When I’m Queen (PS this book is driving me fricking crazy)

If words were beans you could feed the whole world with the words I’ve expended in writing this novel.

You could paper the walls of houses up and down the length and breadth of England with the drafts I’ve printed out and chucked away.

If you stood all my sentences end to end they would stretch to the moon.

if you broke them all up into letters you’d need a Scrabble bag the size of Russia to hold them.

And yet… and yet… and yet…

I still haven’t finished it.

That word haunts me. Still. As in: ‘You’re not still writing that novel, are you?’

Another favourite is yet. As in: ‘Haven’t you finished that book yet?’

My face when someone asks about my novel.

My face when someone asks about my novel.

When I’m queen we shall outlaw ‘still’ and ‘yet’ in all public discourse on the subject of printed works and their nearness to completion and/or the duration of time thus far expended with the purpose of completing said printed work.

We shall, in addition, outlaw the asking of these questions by all persons not sufficiently, themselves, acquainted with said process.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning. Instead, bringeth cake.

When I’m queen, those persons who, personally, have no prior, personal experience of the production of a printed work of novel-icular length, shall be disallowed from the raising of eyebrows when excuses are made responses are given. Any and all persons encountered by the person encountering Herculean labours in novel-icular service shall select from the list 7(b) to be found in Appendix 12(f), titled: Soothing Statements. Under no circumstances should comparisons ever be drawn with rocket science or coal mining. In such cases (as indeed sanctioned by the Pope himself) a punch in the face may be forthcoming.

To speak plainly…

I think I may have stuffed up my novel.

Gulp. (And other four letter words.)

So, yes, I am still writing my novel and, no, I haven’t finished yet. Soothing Statements gratefully received.

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30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Eight

Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head… and decided this twenty-eighth post of my 30 day challenge would be about ageing.

And then, because I’m in the magic zone where synchronicity just happens, I read an interview with novelist Marilynne Robinson while drinking my morning tea and, abracadabra, these words appeared on the end of my wand:

ROBINSON

I have a sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself. It’s a nice opportunity to be able to know these people, but I have to do other things, which take hours, days, weeks.

INTERVIEWER

Have you always felt that urgency or is this something new?

ROBINSON

It’s a little new. Years ago, I was younger than I am now.

You can read the full article here (which appeared, in 2008, in the Paris Review: and why, when I’m reading the Paris Review, do I always glance down at my clothes, and my choice of beverage, and the shabby chair I’m sitting on, with the airy disdain of a Parisian waiter and remember all over again that I’ll never be truly cool?).

But I digress…

Years ago, I was younger too.

I had the heartwarming experience yesterday of bumping into an old work mate, and being told I looked younger than ever – ‘like a schoolgirl’! (It was a dark street.) Perhaps, with some vaseline on the camera lens, I could just about pass as a schoolgirl of the Grease variety, where Rydell High was patently populated by students pushing thirty, but, no, I am not a schoolgirl and do not look like one. Even though I do wear bunches sometimes. And my management of my finances is positively schoolgirl-ian in its consistent focus on instant gratification.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner's focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner’s focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Like Kit Williams in MasqueradeI’ve laid a trail of clues in recent posts as to my exact age, so, ahem, we won’t mention it here. But I’m quite a lot older than I was when I first had a sniff at a publishing deal (I was 20, Fact Fans). And the 17-year-old Lynsey who tore open her acceptance letter from The Rialto and positively floated to school because she was going to be A Poet… would have to wait an awful lot longer than anticipated for her next piece of work to be published. (Twelve years, Fact Fans. Although two came in the same week, which reminds me of something about buses… and men…)

And now here I am, X number of years later, writing my first novel at the age of… let’s just say I’m une femme d’un certain age and leave it at that.

For a person who’s always written, since the age of 6, it’s a fairly clear indictment of the way I live my life that I’ve made so little finished work in that time. When I say ‘always’ written, I mean: ‘always thought of myself as a writer’ – when others, assessing the ‘work’ they’d produced so far, might have slipped by the wayside and started to call themselves other things: butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. Hah, kidding! I meant, of course, productivity managers, process administrators, data coordinators.

(In the process of writing this post I’ve just discovered a job I’d never heard of before, Penguinologist, and now I’m not entirely sure I want to be a writer anymore. Is it too late to swap?)

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Is it good or bad to be an older first-time novelist? (I’m going to proceed as if it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll get my book published, if that’s all right with you; because proceeding on the basis that I’ll have to resign it to the digital graveyard is a bit too annoying to think about at this late stage in the writing.)

Let’s look at the pros:

  • I have never before known as much as I know at this moment. (Not even when I was sixteen, when I knew everything.)
  • I do not believe that alliteration alone is enough to carry a sentence.
  • I have evolved to the stage where I need/want/have very little in the way of social life.
  • My daughter’s on the waiting list for surgical attachment to her iPhone, and no longer requires my presence now, now, now at all times.
  • I’ve been down this jolly old road before, and succeeded a bit, and failed a bit, and I know life carries on no matter what. (Writing carries on, too, no matter what.)

And now the cons:

  • I won’t look like Zadie Smith in my author photos. (Did I before? Er… well… no. But you know what I’m saying here.)
  • Assuming the publishers wanted one at all, I would probably be encouraged to have a very small, stamp-sized author photo as opposed to a full cover close-up.
  • There can’t ever be a publishing frenzy about the Hot Young Author called Lynsey White.
  • My chances of making the Granta Best British Novelists list are dead in a ditch.
  • If there’s ever a launch party for my book, I won’t especially want to go. I’ll want to be home drinking cocoa.

Try as I might, I cannot find a single ‘con’ to do with the actual writing. (Oh, hang on! Here’s a tiny caveat: sometimes when I have a great insight, I go to my laptop to write it all down and… ah, now, what did I come in here for again?)

All the cons have to do with publicity, and marketing, and USPs, and sales graphs, and the fact that a publisher is buying you as well as your book. Graham Greene could refuse to be filmed during an interview, but very few have that luxury now. Not that I’ve got anything against interviews, per se: it’s quite clear to you all, by now, that I really like to talk about myself. (Shutting me up would probably be the issue.) But, no, I’m no spring chicken, no whippersnapper, no Mozart-ian genius sprung from the ether.

But writing is an art that doesn’t lend itself to Mozart-ian genius. Having a ‘way with words’ is all very well – in fact it’s wonderful – and you will need a way with words if you’re hoping to write literature (and a ‘way with words’ is fairly impossible to learn, I think: in that respect, yes, there can be a Mozart-y element to it all). But pick up ‘a way with words’ and rattle it and – yes – it’s empty. Until you have something to say, it will always be empty.

I’ve read books recently (Jennifer Egan’s first) and even a Booker Prize nominee (won’t say which one) that left me thinking: clever, but empty. Step away from the Mozart Model of creativity, and turn instead to Beethoven, who said that mistakes were forgivable; what wasn’t forgivable, was playing without passion. Music schools today are crammed to the rafters with kids who can knock off a Flight of the Bumblebee with the effortlessness I reserve for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…

…but that doesn’t mean they’re making music. (They might be; they might not.) Flying fingers are a conduit to making music, not an end in themselves, no matter how fantastically impressive it all looks – and is (don’t misunderstand me: if I could play like that I’d be doing it right now instead of writing this post). But without emotion, it’s only sport; not art.

My fingers could fly twenty years ago, but it would have been mostly sport I was offering. And so, at the ripe old age I am, I feel properly (honestly!) glad that I didn’t get published twenty years ago. I didn’t know what I was doing.

still don’t know what I’m doing half the time. But at least now I know I don’t know what I’m doing…

This post is dedicated to PD James, who died yesterday. She never knew it (and doubtless would have been unexcited had she known) but she was the subject of my GSCE Extended Essay in 1989. For which I got an A. So, thank you, PD James, for my A grade, and for proving that women writers can be wanted, welcomed, accepted, even though they don’t begin until they’re pushing forty.

pd james

Thank you, PD James. Hope there’s a really great library up there in the sky. You deserve one.

