Sat at his computer, behind a newspaper, playing chess on his little chessboard against Kasparov via Teletext, my Dad would disappear for hours. Dad, we’d say, to alert him to the fact Countdown was about to start. Dad, we’d say with a tad more urgency as someone was at the door. Dad! we’d yell, irritation setting in, as the cat hacked up a sicky furball. DAD! He’d blink, lightly frown, shrug at our red, hostile faces. ‘I didn’t hear you,’ he’d say.
He wasn’t lying - or hard of hearing. From an outsider view, someone in hyperfocus seems to be extraordinarily rude. Worse than rude, downright ignorant, thoughtless, mean. They must think very little of the other person to ignore them like that. But now let me explain what it’s like from the inside.
As I write this blog I am, as I usually am, on the sofa, under several cats. There’s the racket of building work outside and children stomping about. My husband is playing music I don’t like. And yet, as soon as I start typing, it all fades to nothing. Absorption is immersion. I’m in the depths of the ocean with all the beautiful, colourful words. I have one of those old diving helmets on. The ocean is silent, but completely captivating.
You can call to me, I won’t hear. Hours go by. Lunchtime comes and goes. I become aware I’m thirsty or need the loo. I’ll just write this little bit. Another hour passes. The need for sustenance evolves into hunger pangs and a dry mouth. You pat me on the shoulder. I look at you and appear to listen to what you’re saying. But I’m only just surfacing, that slow ascent out of the water to avoid the bends. My helmet is still on. I don’t hear anything you just said.
Sometimes the call of words pulls me back down again. A cup of tea arrives. It goes cold. The need to pee becomes an emergency. I surface at last and yank off my helmet. You tell me, in a slightly annoyed way, that tea is ready. I’m surprised you cooked me eggs. ‘But I asked you if you wanted eggs,’ you say. You did? Oh. I never heard.
This is, like it was for my dad – and my sister too – hyperfocus at work: a peculiar ability to intensely and deeply concentrate on a task. It’s sometimes thought to be a trait in ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) – something I don’t have – and autism. Research into it is exceptionally and surprisingly limited. I write this in case it’s of interest to others and also as a way to celebrate it. I see it as a gift, although many may view it as a “problem”, especially when the focus is on less desirable activities or it’s a continuous state.
So how is it a superpower for me? Don't get me wrong, I totally sympathise with my family; there’s a great deal of patience required to live with me, to not take my ‘absences’ personally, to not get angry that I haven’t responded. I neglect basic self-care, annoy the people who matter most to me – just as my dad annoyed all of us growing up. But, ah, I finished that book. And I can tell you in good detail the news item I just read. I wrote – wow, pages. I edited a whole chapter. I got things done. That’s why it’s a superpower. Hyperfocus essentially means productive. I have never understood why people procrastinate or say they sit staring at their laptop, getting nothing down. I’m not saying what I write is a masterpiece – far, far from. If only hyperfocus meant brilliance. It doesn’t. But it does mean I can work intensively and not get distracted.
Hyperfocus for me is about words. I am an artist too and hyperfocus doesn’t exist in my painting world. For instance, I know writers who have soundtracks they play when writing books. That would be entirely pointless to me, who hears nothing when writing. However, when painting, I do hear. I can put on Spotify and sing along. I can hold a conversation. I am focussed but I’m never hyperfocussed. My pictures are the surface. My words are the beneath.
Hyperfocus is a gift to me. Just don’t try and speak to me when I’m there.
I've been thinking a lot about illustration recently, wondering if I can combine my love of drawing with my love of writing. But can I only do that if I write for a younger audience? I love writing stories for teens and young adults and those books don't have illustration - or do they? Lately, things seem to be changing. A handful of books aimed at YA readers have been published with illustration showing publishers are prepared to print them.
But why? Why is it necessary to have illustration in books aimed at young adults? For me, the answer lies in my own experience of reading as a child and then as a young adult, which I suspect echoes many other people's experience.
I was a really late 'independent' reader despite loving stories. When I was very young, my favourites stories to have read to me were the two Mogs: Mog the Forgetful Cat written and illustrated by Judith Kerr, and Meg, Mog and Owl written by Helen Nicoll and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski. Unable to read the text, independent 'reading' for me, like many young children, was spending a long time reading the illustration. This is all very normal. It's accepted that for young people, illustration is vital to engage their minds and help decipher the text.
So what happens as children start to read more independently? At MG (middle grade) level, the amount of text increases while the illustration remains, albeit on a smaller scale. At middle grade, I was still bewitched by story. I loved Ramona and The Worst Witch, skipping difficult words and making up any confusion with reference to the pictures. I wrote and drew story after story (appallingly spelled!) The illustrations were part of the story, not an addition. They helped me make sense of what I was writing and they gave me ideas for where the story could go as I went along. I vividly recall hating it when the teacher 'made' us write the story first and then, if there was enough time (which there often wasn't) we were allowed to draw a picture. It's an incredibly backward way of thinking about the link between illustration and text and one that persists unfortunately, once past the picture book age.
