Research Notes · 07/31/2015

The Last Pilot

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Benjamin Johncock writes about The Last Pilot from Picador.


The Process of Process

Novel-writing is a terrible business that only a lunatic or a fool would attempt. It’s slow, inefficient, lugubrious, lonely, and most of the time you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing. And if you, as captain of this crazy ship, don’t know what you’re doing, you can be sure that others don’t either.

They’ll probably make this known somehow (people are good like that).

If you set sail enough times, though, if you complete more than one novel, you come to learn a little of process. That is, how you do it. It quietly reveals itself. You see, the problem is that you only truly learn how to write a novel by writing lots of novels. (Novels are good like that.) Psychotherapists call it “experiential learning”; that is, learning through reflection on doing. But, like your fingerprint or DNA, this process is unique to you — what works for you as a writer might not work for another writer. You can swap tricks with each other though, like stickers in the playground.

Attempting to explain your process — once you’ve glimpsed it — is also difficult. Like a fawn glanced emerging from misty woodland, it’s best not to stare, lest it bolts. I’ve been lying in the long grass observing mine for long enough now, so I’ll try and take a snapshot for you.

There are different stages of process. I think the most important is one you can’t now influence — childhood. As a kid, if you’re creatively-inclined (which, as an adult writer, I’m going to assume you were) you’ll have experienced certain ideas, themes, stories, knowledge — some in life, some in fiction — and some will resonate more than others. I believe that the most powerful of these will subconsciously influence your creativity as an adult. You’ll have other experiences etc. on your way to adulthood, but I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than those you encounter in childhood.

You might have already found these creeping into your fiction. Don’t fight it. They always get in, one way or another. Go with the flow. You don’t choose the story, it chooses you.

This is a fragile time. Try to do as little as possible. Let these old friends seep into your conscious mind over a period of time. Hot showers help. Don’t pay them too much attention though. And whatever you do, don’t talk to anyone about them. People are unlikely to say anything useful. If you find yourself reaching for books or movies without really knowing why, it’s probably just your subconscious detecting things of interest within the respective narratives.

You may find yourself hoarding physical objects too — items with some link, or some vibe, that connect to the story you’re building. Collect and collate. Newspaper cuttings, trinkets, photos, postcards, phrases.

If your mind begins to fizz with ideas, like protons colliding in your head, perhaps jot a note or two.

Try to look busy. Explain to people that you’re working hard. They won’t believe you. Do not tell them about process. They are unlikely to say anything useful. Go to the movies instead.

Eventually, you’ll feel the urge to start writing Actual Sentences. Don’t draw too much attention to this endeavour, either to yourself of anyone else. Neither you nor anyone else are likely to say anything useful. Pretend you started months ago. Years ago. This is just another stage in the process. At some point, perhaps 20,000 words or so in, you can begin to relax. Look at all those words. You’re writing a novel.

Don’t talk to anyone about it though, because, well — know you.


Benjamin Johncock was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma Press’s National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, his daughter, and his son. The Last Pilot is his first novel.