 

A Novel isn’t just for November.

Remember, people: a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. And although (I sincerely hope) it won’t take the whole of your life to write a novel, it will certainly take you a wee bit longer than 30 days. (Dear Calendar Gods: if NaNo gets much bigger, you might consider bumping November up to 31?) images-4

For the uninitiated, I’m talking about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, as it’s known by the initiated, or just plain ‘NaNo’ if you’re really well acquainted). It’s been running for 15 years (as I learnt last night at my local chapter’s inaugural meeting: more about NaNo’s history here if you’re interested), in which time it’s snowballed from local and folksy to a global phenomenon with more than 300,000 participants. Those participants sign up to write ‘a novel’ – or at least 50,000 words of one – in the month of November: that’s 1667 words a day: Twitter users who find the #amwriting hashtag slightly sick-making may find they have steam coming out of their ears by 1st December as word counts, and coffee consumption, and sample sentences are relentlessly tweeted. We all have a novel inside us, as the old adage would have it. And November is the month you get to regurgitate it into the cold, cruel world.

As tweeted by Scott Dykes (@Scott_Writing)

As tweeted by Scott Dykes (@Scott_Writing)

First off, some facts from that cold, cruel world: most novels are around 80,000 words, so ‘National Two-Thirds-of-a-Novel Writing Month’ would perhaps be more honest. Any novel genuinely written in a month is unlikely to be one I’d care to read (with the exception of those by my ex, who could churn out an entire series of YA novels while I sat deliberating over the placement of a comma in my opening sentence. Bastard!) As I said in a previous post, there are no short-cuts to writing a novel, although some people seem to make lighter work of it than others (I am of course among ‘The Others’). It isn’t difficult at all to write 50,000 words in 30 days: what’s trickier is writing good ones. Ideally, in the run-up to ‘NaNo’ you will have done 1 to 2 years of #NaNoPrep (as twitter has it). You might think I’m joking, but no. ‘Fraid not. The majority of novels take 3 or 4 years on average from initial concept to completion. I first started ‘composting’ mine (you might prefer brewing, or fermenting) about 2 and a half years ago, when a yellow-haired girl appeared in one of my notebooks, pushing a bicycle. I ‘did’ NaNo in 2012 in an effort to sketch out the world of my book (as I blogged about here), before finding myself on the Arts Council’s Escalator programme in 2013 and receiving a grant for the writing of said novel, now called Madder Hall. In its many, many, many incarnations, the book has had characters called Morag, Arthur, Hestia, Dickon, and even Mr Horn (fnar fnar): all of which are now resting in peace in the graveyard of my imagination. I’ve slashed and burned the majority of my cast. I’ve turned the structure upside down and inside out. I’ve gone backwards in time (from 1989 to 1979), and forwards in time (1910 to 1939). I had lots of dead 12 year old girls: I have none now. The book as it was in 2012 bears so little resemblance to what I have now that I’ve thought about calling it (sorry, poor joke; can’t resist) Renee Zellweger.

By now you may be wondering, in the style of Edwin Starr: ‘NaNo… HUH… yeah… what is it good for?’ The answer is not, I’m happy to say, ‘absolutely nothing’. (But, NB, war is still useless; no change there). NaNo is good (in my humble opinion) for the following things:

Solidarity: It’s a lonely business, writing. And although NaNo can’t, and won’t, detract from the I’m-so-ronery  aloneness of it all (only click that link if you’re A-Ok with the F word, by the way) it does provide you with a virtual world full of shoulders to cry on (outside of the month of November you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who gives two shits). There’s a Blitz-like ‘all in it together’ sort of spirit. No, we’re not being bombed – but we might be bombing, quite hard. And a kind word from a fellow bomber can lift you from the doldrums long enough to get you writing again.

Permission to write badly: ‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ as Hemingway said. Nonetheless, there’s a common tendency for one’s inner editor to step in from the very get-go. You type your first sentence and out of the ether (with snakes in her hair) she emerges: ‘You think you can write? I’ve seen two year olds with a crayon in each fist compose sentences with more verve’, etc, etc, etc. The great Christopher Isherwood (creator of the Sally Bowles stories that became Cabaret, and writer of one of my favourite autobiographies: Christopher and his Kind) excreted first drafts of such abysmal awfulness (allegedly) that he’d never show them to a living soul.

How DARE you use an adverb in my presence?

How DARE you use an adverb in my presence?

When you’ve got to write 1667 words a day, no matter what (and, let’s be honest, some days you’ll be writing 3334 because yesterday, meh, not entirely sure what happened to yesterday) your snake-haired inner editor is required to piss off, please and thank you, and let you get on with the sketching of your novel. Because that’s what it is. An outline. Don’t whatever you do waste perfect prose on your very first draft, because changes will need to be made, and sentences perfect as neatly-crossed pairs of kittens’ paws are so much harder to brutally murder than passages with the prose-style panache of a bag of spanners. Trust me on this.

I said CROSSED paws, god-dammit!

I said CROSSED paws, god-dammit!

Permission to write at all: This, folks, is probably the single, most valid reason for NaNo’s existence. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that anyone writing a novel, unless paid to do so, is (a) sadly deluded in the manner of 97% of X-factor contestants, (b) a decadent, work shy lay about, (c) not really serious, surely, and (d) ought to bloody well get off that computer now and feed the kids/take the bins out/mow the lawn (delete as appropriate).

In order to write you need time. And in order to carve out that time you will need at least 97% of your nearest and dearest to give you permission to tappity-tap at your keyboard, no matter how futile it seems from their perspective – and probably, often, from yours too. (Underestimate at your peril the power of raised eyebrows to make the amateur writer die a tiny death inside.) I think NaNo is good, huh, yeah, for precisely this reason: the artificially-imposed deadline (common to so many TV shows) that allows you to say ‘I’ve got to write, sorry, so please go away’. Permission to write? Permission to come aboard the Good Ship Writer, and sail far away from the land of raised eyebrows. At least, until December.

The wooden teacup: crimes against ‘show, don’t tell’.

When my daughter was little I had an idea for a picture book called ‘Where there’s fun, there’s mess’, the idea being – ostensibly – to have parents relax about chocolatey fingers on pearly white sofa cushions and mud in the hallway and landslides of toys on bedroom carpets (but, probably, honestly, more about making my own slutty housekeeping feel like a virtue).

I never wrote that book, but luckily the author Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Lifewhich was called to my attention by the lovely writer Mary Nathan last night. In Bird by Bird, Lamott likens real-world mess to writing mess, and reminds us how vital the latter is to that all important ‘shitty first draft’ (which calls Hemingway’s dictum to mind: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’). Lamott rails against perfectionism (the desire ‘not to leave so much mess to clean up’) and its deathly end result, that horrible writerly trait of ‘tidiness’, which ‘makes me think of held breath’, as she says, ‘of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move’.

As the title says, this is a book about writing and life, and some of her larger statements gave me an ‘ouch’ moment or two of recognition regarding my life, as opposed to my writing (I’ve made no bones about my recent depression, as interested parties can read about here and here and here…). But at least, when it comes to writing, it’s never too late. Perfectionism – and, worse still, its twisted sister, avoidance – have wreaked their havoc in my Real Life (here’s Lamott on the subject: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life’ – too true), but the good news is that I’ve slowly entangled myself from the tyranny of writerly tidiness over the last twelve months (partly by ‘blurting’, as Ray Bradbury called it, about which you can read more here, and partly by hearing my mentor on the Escalator Literature Scheme describe a large chunk of my book as ‘boring’).