And it gets worse, the older you get. My desire to properly read only happened when I was 11 (yep, 11!) I was in my final year at primary school and until that point, I was a hugely unconfident reader. My love of story was undiminished so this lack of enthusiasm I believe came from needing to wear glasses (which I was horribly self-conscious about) and a fear of not being able to read as well as my older siblings. But then I was 'forced' by my teacher to read and review five books by Joan Aitkin. The first few I skim read but then I found her book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and my future love of reading was sealed. Would I have been able to get so absorbed by the story without the brilliantly sinister and dark illustrations by Pat Marriott? I believe not. I reread the book as an adult and the text isn't easy. I know at the time I struggled over many of the words and their meaning but the atmosphere of both Aitkin's words and Marriott's pictures, transfixed me. It didn't matter that I couldn't read every word. And that's how illustration can help the older, less confident reader. I'd suggest they help any reader.
Oh, and then secondary school started and I was thrown into 'text only' stories, many I fell for in a passionate way. But no illustrations? Why was illustration suddenly an absolute no-no? Why was it perceived as a babyish 'addition'? I didn't know and I still don't know why this perception is only just changing. Illustration is like the rising agent in the cake. It is not the superfluous, decorative cherry on the top! For readers like myself, who find text overwhelming, off-putting, or down-right alienating, illustration is a window to the story.
My youngest son is dyslexic. He uses illustration, as I did, to decipher the story, to give clues as to the action, the character, the theme. I believe he'll always have a preference for illustrated stories. Fortunately, as he gets older, there are increasing numbers of older, illustrated fiction. A Monster Calls tackles the weighty subject of cancer. The dark, angry illustrations by Jim Kay are a profound necessity - even if the original print run didn't have them. And Tinder, by Sally Gardner (who, incidentally, is dyslexic) has wonderful illustrations by David Roberts that not only add mood and setting but also break up the text and - best of all - weave their own character until you don't know what's telling the story: the words or the pictures. Of course, it's both.
There is a place for illustration in YA fiction. For many readers, it is an absolute must to engage them, help them and make the story accessible. It is not a regression, or an embellishment. Illustration is a part of reading.
Writing is hard. Getting that first nugget of an idea on to paper is exciting then quickly exhausting. If you're a writer, the process becomes obsessive. You think about scenes whilst cooking tea, you stop mid-walk with the triumph of a fresh solution to a writing dilemma. You basically start living your story. And then that glorious day arrives when you have that story down, the whole thing, and you think, with a sigh of self-congratulations and relief, that you've done it.
Ah. But then you re-read it, or you ask some encouraging friend or relative to read it, and then comes the blast of truth: what you've written is a mess. My first draft was overloaded with adjectives and adverbs. What do you mean I shouldn't use words ending in -ly? It was also full of plot lulls and holes. And the whole thing was written in third person when first would be much better.
So, I began systematically rewriting. I took out a few darlings (though not many) and worked and reworked scenes, changing characters as I went, adding in new ones. As with my paintings, I'm not terribly precious about my writing. I can be quite cavalier. I horrify my family with how easily I can tear apart a seemingly finished painting because it's not quite right. I take the same approach with my writing, tearing out parts that haven't worked and not worrying too much, trusting my instinct.
Rewrites done. And again, that wonderful sense that I've finished.
Ah. But, another read through, some more trusted opinion and no, of course it isn't finished. More rewrites. So having spent countless hours rewriting the first draft, you're doing it again, cutting out the sections you'd not long ago added in, taking out a character you'd though would add a fresh dimension but hasn't. So what was the point of those first lot of rewrites when all you're doing now is rewriting again? Were all of those hours a waste of valuable writing time? Short answer, no.
When we rewrite, we are polishing, honing the story, clarifying scenes, perfecting dialogue, editing out plot holes. When we rewrite the rewrite, we're doing the same thing but this time (and this is important to remember when you're pressing delete on swathes of polished, unworkable writing) you're GROWING your writing.
Imagine the first draft as the shoot from the seed of an idea. Second draft, leaves unfurl, third draft, some hard pruning but the shoot grows thicker, stronger, taller. Fourth, fifth, hundredth draft (the number of drafts all depends on how you work - it's not a reflection on how 'good' you are as a writer) your story is a confident, resilient tree.
You simply can't grow a tree from a seed in one draft - however much we'd like to hope we can. Rewrites are the rings inside the trunk of the tree. They become invisible to the reader of your final draft, but they're in there, in your writing, making it strong.
