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.