We all have default settings as writers, and this is mine: a belief that by piling on nice-sounding words that sit nicely together, like some kind of OCD-inflicted bricklayer, I’m taking a shortcut away from the messy necessity of that shitty first draft – when, in fact, what I’m doing is SUCKING THE SOUL from my story. First drafts oughtn’t to look like this…

Unknown

… but this:

Unknown-1

Which brings me to my personal nemesis: the wooden teacup.

We coined this phrase, Mary and I, last night. It so happens we’re both writing books set largely in houses – in elegant houses where people drink tea, sit on chairs, flutter eyelashes, notice the wallpaper, listen to footsteps approaching, remark on the weather – and while such detail doesn’t have to lead to smallness (by which I mean heartlessness, emptiness, woodenness) the sad truth is that laying the nice, neat bricks of your scene in the sort of careful prose that rightly belongs in the editing phase means you’re likely avoiding the fun of the story as well as the mess. If you’re too keen to keep it all tidy – the literary equivalent of ‘picking up after yourself’ as you go along – you’ll find yourself with ‘wooden teacup’ writing: fussy and finicky, lacking a heart (thanks to Mary again for identifying ‘heart’ as a necessary factor of any decent scene – not, of course, in the sense of Hollywood schmaltz, but instead as the single thing that keeps it all beating).

In her excellent blog, the novelist Emma Darwin identifies a culprit for what she calls this ‘blow by blow’ writing: a misinterpretation of that hoary CW chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell’. Now many of you doubtless don’t need reminding of this, but I do: unlike playwrights, for us novelists ‘there’s no necessity to write the whole of a scene in real time’, as Darwin says. This shouldn’t have been a revelation to me in the last twelve months (since I’ve pretty much spent my life writing) but the humbling fact is I used to know this perfectly well, when I wrote less self-consciously (i.e. before I was published), but somewhere along my word-blocked journey to Madder Hall I taught myself to show, show, show, no matter how painful the showing, and gave up on the humble art of ‘telling’ as somehow too easy. A lot of the trouble comes from writing in close third person (not a can of worms I want to open here, but watch this space…) without that sense of an author to step in with his or her observations, but what I’ve effectively done is crippled myself – ‘cramped’ myself, in Lamott’s word – by failing to ‘use the infinite contractibility and expandibility of time in a narrative’ (and now I’m back to Darwin – who goes on to hold up her own dirty hands and admit that she, too, succumbs to the wooden teacup once in a while, when ‘tired or stressed or not very well’, ‘pulling the action blow by blow out of [herself] and sticking it on the page’). I urge you to read her post (when you’ve finished reading this one…) and read it right through to the end – where she has some vital observations on the writer as not just a camera (perhaps thank Christopher Isherwood for that), but editor, voice-over and cinematographer too…  

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn't yawn... Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn’t yawn… Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

So the revelation is this: YOU CAN SKIP THE BORING BITS. And if you don’t know what to skip to, then here’s revelation number 2: YOU HAVE NO HEART. (Not you personally, natch – your scene.) All that clinking of teacups and scraping of chairs and offering of matches (the other thing my characters do with mind-numbing regularity is light cigarettes – the book’s set mostly in the 1970s, which is my excuse and I’m sticking to it)… well, zzzzzzz. It’s all so polite and so dainty and sometimes the prose, as it lands on the page, has a cool sort of flow of its own – but what’s prose without story? (A poem, I suppose…) What I aim for now in my first drafts is something as rough as a fishwife’s cackle, that somehow, in spite of the flailing proseholds the interest. Has heart. I want clutter, not teacups, because ‘clutter is wonderfully fertile ground’ (says Lamott), and amongst it are treasures. She quotes Kurt Vonnegut: ‘When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth’. The point is, the world (of your book) is your oyster. In real life you might spend a disproportionate amount of time drinking tea (she types, whilst slurping) but characters in novels really shouldn’t (unless of course you have some juicy subtext in which case the drinking of tea is a prop, as it should be, and not the scene’s purpose). Take stabs at the page with that crayon and see what comes out. Write in longhand on paper. Switch person from first to third, or vice versa. Switch tense, back and forth if you like. Let the thoughts tumble out, let the thoughts become words – don’t be crippled, or cramped, by the need to ‘keep tidy’, to let words dictate thoughts. Read Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making  and remind yourself that writing (whatever form it takes) starts with finding out what you want to say before caring how you say it. Avoid the blow by blow, unless each of those blows really matters. Remember who’s telling the story – that’s you – and as novelists (unlike pesky humans) time is our toy, our plaything.

And, lastly, I want to quote a nice, fat chunk from John Gardner in his book On Becoming a Novelist which, for me, covers pretty damn neatly the question of ‘show, don’t tell’ and warns all aspiring novelists against wandering into wooden teacup territory:

‘The writer with a truly accurate eye (and ear, nose, sense of touch, etc.) has an advantage over the writer who does not in that, among other things, he can tell his story in concrete terms, not just in feeble abstractions. Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should “show,” not “tell”. And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school (one need not show a scene at the private school if the scene has no importance for the rest of the narrative), or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.’

We could, but won’t (because this post is far too long already), take a detour here into T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the objective correlativebut frankly if you think ‘spaghetti: tell’, ‘despair: show’, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Let us see the story unfold in concrete terms (as opposed to abstract), but dunk too many pointless biscuits in too many pointless cups of tea and you may just find you have something wooden where your story’s heart should be.

 

No one else is going to write it for you.

So, diet books, huh? (Don’t worry; you haven’t come to the wrong website.)

The Fast Diet. The 5:2 diet. The Super Juice Diet. The Atkins Diet. The New Atkins Diet. The H2O Diet (really?!?). The Lemon Detox (mm, tasty). And that’s leaving aside the more emotive titlesSlim to Win. Skinny Bitch. Clean and Lean… (Meaning what, exactly? That fat people are dirty?) images

Business, of course, is booming. (I even own one of these books myself – although not the disturbingly-named ‘Skinny Bitch’, I hasten to add.) I’m not saying that diets don’t work, per se, I’m just asking – by show of hands – who here doesn’t already know exactly how to lose weight?

[Insert drumroll.] Yes, you guessed it! Healthy eating and exercise.

That’s not how we are, though, is it? We humans. We want to believe in magic, in miracles. Why – in today’s culture of instant gratification – would we want to eat more vegetables and fewer crisps when a nice man called Atkins is telling us, actually, we can shrink to the width of a Twiglet whilst stuffing our pie-holes with bacon all day?

Which brings me, at last, to the point of this blog.

Tap the phrase how to write a book into the Amazon search bar and what do you get? 14,784 results. There’s Novel Writing for Dummies, and How Not To Write a Novel (this one, to be fair, is quite funny), something (I haven’t read) with the frankly extraordinary title of Piss Or Get off the Pot: Time to Write Your Novel, and Louise Doughty’s rather good A Novel in a Year (which doesn’t really expect you to write your novel in a single year, but A Novel in Three to Four Years On Average would certainly be a less enticing title).

‘What’s that?’ says the author of A Novel In Six Months. ‘You’re going to waste a whole year on that shit? If you buy my book, you’ll be done in six months… then the other six months you’ll be sunning yourself in the Bahamas on the proceeds…’ 

‘Look, I don’t want to interrupt, but—’

‘Who the hell are you?’

‘I’m the author of Book in a Month.’

‘Ah.’

