that I don’t think fast enough to produce a novel in a month. It can take me weeks to establish a distinctive narrative voice and I need at least a year in which characters and plot can settle and mature, so I concluded NaNoWriMo is not for me.

Glass samples, National Glass Centre, Sunderland
Nor, I suspect, is writing to commission. I’d already been toying with the idea of writing about a stained glass artist and I decided to develop this for the commission in a context of “telling the story of science”, a theme that had cropped up in the writing workshops I ran in Durham as part of the residency. But because of the commission criteria, I felt under pressure to order my thoughts and package them in a certain way. I’d been asked to write a short story, but I had no experience of writing them. The 3,000-word piece needed to be coherent and entertaining. Ideally, it should demonstrate that Durham University hadn’t wasted their money asking me to write for them. This was a writing showcase for me, and I soon became aware that I was trying to put on a show. That doesn’t make for good or easy writing.

The gift of the commission soon began to feel like shackles for my imagination. After some discussion, Paula relieved me of the burden of having to write a short story or anything self-contained (though what I’ve produced is something like a short story and stands alone.) I told her I might be writing a radio play, or an excerpt from a play. Or it might be a bit of a novel. Or not. Paula was very understanding and agreed that the tail should not be allowed to wag the dog. I should produce whatever I felt inspired to write.

Reassured, I churned out a lot of dialogue without really knowing who was talking. (This is how I work out my fictional ideas. I don't know what I think until I see what I say. Or rather, what they say.) It was a bit like eavesdropping: fascinating to listen to, but confusing, because you don’t know what’s going on. A couple of characters were emerging, but without a novel’s extensive back story, they seemed like ciphers, mere mouthpieces for my ideas, which were risibly simplistic. I could already see that SIX DAYS was becoming a preliminary sketch for a novel about art, music, science and religion – a selection of my favourite themes – but was I really going to scamper through the Creation, plus the End of the World in 3,000 words?... Well, why not? I was writing about an imaginary stained glass window that covered the same ground without recourse to any words at all. I embraced hubris.

But then there was another hiccup. I discovered belatedly that I would be required to read my piece at the Durham Book Festival. Another honour, but I felt I had to point out that no audience could be expected to sit and listen for the 15-20 minutes I estimated it would take me to read SIX DAYS. In any case, my event was to be shared with poet Valerie Laws. There simply wouldn’t be time for me to read for a self-indulgent 15 minutes.

LG reading at Durham Book festival. (Valerie Laws on left.)
So I suggested an excerpt and went back to the manuscript to see if I could find 5 minutes-worth that an audience might be able to follow and enjoy. I couldn’t. I’d written the piece to work as a whole. There were no breaks. The wide-ranging conversation led on from one idea to the next, until the whole thing was rounded off nicely with a twist and a punch line.

Gloom descended. Anxiety followed hard on its heels. I began to consider re-writing, then realised this was a very bad case of the tail wagging the dog. The attention span of punters at the Durham Book Festival was dictating what and how I wrote. So I asked to be relieved of the obligation to read some of SIX DAYS in public. Paula was yet again very understanding and we agreed my piece would be posted, in its entirety, on this blog and on my website.

Relieved, I nevertheless felt a bit of a prima donna, but my difficulty had taken me by surprise. I’ve read from my novels at many author events over the years and I’ve never had any problem choosing excerpts ranging in length from two to ten minutes, because, I suppose, my novels are written in much shorter “thought chunks”. SIX DAYS had to stand alone and unconsciously, I wrote it as one indivisible whole.

Frosterley marble
So now it’s all over, what do I think about writing to commission? Well, despite my anxiety, I delivered the goods. I finished ahead of my deadline and the piece was over 3000 words (but not significantly over.) I’ll no doubt find out soon if Durham is happy with what I wrote ­­– though I wasn’t commissioned to write something anyone would like, merely something that was inspired by the experience of being in Durham, spending time with scientists. I did that, but the irony is, the most inspiring things about my residency didn’t make it into SIX DAYS. (I’m hoping they’ll make it into the novel, if it happens.) My 3,000 words didn’t encompass my wonder at the Cathedral’s stone forest of columns, particularly those made of black Frosterley marble, studded with milky fossils. Nor could I find room for the eerie sound of Saturn’s aurora, a recording played to me by the boundlessly enthusiastic Dr Pete Edwards after we’d been discussing the recording of Earth’s Northern Lights that features in my novel STAR GAZING. Pete also introduced me (at an appropriate primary pupil level) to helioseismology, which has not only become one of my favourite words, it has furnished the physicist-musician hero of my novel-to-be with an interest in “solar music”.

Dr Pete Edwards
But I’m afraid you won’t find these wonderful things in SIX DAYS. Not on the surface anyway. But they’re part of the underlying structure – invisible but essential. They need another year or so to grow and mature before they’re ready to face the world. SIX DAYS is about darkness and light, loneliness and the need human beings have to reach out to each other, to share ideas and enthusiasms. My novel-to-be will also be about those things and I hope to include much more, including the song of the Sun.

(Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be a bad title…)


  1. Wow! Thanks for this reflection on your experience of writing to commission, Linda. You have sparked so many ideas that I think I may have to write a companion post reflecting on my experience of commissioning a writer!

    So, for now I think I will limit myself to saying this:

    Yes, I do like SIX DAYS! I like it A LOT!

  2. Ooh, yes, please do post a companion piece, Paula and don't forget to tell everyone what a worry-wart I was (though I think I was *just* this side of Drama Queen?...)

  3. As a scientist, I feel I should re-assure you about the ease at which we get published.

    We do get published a lot, but we have to pay for the privilege. It's like the worst of the vanity press out there, gathering up the NaNo writers into the fold.

    Except we have to pay a lot. Typically $1000 for a ten page article. And then we sign away our copyright for the honour. And that is only if we pass the sceptical eye of the reviewer, who has a keen eye for our scientific endeavour, but often doesn't know grammar from their elbow. And the editor may refuse to publish your work because it isn't interesting, but will rarely provide any feedback on how to improve your work.

    Famous scientists get asked to write for money, but they are just as lucky, and should feel just the same joy at being commissioned, as a good author.

    I would love to write for money; for now I'm happy to pay to get the science out there.