By West Camel
Split any writer open, and you will find, at her core, a tough little stone of doubt: doubt that her writing is good enough; doubt that anyone is interested in what she has to say. And, above all, doubt that her idea is worth her, or any reader’s, time and effort.
This doubt is fed and watered by the habits of the writer: working and reworking the same patch of ground; standing back and looking it; then leaving it, but thinking constantly about that strip of earth. And doing almost all of this in complete isolation.
For a writer to be presented with a project like Tibor Jones’s A Bicycle in Amsterdam was, therefore, to be offered a completely new way of working. Because, from the first ideas, through to the final draft, the book was a team effort.
Kevin Conroy Scott originally conceived of the idea of a young woman having her bicycle stolen after hearing a story from a friend. As in the book, this friend did, in fact, have her bike stolen in Amsterdam, and did receive a note from the thief.
Kevin decided to throw his idea at a pool of writers, and see what they could do with it. I was one of that original group: all of us unpublished at that point, graduates from MA Creative Writing programmes, serious about our writing, and carrying within us seeds, pips, and stones of doubt of various weights and sizes.
It was, at first, strange, and almost uncomfortable to be enlisted to write a novel that was not the child of our own, musings, passions and efforts. However, after only a few discussions, we began to create – not just character, plot, tone, and theme, but also a way of working. This way demanded a very different approach to writing from what our own novels and short stories normally asked of us. But at the same we needed to use all those writerly skills we had learned when tilling our own creative fields.
Just as we would when writing alone, we had to conceive, develop, accept and reject a host of images, idea and incidents. But now we had to vocalize them; now we had to persuade other people; now we had to encourage, cajol, champion, and, ultimately agree. The surprise was how quickly we came up with the essence of something approaching a plan for a book.
And then it came time to put pens to paper, fingers to keyboards, and knuckles to foreheads. And this was where, we all knew, the plan could so easily fall apart. Writing to time; writing to order: how could a piece of creative work be done in such a fashion?
But it was. And for a very simple reason, which became clear to me during my first writing stint. Produce three chapters in a week I was asked; take Edith (our protagonist) from here to here; and maintain the tone of the previous writer’s chapters.
It was as if all the doors and windows in my flat had been opened and soft breeze was blowing through. I was sitting at my desk, writing, as I always do, but the pressure of creating seemed absent. I was turning a phrase, visualizing a scene, searching for an apt word, rendering a nuanced emotion – but for someone else. For Annushka Jones. And I seemed to have forgotten that heavy, gnarly stone of doubt.
The first draft of BIA was finished. But now, as so many writers say, came the hard part: the edit.
And the edit of this team novel wasn’t without its difficulties. No offence to quilters, but a novel isn’t exactly a quilt. It was necessary to take these various patches – each beautifully fashioned and expertly worked in their own way – and make of them a unified whole.
The team was reduced to a knowledgeable core, focused on carving from the wealth of material the simple story of a young woman finding out who she is, and, most importantly, who she wants to be.
Once again, I was part of this team – smoothing out the tone of the book and giving Edith a consistent voice. And, once, again, the experience was a happy one: writing for Annushka Jones, it was almost as if I had actually extracted my personal stone of doubt and placed it in my desk drawer.
And this was when I realized that, perhaps, I shared something with Edith: being part of the writing of this novel has helped me find out the writer that I am; the writer that I want to be. So now, perhaps, I can take that stone out of my desk drawer, put it in my pocket and carry it with just a little more confidence.
A Bicycle in Amsterdam is available to download now from Amazon