You’ve got to love an optimist. (Actually, no you haven’t. I can’t bloody stand them myself.) These listings are full of them: ‘No Plot? No Problem!’ screams one.Writing the Breakout Novel.’ ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel.’ Best of all is: ‘Novel: Plan it, Write it, Sell it.’ I don’t know who author Lynne Barrett-Lee is but I probably need her to stand in my living room shouting at me. ‘But, Lynne, this character – I’m not really feeling him… and this scene, it’s not working somehow…’

To which Lynne would reply: ‘What are you whining about, you dick? I’ve told you everything already –  just plan it, write it, sell it!’ Full_Metal_Jacket_small

At this point I should say: this is not, repeat not, a rant against books about writing. I’ll freely confess I own loads of the buggers myself. I’m a magpie for quotes about writing (I’ve gathered them into a Scrivener file) and, loathsome hypocrite that I am, I’d actually like to write one myself, one day, when I’ve earned the right to do so with a published book or two. I will also confess that I teach short story writing (hence the large collection of said books) so, clearly, my stall is already set out on this issue: many aspects of the craft of writing can be taught – or at least semaphored, for the eagle-eyed to pick up on – but it’s also time to admit to myself that the purchasing of a book entitled Nail Your Novel will not (and did not, in fact) enable me to nail my novel. Not that it wasn’t a sensible, thoughtful, insightful read: it’s just that these books are the literary version of The Lemon Detox and, while they might give you a shot in the arm on occasion – and frequently do – at their most basic level they’re cramming your pie-hole with bacon when really it’s cabbage and tap dance you need. By all means read a book on technique. Take a course. Get some practise. And never say never: it may be that 79.7% of published authors owe their success to Book in a Month, or Book in a Week, or Book in the First Seven Seconds of Post-Coital Bliss, in which case, yes, I’ll look foolish. But one of my loveliest former students (who’s recently tasted some much-deserved literary success) once told me the best piece of advice I gave her was this: ‘No one else is going to write it for you.’

The unpalatable truth is that catch-all solutions don’t exist: the fact that you’ve purchased Piss or Get off the Pot will ultimately make no difference. You may piss, yes. But, equally, and more likely, you’ll stagger off the pot – or remain there, trousers round your ankles, no closer to nailing, stapling, or building your novel from spare bits of string than you would have been sans pot-pissing guide. Any shot in the arm will have dwindled around page 12 – if you’re anything like me, that is – and you’ll face the cold, hard truth that no one (not even Lynne Barrett-Lee) is going to write the book for you. And even if she did, she’d be unlikely to finish it in a single frigging month. So step away from A Novel in Two-Eighths of a Nano-Second and welcome to the real world.

You’re going to hate it.

 

Why writing is not the same as reading, and other painful truths.

Ah, reading.* How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

1) A nice chunky novel = soaking your brain in a long, hot bath. (Although anything by David Peace = an episode of tachycardia.)

'The Bath of Knowledge' designed by Vanessa Mancini.

‘The Bath of Knowledge’ designed by Vanessa Mancini.

2) A good short story = an invigorating dip in the North sea. 

3) Most poetry = ten seconds of toe-tickling, or an accidental pinprick. (N.B. The very best poetry = blinding flash of glory, or leg mangled horribly in man-trap. Which brings me back to David Peace…)

Each experience may, of course, feel different for you. But the odds are, if you’re reading this post at all, that you somehow – in your own unique manner – derive at least a modicum of pleasure from the act of staring at words on a page. And if, like me, you attempt to place words on a page yourself there’s a fair chance you like it a helluva lot.

There’s an outside chance that you might even like reading about other people’s lives a little more (sometimes) than you enjoy living your own. But, ssh, we won’t go into that. 

It’s important – if you’re one of these people, like me, who would shrivel and die without books – that you take a few moments to remind yourself of the following fact: Writing is Not the Same as Reading.

Well, duh, you might be thinking. But, actually, I’ve a theory that most of us – at least once in our writing ‘careers’ – have fallen prey to the following thought:

(S)he makes it look so easy. 

From this thought we move rapidly to: (a) If it looks easy, it must be easy… (Reaching for laptop and/or pen and paper.) Closely followed, an hour or so later, by (b) What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? (In manner of Marlon Brando wailing, Stellaaaaa!)

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

The thing is, you see, the more you love reading – the more you equate it with soaking your brain in a long hot bath – the more likely it is that you’ll come to assume that writing is similarly pleasurable. And, yes, in its own twisted way it is pleasurable – very – and yes, you are right to assume they are sister activities (writing, for instance, should never be done without first having liberally steeped one’s brain in the bathtub of literature). But – and as I often say when catching sight of my rear end in a mirror, it is a big but(t) – if reading is the blue-eyed photogenic child with the nicely brushed hair who remembers her pleases and thank yous, then writing, I’m sorry to say, is the family’s black sheep that they generally keep locked away in a Mrs Rochester-style attic arrangement to wheel out, under duress, on special occasions.  

That squeaking noise, yes, it’s the Bath Tub as Metaphor being dragged out again, and if writing a novel is in any way akin to the wallowy soak of reading one then you’re likely to find it’s a bath tub with horribly faulty taps that spurt cold water over your toes every time you relax, or a wobbly cat stalking perilously around the rim with its claws out, poised to fall in. Think this scene’s going well, do you, Lynsey? SPLASH. Think again.

As a reader you plunge yourself into a ready made world of another’s invention, and everything – if it’s done as it should be – feels wonderfully real. Organic, you might say. As if it just happened to bloom on the page, like a plant or a flower. As if there was never a poor fool, like you, fiddling endlessly (painfully, sometimes) with every last page. When you enter a room in a novel and marvel – oh look – at details they’ve chosen to etch in the scene (the frost-stars on a window; a sunrise of bright yellow wallpaper; a fly on a cobweb trapeze) just remember you’re only a guest. And, like guests in real houses, you won’t be obliged to take part in the manual labour of styling the place (anymore than your host would expect you to take out the rubbish or sweep up the gunk down the back of the oven).**

You know where I’m going with this As a writer (and this is the painful bit) you’ll have to lay your own bloody floor before you can even set foot on it (let alone lay the carpets). A few leggy strides and, yup, you’ve run out of floor again: time to get down on your knees and build it. You strip off and dive in your bath tub – to find out (with chilling effect) that it hasn’t got taps yet.

So only know this: writing is locked in that attic for good reason. Forewarned is forearmed. Approach with caution.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from Jonathan Myerson in The Guardian, in the hope that it jollies you up as it did me (with its appreciation of the trickiness and slowness of it all): ‘good writing comes from someone sitting alone in a room, undergoing a distinctly unphotogenic process of self-discovery. Good writing comes from experimentation, word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, and thus it grows into something that probably even the author did not predict and could not have foreseen. The writer needs a chance to try again, fail again, fail better.’

*This post is about the pursuit of reading, as opposed to the Berkshire city of Reading. (I did, however, have an excellent weekend at the Reading Festival in 1990. Just thought I’d mention.)

** My own personal house porn comes in A.S.Byatt’s PossessionAmong the many (better known) delights of this novel, Byatt also Gives Great Room.

Plotters and pantsers and halfway houses.

You set your book in 1970s Britain and it’s only to be expected, I suppose, that at some point in the proceedings your cast will go on strike. The ‘C’ word hasn’t helped. By which, of course, I mean Christmas. My novel, like so many others, no doubt, has been gathering virtual dust while I’ve battled old ladies for last jars of mincemeat, and spent half my annual earnings on postage, and queued up for 22 hours for a £1.50 stocking filler (without which said stocking is bound to seem woefully empty somehow). But the rumblings had already started, to tell you the truth: I think Christmas was just an excuse, for this writer at least, to step back and take stock of the Magnum Opus. And one thing was stunningly, immediately obvious: my characters have gone Off Message. This isn’t all bad, though. As Isabel Allende describes it (on the utterly wonderful Brain Pickings): ‘When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.’ This is all very comforting of course – because there’s (almost) nothing finer than spending time with characters who’ve sprung to life at last – but what of this thing we call ‘plot’? I had plans for these characters, way back when: an itinerary of activities to keep them all occupied, like overseas visitors you’ve dutifully – reluctantly – agreed to escort on a sightseeing tour: ‘No, but Tuesday we’re doing the Houses of Parliament. Windsor Castle’s on Wednesday. Madame Tussauds? But we’re not even going to Madame Tussauds… Look, I emailed this weeks ago…’

Once upon a time I had a plot. My cat was guarding it. He fell asleep. Perhaps that was the problem.

