The Coalmine



The dizzy lights of fireworks on Hogmanay are fading, the New Year is stretching its shoulders and cracking its fingers, reading to really begin.


It’s probably bad news to commit myself to a deadline (the deadline as institution, as a concrete space that squeezes down on you as the days go on) BUT in the spirit of a fresh start, I will. This is going to be the year I finish my final draft of Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts. I’m within grabbing distance of a good draft of the first 100 pages. They’ve a polish and a spikiness to them. The character, frail, violently-minded, grieving, livid, now walks around breathing on her own, so I just have to get her to walk towards the end line. I have to keep typing her steps.


What about the last 250 pages?







I think it’s important to mark the turning point of a book, where you as a writer feel it IS at last, however partial, a book that will be done. Enthusiasm gets you through the early planning and first draft. It might be so good! It’s all stem cells, all raw potential. Despair sets in for the next few more edits, when you realise you haven’t quite written that work of compelling business you were hoping for (although, if you have enough ego perhaps you do? You know which writers I mean.) Then the slog begins. The point at which you might turn back, stop chipping away in the dark. But in the dark, you throw up little sparks of light. Maybe it’s the coal seam gases (the cabin fever, the marathon runner’s blood deoxygenising) but you keep hopeful. You think, someone will read this, one day.


I’m writing it for that pit-ghost, someone.


When it’s good. When D has checked I stuck to my outline. When Drea thinks it’s ready. Then someone will read it. A ghost at a computer. A busy ghost, with a dozen other mss to read. Beyond that, the ghost of someone who finds the book years later on a shelf in the library and thinks, hmm, what’s this?


I think most literary writing is the writing to ghosts. So we have to have some kind of belief in possibles. In hypotheticals. We can drive ourselves to distraction with hypotheticals. What if, when, who will read this.


But all we need to be doing is typing, chipping. All I need to be doing, for the next month, the month after that. In between reading and work and gulps of outdoor air and music in my ears and chatter.


Resolution. Resolve. Steady hands. Writing out loud about it, so you can see.


You’re my pit ghosts. You’re my someone.


In the dimness, the little white sparks off some of my words keep coming.



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3 responses to “The Coalmine

  1. We writers go about our passion in so many different ways. Helen, I was struck by the line ” When it’s good. When D has checked I stuck to my outline.” I tried outlining. Failed miserably. Couldn’t get my characters to follow the script!
    Another point that struck me was: “I’m within grabbing distance of a good draft of the first 100 pages.” My first thought was, ‘how I envy her’. In a novel that took 4-5 years to write, my first 100 pages in years one to three became the middle somewhere in years 4-5—again, I couldn’t control my characters.
    My favourite line is, “I think most literary writing is the writing to ghosts.” I read an interview with Markus Zusak (author of The Bookthief) somewhere. If I remember correctly, he said he writes to himself., ie., with the belief that no one would be interested in reading the book, so he was free to be as creative and spontaneous as he likes. My apologies if I’ve mis-paraphrased, but the thought struck me–who do we write for? We all want to be read, but I suspect, like Zusak, great writing comes from letting go of a need to identify the ghosts.
    Wonderful post to start the new year–thankyou!

    • Confession: I wrote the outline after the third draft of the ms. I think it’s nearly impossible to write one without knowing your characters first. I wish I could do it before and stick to it.

      It’s hard to escape the ghost of a hoped-for reader. But I think you might be right, we have to try…

  2. Yes, a wonderful post to start the writing year. I write what I need to read and, discover by writing, who I am. Ephemeral as I go and solid as I finish.

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