Lots of successful writers tell new writers to be fearless. I think that's especially true when rewriting. Never keep something just because you've spent hours writing and polishing it if it's not working or is no longer relevant to the story. Never mind that you're deleting hours of painstaking work. You've not wasted your time. You've spent those hours creating, nurturing, growing, the final draft. The final, euphoric, ah.
How much time do you have to write?
About two – three hours a day, it depends what time I get up. I like writing in the early morning when there’s no pressure from anyone – sometimes from 5am.
Do you keep a working notebook for writing ideas?
Yes. I LOVE notebooks and jumble them up with sketches and found pictures and quotes. They are messy, rumpled objects that I find beautiful. As well as notes, I write short stories or writing exercises by hand because I find that immediacy works best in short bursts of about 2,000 words.
Which writers / genres do you enjoy / follow?
I like books that were either written in the past or are set in the past and even better if they have a romantic thread. I can like anything though. It’s more about liking the writing style than anything. I’d much rather read a lyrical book than a plot-driven one. I tend to read more by an author if I’ve liked one of their books. I love Edith Wharton.
What type of fiction do you avoid / dislike?
Sometimes there’s a lot of hype about a book and I just don’t ‘get’ it. I tend to avoid horror and find murder / crime difficult to read.
What are your reasons to write?
I grew up in a large, decrepit house with my two older siblings and our parents, spending vast amounts of time at home, playing dolls with my sister, cricket with my brother, and writing short stories about my toys and cat. I liked being alone in my room, imagining worlds and describing them through poorly-spelled words and felt-tip penned illustrations. Navigating this world meant learning to be highly attuned to every nuance; my family never gave much away. It’s made me hyper-alert to what’s not been said, to every flicker on a person’s face, every muscle tensed. It’s made me want to describe these subtleties and make sense of people’s inner worlds – or at least try to.
Why write a novel?
I like the challenge. Although I’ve written five manuscripts before, I haven’t totally achieved yet what I’d like. Maybe I never will but I want to try again. I enjoy writing short stories but there’s something more absorbing about writing a novel. I like getting lost in that world and the problem-solving needed to get a long piece of writing to work. The first novel I wrote was ten years ago when my children were small and found the lack of personal time hard. The novel took ages because I didn’t know anything about writing one and had simply launched in. But it was addictive and I felt so happy writing it. Over five years, I went on workshops and met lots of other writers. For my next projects, I was more prepared - but still always learning.
Do you share common interests and ideas with other media?
I am very influenced by TV – either by the visuals or acting. Ideas can come from TV. I also feel very inspired by dance. I really like watching any form of dance. I draw something from the emotion, I think. And music! I can’t – like some writers – listen to music as I write. Music for me has to be listened to as a thing not as a background. I’d love to somehow capture in words an expressive Bach cello or the slightly unhinged lilt of Satie’s piano.
What non-writing activities inform your work?
I watch people and listen in on how they talk, what they say. I’m a spy! I sketch people secretly too – on buses or the park. Buses are a great place to people-watch and eavesdrop! Going to the theatre (when they were open…) is inspiring too. I like plays, dance, musicals. The experience often gets my imagination ticking. Walking is the best way for me to come up with writing solutions. If I’m stuck or despondent – or even if I’m not – I’ll walk and some inspiration will pop into my head. Art exhibitions or even Instagram (I follow a lot of art accounts) can be a really great way to start off a piece of free-writing. Describing a place or a person the way an artist has painted them can be a really interesting approach and take your writing somewhere new.
In terms of writing, what are your particular strengths?
I’d say I like writing and creating character first and foremost. Dialogue feeds into that as does description.
What are you less confident with?
Plot. Building plot isn’t natural to me and I have to really consider where the peaks and troughs should be. I’m impatient about planning but have found a balance between writing freely and taking time to pause and question where I need the characters to get to next.
Most people don’t know that I can…
Use British Sign Language, up to level 1.
Most people have no idea that I have…
Moved house ten times in twenty years – half of those around one city!
In five years’ time I will have…
I’m resistant! I don’t like plans that are so far ahead… I just hope I still have all the things I have now: my family and cats.
In five years’ time I will be…
Published maybe. I would like to have a novel published. That would be incredible.
And, lastly, why is the time right to put pen to paper now?
It’s never the right or the wrong time! It’s allowing myself to not care what comes out, freeing up those dreams and drowning out those nagging, annoying worries – those ones that say I’m not good enough. I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing and listening to his Nobel Lecture, I feel he summed it up perfectly: “But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another, ‘This is the way it feels to me, can you understand what I mean? Does it feel that way to you?’” Now’s as good a time as any to find out.