Once upon a time I had a plot. My cat was guarding it. He fell asleep. Perhaps that was the problem.

If you’ve come within sniffing distance of National Novel Writing Month then you’ll certainly know of the NaNo folklore that two types of writers exist, known as plotters and pantsers. The plotters, of course, are self-explanatory (lovers of file cards, character profiles, hard and fast outlines. Call round to their house and you’ll most likely find their CDs neatly marshalled according to some kind of arcane system – date of release divided by number of band members, for instance, multiplied by Pi). Pantsers are not German tanks, as you might be imagining, but rather are writers who fly by the seat of their pants (which is rather a wonderful image, when you really think about it). Call round to a pantser’s house of an evening and follow the trail of their last music session like breadcrumbs from one incorrectly-replaced CD to another. (As every unfortunate guest will know, I fall squarely in Category B.) But, of course, it’s not really that simple, is it? The late, great children’s author Diana Wynne Jones saw four distinct camps, not two, and I’m rather inclined to agree: 1. Careful planners (who need to know every last twist in advance). 2. Avid researchers (short on plot, but long on background). 3. Back to front and inside out writers (who might start with chapter 11). 4.  DWJ’s own method: ‘I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle.’ (You can read the full article here. While it’s aimed at children, it’s perfectly pertinent, too, for the adult writer).

And when you've read the article, give yourself a treat and read this book. Pure joy from start to finish.

And when you’ve read the article, give yourself a treat and read this book. Pure joy from start to finish.

Myself, I’m a 4. I’ve tried plotting – I really have tried – but the plot (wildly good as it seems in the abstract) can only translate into concrete reality if the cast you’ve created decides to play ball. And, ay, there’s the rub. You can move them around all you like when they’re still only names on a neat set of file cards, but once they’re alive – I mean really alive – they can give you the old two-fingered salute any time they flipping well want to. ‘Characters are not created by writers,’ said Elizabeth Bowen. ‘They pre-exist and have to be found.’ And she’s right, I think – or, at least, in the sense that all characters (probably) spring into life as composites of the many hundred – thousand – people we’ve met in real life. They’re like teenagers (trust me on this; I’m the mother of one): and as every mum knows you can take a hot-headed teen to the instrument of your choice but you can’t make them practise… and so it is with characters. You can spend your whole morning with shoehorn in hand – ‘you will poison the schoolmaster’s wife, because have decreed it… but what do you mean you’re in love with the schoolmaster’s wife? Oh god, NO, because, look, now you’ve sunk the whole plot’ – till your characters head to the picket line, placards in hand, and perhaps they’re unusually stubborn, my cast, but they’re not going to budge, not a muscle, until I’ve re-written the script of their lives. Am I going to give in? Well, of course I am.

The Praise Sandwich: On Giving and Receiving Feedback

Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of teacher training will have served up many a Praise Sandwich in their time. Unknown-1It goes a bit like this (do try to keep up if you can; it is tricky):

1. Say something nice.

2. Insert constructive criticisms.

3. Say something nice.

Having once had the pleasure of feedback from someone who omitted all three steps I can tell you there’s an art both to giving and receiving comments on a WIP. As the giver (unless you genuinely intend the giv-ee NEVER to write again) then, please, for the love of god – find something nice to say. It may be that you’ve seen a pile of vomit with more artistic merit, but comments such as ‘this line captured my attention’ and ‘what an interesting idea’ are noncommittal enough that you don’t look like an idiot whilst encouraging said ‘giv-ee’ to keep writing long enough to (just maybe) get a little bit better at it.

In my workshop I ask all participants to follow some simple rules when offering feedback:

1. ‘Show your working.’ (e.g. ‘This character wasn’t believable as a neurosurgeon, because on page 4 you described him as unusually clumsy’… as opposed to: ‘This sucked.’)

2. Adjust feedback according to which stage the draft is at. (A first stab? Stick to generalised comments on character, pace and structure. You might as well piss in the wind, at this stage, as tweak every sentence.)

3.  Don’t be a Grammar Nazi. (By all means, mark up the draft, but few workshops can survive an hour-long diatribe on the semi-colon.)

4. Remember: it’s not your story. Be careful not to impose your own style and/or interests on another writer. (‘What I think’s missing here is an S&M scene…’)

5. If you possibly can, read it twice (the first time without comments). Apply this to your own self-editing, too.

And the rules for receiving feedback?

1. Shut up and take it!

2. That’s it. Just shut up and take it.

Have you ever seen Hilary Mantel on Amazon arguing against one of Wolf Hall‘s one-star reviews? I’m guessing that’s a no. On the rare occasions When Authors Fight Back (you can have that if you want, Channel 5) they only ever make themselves a laughing stock. (See here for some bad behaviour from the self-published author of The Greek Seaman.) Practise for your own one-star reviews (no, seriously, practise: everyone gets them) by bringing up the drawbridge. Fine, speak out if a factual error’s been made, but otherwise: stiffen that lip; turn the Biblical cheek; keep a dignified silence. The one thing you ought to be doing is this: taking notes. Hide the notes in a drawer for a week if you need to. The odds are you’ll find, when you tiptoe towards them again, that the shit-storm you thought you got caught in was (a) not as turd-filled as first it appeared, and (b) at least partially justified.

images-1

Personally I don’t think this piece has enough adverbs in it.

Here, let me just take a break to admit that you may have a fair few buffoons in your workshop. We’ve all known a reader who blunders through prose with the grace and finesse of a spec-less Mr Magoo… who wouldn’t know quality prose if it came rubber-stamped from the government’s Quality Prose Department (which, thank god, doesn’t exist). In a workshop (as on twitter) you’ll soon learn the voices worth listening to. Use your judgement. Buffoons can be safely ignored (in fact, should be). And, likewise, if someone has clearly cast only the vaguest of looks at your work (from a passing train window, say) then start pinching that salt. The two blokes, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, who later wrote one of my favourite programmes, Peep Showwere both in my final-year writing class at Manchester Uni and all these years later I still have fond memories of Sam Bain’s two-word response at the foot of my story: Well done. Not as harsh, of course, as the two word-review of Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich, but still. Two words? Two fingers, more like.

Unknown-2

The aforementioned team behind TV’s ‘Peep Show’. Oh, and Jesse Armstrong also co-wrote a little thing called ‘The Thick of It’. Not too shabby.

Never mind. I came top of the class and that, of course, is the salient point here. (And, while on the subject: there wasn’t much evidence, back then, of Sam Bain’s scriptwriting genius, although Jesse Armstrong produced a spectacularly horrible story called Pig Rodeo that, with hindsight, had more than the whiff of a Peep Show blueprint about it…) 

Most writers, of course, are at least 64% Jealous Bastard (rising to 86% if they’re currently on an MA). If you’re sharp-tongued yourself, I suggest you brace everything for the little-known phenomenon of The Revenge Drubbing, a feature of certain, power-hungry workshops. (I’ll see your ‘incomprehensible gibberish’, madam, and raise you a ‘slightly less fun than a coma’. Touché!)

Luckily, my own experiences with Mentor Extraordinaire Michelle Spring (as part of Arts Council England’s Escalator programme) have been as far removed from buffoonery, and drubbery, and two-word reviews, as humanly possible. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been force-fed a turd sandwich or two, but my lip is so stiff now it’s practically Botoxed. The news from the frontline was good today: all the bits I like best in my book are the bits she likes too.* So, onwards! (As my late, great, phonetic-namesake Lindsay Anderson was wont to say.

*Although apparently it’s got too many breasts in it…

The Third Suitcase (or How Many is Too Many Characters?)

So I know how many psychiatrists it takes to change a lightbulb (one. But the lightbulb’s got to want to change) and how to get four elephants into a mini (two in the front, and two in the back).

What I don’t know, good people, is how many characters I can reasonably cram in my novel.

Many have fallen already, in the thirteen months (not that I’m counting) since ‘Madder Hall’ first stuck its nose past the parapet of my notebook (‘Wheeling a stolen bicycle, an ordinary-looking girl with yellow hair…’)* As I sit at my desk (oh, all right, in bed), with a Pivotal Scene to be written today, I’m pondering whether or not to cull another.

Now someone (whose name I’ve forgotten) said something (I can’t quite remember) on Radio 4 once, while lightly discussing the Eleanor Catton book-beast that garnered this year’s Booker Prize. It went something like this: writing plots is like carrying suitcases, one in each hand. If you’ve constantly got to go back for a pesky third suitcase, then maybe your plot is too complex. (Do please shed some light on the source of this quote, if you know it.)

For me, this particular character feels like that pesky third suitcase. I keep on forgetting her. Leaving her under a bench on the platform. (She nearly got blown up once, by controlled explosion, for being a possible bomb.) She’s only half-packed, as I vaguely recall: there’s a dirty great lock on the strap that I can’t find the code for. More bothersome still, she’s the same shade and texture as one of my other cases. I can’t always tell them apart at a distance. (Insert pic, here, of the author scratching her chin.)

But she plays very nicely in tandem with somebody else (her young daughter), and killing her off may cause the fabric of Time Itself to be hopelessly torn apart (or else necessitate a largish chunk of rewriting, which is far worse, of course). So here I am straddling this chasm, my legs at unnatural angles (as modelled here by Leroy in Fame), Gene Anthony Raywhile the Pros and Cons swirl in my head. Do I welcome The Killer Inside Me or hack off that lock with a buzz saw and see what she’s hiding?

* As the re-writes have piled up (like hands playing One Potato, Two Potato) it turns out the yellow-haired girl can’t even ride a bike anymore. Which just proves the truth of this Rose Tremain quote (from the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction): ‘Respect the way characters may change once they’ve got 50 pages of life in them.’

A Case of the Glums, or The Feedback Limbo.

You know that thing when you’re halfway through tidying up and the room looks worse than it did in the first place and, GOD, you wish you’d never started?

Hello, novel.

As some of you may know by now (I bang on about it often enough), I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the ten Escalator writers for 2013: my prize being (primarily) a year’s free mentoring from the wonderful writer Michelle Spring, creator of my second favourite female detective, Laura Principal. (No. 1 spot reserved, of course, for my childhood crush, Nancy Drew.) Every three months or so I bring joy to Michelle’s existence with 10,000 words or so of my putative novel. She waits – her breath bated, heart pounding, a light film of sweat on the palms of her hands – till my latest instalment has landed, at last, in her inbox, and life can have meaning again. (Or something like that.)

But, of course, as we know – courtesy of Nelly Furtado – All Good Things (Come to an End). And I’m writing this post from the uppermost step of the ride we call Escalator: poised to get off, with a businessman jostling his brolly behind me and somebody, late for a train, racing past in a fug of BO. The good ship Escalator has docked, at last, at the Port of Mixed Metaphors, and this mentoring session – on Monday – marks (sniff, sniff) the end of my year. So last night – deep breath – at a minute away from the witching hour, I gathered my last little bundle of words in a hastily-renamed file (originally titled ‘Massive Balls for Michelle’) and, sipping a last drop of wine for Dutch courage (South African actually – Porcupine Ridge; not too shabby for six quid, Sainsbury’s, thank you), I hovered my mouse over ‘send’ and I fired my words into the ether. Gulp. Now I wait until Monday, midday, for The Verdict.

Gulp

Gulp

These few days in Limbo are strange. Here I am with the ‘guiltless but damned’ of Dante’s Inferno: the virtuous pagans, the unbaptised, the Christ deniers. Excluded from heaven. Protected, so far, from the fires of hell. (Any writer who’s handed in work of a first draft quality for perusal by actual human eyes will appreciate hell as a metaphor here.) I mean, what are you meant to do while you’re waiting for someone to give you a yay or a nay? Are you right to be secretly yipping inside that you’ve hit on a really cool twist… or, come Monday, with nothing but tea to console you, will everything crumple to dust in the cold Cambridge light? Will you plod up the road to the station, loathing yourself and your book and the universe? Will you, in fact, get a Case of the Glums, that might last you a day, or a month if you’re really unlucky, when every last phrase that you lovingly plucked from your mind seems to shrivel and die in the light of another’s dislike of it?

Hmm. It’s a cold kind of place. You will need to bring blankets. You’ll need your own file, like my own, labelled ‘Pep Talks’, where quotes such as this are collected:

‘The blank page breeds a crisis of confidence every morning’ (Hilary Mantel)

My old mucker, Hilary Mantel

My old mucker, Hilary Mantel

‘I’m having to tear each word out; it’s like digging for coal’ (Ian Rankin)

Ian Rankin, no visible coal-dust

Ian Rankin, no visible coal-dust

‘I’m not at all confident about the quality of what I do’ (Peter Porter)

The late poet, Peter Porter

The late poet, Peter Porter

‘Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me’ (Sarah Waters)

Sarah Waters. On the inside, her blood is curdling.

Sarah Waters. On the inside, her bowels are curdling.

‘There are times of boredom, there are times of regret, there are times of disappointment’ (PD James)

PD James, perhaps looking a tad regretful?

PD James. Is that regret on her face? Or just boredom?

And mighty glad I am to hear it. Every writer, apparently, gets the Glums sometimes, as REM very nearly  said, so here’s the aptest quote of all, to finish, from J.D. Salinger in his correspondence to Marjorie Sheard, an aspiring writer, currently on show at the Morgan Library and Museum, NY – so good it deserves to be capitalised:

This is me, not Salinger. You probably realised that.

This is me, not Salinger. You probably realised that.

‘LOSE NOT HEART.’ LoseNotHeart2

Getting Naked with Hilary Mantel: A Writer’s Anxiety Dream No. 1

Okay, so I’ve been in New York on my holidays (I’ll just say that a little louder in case anyone missed it: NEW YORK!!!!!!!!!!!!!), and one Friday evening I popped to the Morgan Library and Museum for a little look-see at the Edgar Allen Poe exhibition, ‘Terror of the Soul’. (Blood-coloured backdrops, drawings of ravens, piercing-eyed daguerrotypes… Blog-worthy in itself, of course, but better blogged about by a more ardent Poe fan than myself. You can read all about it, as they say, at Kimberley Eve’s Musings of a Writer).

Terror of the Soul at the Morgan Library and Museum, NY

‘Terror of the Soul’ at the Morgan Library and Museum, NY

Pre-Poe, in a little glass room in the lobby downstairs, they were celebrating 45 years of the Man Booker Prize with copies of each of the winners arranged round the walls in their order of winning (a separate glass cube of its own for the 2013 doorstop by Eleanor Catton). All lovely, of course, but the books were taped shut – and I’ll say that a little louder, too, in case you missed it: TAPED SHUT. To these eyes they appeared to be bog-standard copies (not precious, not priceless), or, rather, the thing that was precious about them, of course, was their contents – the one thing denied us. A book you can’t open? Harrumph. Like a bird with clipped wings. Had I been a bit braver I might have gone round and untaped them in protest… Back in the real world, a guard told me off just for leaning on a cabinet (at which I prickled with a peculiarly English variety of embarrassment). So the books, I’m afraid, remain taped.

Without even opening Wolf Hall or Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel’s record-breaking Booker wins – I could tell you, in fairly small detail, the opening scenes of each book. I remember, in particular, the ‘rosy brick’ of a house she describes in the latter, and how that word ‘rosy’ sang out in a sensory way that plain ‘red’ would have failed at. God, she’s good. She’s a Queen among courtiers. (And more deserving of worship than our actual Queen, IMO. But that’s another story.)

Literature with a capital 'L'. And one of my favourite words in the title. (By which I mean 'Wolf'. Not 'Hall'.)

Literature with a capital ‘L’. And one of my favourite words in the title. (By which I mean ‘Wolf’. Not ‘Hall’.)

Inspired by the little glass room at the Morgan, that night – in my cushiony bed on the cusp of Times Square while the taxi cabs yelped at each other – I dreamt a strange dream about HM herself. She’d invited me over for afternoon tea. HM’s house was surprisingly ugly, with cheap chintzy fabrics and nasty brown carpet and nary a bookshelf in sight. But the cups were bone china, the tea Lady Grey, and HM and I bonded at once as we supped, and – without even reading a word of my novel – she knew, just by sniffing me (writers, like wine, had aromas), that I was the Next Big Thing: A.S. Byatt and Atwood and Flannery O rolled in one. (I did say I was dreaming.)

Cut to: the following evening. A hall packed with flashing photographers, drink-swilling publishers. HM on stage in her finery, grasping the mic, and a stage full of writers – all female – behind her, cross-legged, rapt with attention, and One Empty Chair. As she hailed me, I stood (dressed in lumberjack shirt and jeans: thanks, brain) and was swept on a wave of applause to the One Empty Chair. This was it. I had Made It. Sniffed out and initiated by HM herself to The Fold. Not just ‘someone who writes’, but A Writer.

Imagine my surprise, then, when HM reached up and unbuttoned her dress. I looked round at the writers behind me, all women, and each one was flashing the flesh till the platform was puddled with fabric – and not just with dresses but undies as well. It was some kind of gesture, as HM explained to the microphone – white as a swan sans clothing – though for or against which cause exactly I never quite caught. My cheeks were a shade or two warmer, by now, than the core of the sun. HM rippled towards me. ‘Get naked,’ she said, ‘or you’re out.’

Hilary Mantel avec clothes

Hilary Mantel avec clothes

Did I strip?

Did I f*ck. I stood clutching my lumberjack shirt for dear life. And, as HM had warned, I was swiftly ejected. Persona non grata. Embraced by the arms of obscurity. Out in the cold.

And the meaning of this? Well it can’t be that making your life as a writer means whoring yourself, because HM is nobody’s whore… Could it be that, like one of those sad little books in the Morgan’s glass room, there’s a part of myself that’s taped up, sealed away? Could it be that I’m scared to un-tape my own book, so to speak, in case… (drum roll) everyone hates it?

Back in 2002 I won the Bridport and Canongate Prizes in the same week (to my bank manager’s delight) with the second and third short stories I’d ever submitted. Sounds good – and it was – but success, I’ve found, can be more crippling than failure. Each story you write from then on has to raise itself up in the shadow of prize-winning stories, like Brad Pitt’s less attractive brother, say, or Branwell Brontë. ‘Writing today is like standing stark naked in Trafalgar Square and being told to get an erection,’ said Louis de Bernières, in the aftermath of his blockbuster Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Blockbusting success and erections are two things I’ve yet to be troubled with thus far in life, but I get what he’s saying. The end (of the scribbly first draft) of my novel moves closer each week, and, yes, that’s exciting, but partly it’s also like standing stark naked on stage with Her Royal Highness Hilary Mantel.

I wonder what she dreams about?

Walking the Tightrope of Doom between juicy and confusing.

What to do with my multitudinous plot strands? (a) Fashion them into a natty hairpiece, (b) weave a folksy rug, (c) tempt my cats to chase them, or (d) all of the above.

Answers on a postcard, please.

You may think I’m joking (and you may, of course, be right) but, finding myself at the midway point of my novel-in-progress (let’s call it my NIP), I’m genuinely perplexed by plot strands. ‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!’ Right on, Sir Walter, because what is a novel if not a giant pack of lies? I’m accustomed to writing short stories – where sub-plots are the kiss of death – but a novel needs plenty of strands for the reader to grab at, and several times recently I’ve surprised myself with a corking great strand that’s emerged from the ether like ectoplasm from a Victorian psychic’s underskirts, and what else can you do – when ectoplasm rears its gooey head – but catch hold of it, run with it, cackle with glee that you’re so in the zone that your novel’s begun to write itself. (N.B. I do not recommend performing any of these tasks with actual ectoplasm.)

The birthing of an accidental plot strand.

The birthing of an accidental plot strand.

And then, hello, it’s the following morning and, look, it’s all gone tits up now. You turn to your Scrivener cork board to see what you’ve planned for yourself and you brew your morning barrel of [insert name of preferred caffeinated beverage] and merrily tap out another great scene, and you’re just on line four of your Booker Prize acceptance speech when – hang on! That doesn’t make sense now. Yesterday, in the white heat of genius, didn’t you write a new scene? Yes, you did. In that scene [insert appropriate dramatic action] happened in front of your protagonist’s eyes. And has she reacted? No, she hasn’t.

Heart pounding, you start to look back through the NIP (though you promised you wouldn’t, not now, not when everything’s ticking so nicely) and, whaddya know, there’s a theme emerging: this isn’t the first time she’s failed to react…

The reading of the NIP commences. It is a joyous occasion.

The reading of the NIP commences. It is a joyous occasion.

Stick a pin in a scene – any scene – and the odds are you’ll find something juicy that your village idiot of a protagonist has failed to react to. Failed to even notice.

Thank god that this isn’t a Nancy Drew novel, or the jig, as they say, would be up.

Imagine me writing this one. The ink's drying on the 'd' of The End and… 'Oh shit, there was meant to be a clock in it!'

Imagine me writing this one. The ink’s drying on the ‘d’ of The End and… ‘Oh shit, there was meant to be a clock in it!’

So what now? Can it really be me who’s the idiot? Can my ‘white heat’ be trusted? Perhaps it’s just leading me further astray, like some bleached and tattooed reprobate round the back of the bike sheds, offering fags…?

But the world of ‘astray’ is a rather fun world to be in. Right? So, for now (for NOW), I’m filing ‘reactions’ and ‘tying of plot strands’ in the giant To Do folder (move along, housework, make room please) and just Flipping Well Cracking On With It. And I’m walking that tightrope of doom between juicy and confusing (I’m owning that tightrope, goddammit!) and either I’ll exit gracefully to the crowd’s applause or I’ll plunge to my death on the circus floor.

If you, too, have found yourself trapped like a hapless fly in a web of your own devising, then here’s what I heartily suggest you do: stop reading this post (because, to be honest, all the best bits are over with now) and read these instead (via the Writers’ Centre Norwich). Not specifically related to plot strands, but specifically related to the eek, and the argh, and the blurgh of the NIP-writing process. It’s always good to know that others have suffered as you, now, are suffering, and even better when those others are famous writers who’re meant to know what they’re doing. Incompetents of the world, unite!

Ye olde Brain Back-up and the prickly issue of about-ness.

I woke up this morning with the first line of this blog post fully and perfectly formed in my head.

Then I went to make tea and forgot it.

So now this post is about two things: the original thing (which I’ll get to in a minute), and the new thing (which I’ll get to right now): the importance of keeping a notebook. ‘Backing up your brain’, I think I’ll call it. These days I’m so wholly dependent on the ‘undo’ button that I find myself alarmed, in real life, when I can’t recall my last, lost thought at the touch of a key. Oh my god, but that sentence was great! What do you mean, brain, it’s gone forever? Undo, undo, UNDOOOOOOOOOO!

The second thing this post is about is the word ‘about’. More specifically, the answer to that time-worn question: ‘What’s my novel about?’ There are layers of response, I think, to this question. The top one (the cherry on top) that draws readers’ (and publishers’) eyes is your much-discussed elevator pitch, without which, by all accounts (and a modicum of personal experience, I might add), you will quickly commit Career Harakiri in front of an agent’s eyes. And while this needn’t be quite as bold and crass as Fifty Shades meets Cannibal Holocaust (although I probably would buy that) it ought to have something a little bit ‘jazz hands’ about it. You needn’t describe yourself as the ‘new’ Dan Brown, for instance – because, obviously, one of those in the world is sufficient quantity already – but it does help to have a handle on what genre you’re writing in: ‘It’s a psychological ghost story set in the 1970s’ is my own opening gambit. Most of all though, you need to assess, condense, and regurgitate your book in two or three bite-size sentences. 

But I digress. It wasn’t the cherry on top that I really meant to write about, nor even the cream-cheesy layer beneath – which contains the full arc of your plot, all the ups and the downs that the novel’s ‘about’ on that second, slightly deeper level. Peep under that cream-cheese bulk, and you’ll come to the crumbly, brown, biscuit-like base that holds the whole shebang together (enough with the cakes now, Lynsey) and that’s what this post (and your novel) is really about. And the reason I’ve skirted the issue so long is that, sshh, we don’t say what our novel’s about. What it’s really about. We have to stand there madly semaphoring it through the subtext of our story, and hope against hope that the reader catches on.

This third layer is meaning (or theme, if you’re feeling grandiose about it), and, honestly, you’ve got to have one. Eventually. It might always be shadowy – more about feeling than knowing – but feeling a thing, in the fictional realm, is far more important than knowing it. Most likely the meaning will follow on after the novel’s got going, e.g: you’re mid-way through your latest knee-jerk ‘Save File’ on the 117th page, when reading the word ‘bananas’ you realise your novel is all about fruit as a metaphor for mental health (I would not buy this one) and in draft two you subtly tweak every sentence accordingly (a nectarine here, a melon there, etc). Meaning ought to be fashionably late to the party, I think, or it risks being fake. ‘Oh yah, well my book’s about social injustice’, you say, when really it’s just about shagging. We’ve all had a middle class dinner party version of an answer at one point, but penetrate your soul – go on, do it right now – and you’ll probably find there’s a far less palatable truth. You may very well also find (as I’ve done in the last few days) that you’re basically writing ‘about’ the same thing every freaking time you set fingers to keyboard and of course we escape through our writing – we do that with rip-roaring plots and fantastic locations – but finding your novel’s true meaning is all about burrowing deeper, not running away from yourself. And, hey presto, the writing will magically fill with all manner of juicily universal truths. In the style of a mustachioed Lord Kitchener inviting men to war:  Your novel needs you.* So (wo)man up and do it. You know you want to.

* Dig deep for victory, I might add. (Sorry.)

Does the universe need another writer?

Since joining Twitter a couple of months ago, two things have become immediately obvious: (1) that I’m not half as interesting as I secretly hoped I was, and (2) approximately 97.5% of the population of planet earth is currently writing a novel.

Another wake-up call came via a recent workshop run by Writers’ Centre Norwich (you can also read my guest blog on their website if you’re so inclined). From the doctor-esque scribble I found in my notebook the morning after, I’ve managed to decode (and probably falsify) the following, rather sobering, fact: each year around 86,000 new titles are published in the UK. Around 59,000 of those titles will sell an average of… 1000 copies? 100 copies? 50 copies? (Knees trembling slightly now.)

The answer is 18 copies.

And that’s the average. Meaning, of course, that many new titles sell fewer than 18 copies. Which, by all accounts, is a bit of a slap in the face.

It could be that I’m labouring day after day (my social life dwindling to Howard Hughesian proportions; my bank statements gathering dust in the hallway – too frightening to open) on a book that only my mum will buy. (And, if I’m honest, she’s not that keen on my fiction anyway, so…) Gulp. And that’s if it’s even published. Anyone fancy an uphill struggle?

Well, yes, actually. I do. There aren’t many things in my life that I’m really wholehearted about, but writing is one. And here’s why: I can’t not do it. Jump cut to Jean-Paul Belmondo in À Bout de Souffle‘Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.’ And writers write. A day without writing feels wrong and unworthy. A day without tumbling headlong into something made-up makes my brain feel like two pennies rattling around in a pauper’s money box (by which, of course, I mean my money box): depressingly lonely. That’s right, yes, I’m really that sad: I feel lonely without my imaginary friends. And since they’re still there, in mid-gesture (a bit sore and stiff from their freeze-framing yesterday, when I had ‘proper work’ to get on with), I’d better scoot off now (my brain nicely heated from writing this blog post) and bring them to life again.

If Scrivener was a man, I’d marry it.

I’ve always been gripped by the thought of a house so huge you could stumble, one day, on a door that you never knew existed.

In my real life (the dull one), I live in a flat that a Hobbit would find a bit snug. In my writing life, though, I spend most of my day in the titular Hall of my novel, a great sprawling beast of a place in the wilds of rural England: ‘In a normal-sized house you could hold all the rooms in your memory like birds in a cage. Not at Madder. At Madder they perched for a while, and flew on.’

It’s analogy time.

In my head a short story is ‘normal-sized’. I can feel the whole shape of it; see it, as if it was there – like a bird in a cage… or a chair, or a lamp, or a table – in front of me. Solid and real.

But a novel is more like London, say. You can see the whole thing in instalments, but not all at once. And you might have a vague sense of concrete, or shop glass, or buses, or Buckingham Palace, perhaps, when you’re thinking of London, but all your attempts to imagine it, whole, as a single appreciable object – a lamp, or a table – are doomed from the start.

On a good day, a novel’s like London. On bad days it’s more like…

Unknown

Enter Scrivener.

Thanks to my fellow writers (and future bridesmaids) Mary Nathan and Meghan Purvis, I made the wise decision – one morning, adrift in the London-ish land of my novel – to pick up a half-price copy of Scrivener, courtesy of those lovely folks at NaNoWriMo (who kindly offer a voucher code to those who ‘complete’ – which is markedly less sinister, by the way, than ‘completing’ in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go…).

Best. Decision. Ever. All right, so you must schedule four or five days to do no actual writing at all while you run like a loose-limbed child through your shiny new playground, but really, believe me, it’s worth it. You’ll never again have to scroll through 142 pages in search of that scene that you half-think you maybe half-wrote… You’re in Scrivener now: and you’ll store all your scenes in a series of files with their own little names (of your choosing) and mini-synopses on file cards, and photos and paintings and audio files that you’ve grabbed off the web in your modern-day version of research. Your London has boroughs now. And your London will let you take photographs of it (with Scrivener’s handy ‘snapshot‘ function that allows you to keep hold of multiple versions of scenes… and roll back to a previous version whenever you like).

With this piecemeal approach, you can isolate problems more easily. Why was my novel so boring, I wondered? Ahem, answered Scrivener. Have a quick squint at your scene files. And lo, and behold, my protagonist had returned to the kitchen four times in a single chapter. Perhaps, whispered Scrivener, you could offer variety to the reader? I will, I said boldly. And grabbing our camera we set off together to tackle the sprawling metropolis of my novel.