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.

Oh, the times they are a-changin’ (or actually changed quite a long time ago without me bloody noticing).

When I first started hawking my stories round town, the only real tool at my writerly disposal was a manual typewriter approximately the size – and weight – of London, with an ever-increasing number of jammy keys, and malfunctioning ribbons.

Yes, ribbons.

Ribbons. Not just for little girls' hair.

Ribbons. Not just for little girls’ hair.

In those days ribbons had quite a lot to do with writing. They lived on two spools in the typewriter’s casing, and slowly unwound and rewound themselves, over and over again, till the ink was worn out. (Or, well, that’s how I remember it. Funny how something as normal as breathing for so many years seems so hazy and alien now. Take a trip here for the Wiki-How low-down.) At least, that’s what they did when they worked. But mine didn’t. I’d get to the end of one spool and I’d WIND BACK THE RIBBON BY HAND. That’s how much I wanted to keep writing. (For one memorable time in my life, I had two-tone print, like a half-baked sort of traffic light, with red at the bottom and black at the top.) If you wrote something silly you reached for the salaciously-named corrective fluid or (more often, if you were me) retraced your steps with a row of snarling Xs. A bit like barbed wiring.

To summarise: you had to be really ashamed of a line, in those days, to delete it.

I'm going all warm and squishy inside at the sight of this.

I’m going all warm and squishy inside at the sight of this.

The other thing I mentioned was the jammy keys. You’d literally hammer the words on the page, in those far-away days, and my hammers would sometimes – quite often – refuse to lie down again after I’d used them. Perhaps (in my fantasy land) they were trying to read what I’d written. More likely they needed some oil. Either way, it was quite an ordeal, most days, to get more than a handful of paragraphs onto the page. These machines were so flipping noisy you couldn’t type much after ten if you lived within listening range of other humans. Your fingers grew steadily flatter from thumping the keys. It was hard bloody work. It was manual labour. (See what I did there? Sorry.)

You sent off your stories by post (a nice pigeon arrived at your door with a clip round his leg, and you gently attached your short story and waved him goodbye). When you entered your work for a prize the results would arrive in a similar fashion, or maybe by telephone – landline, I mean – and then only, of course, if you’d won: if you hadn’t, and hadn’t requested a notification, you might never know the results.

When I hung up my writer’s gloves for a while (with a crippling case of The Block) things had already changed. Like Dylan, I’d long since gone electric (first with a plug-in typewriter – whoop! – then the humble Word Processor. Yes, I’m a sort of computer, but whoa there, girl, what’s this internet shopping you speak of? And today’s top compilation of Cats Being Jerks? Are you out of your tiny mind? I’m a word processor, sweetheart. For the processing of words).

Sometimes, laptop, much as I love you, I wish you were humbler and simpler and more single-minded. I wish you were more about processing words and less about oh what’s that nice shiny link over there – and, aw, that’s so cute – and, haha, that’s the funniest ever and – fifty-seven flagged emails I haven’t replied to – and sign this petition – and, oh, I’ll retweet that – and, yes, I love cutting and pasting, and googling for everything possibly relevant (certainly saves on the telephone calls to my dad: ‘Do you know when the sun sets in March?’; ‘When were seat belts made law?’; What does camphor smell of?’, etc) but my brain seemed to shape its thoughts more easily – in the tap-tap-tap-ding! of those olden days – when it took so much work to commit them to paper.

And competitions, too, have moved on. There are prizes for stories and poems, same as always, of course – but the stories have sub-sets now (flash fiction and memoir), and something Tania Hershman tweeted the other day about ‘drabbles’ had me reaching for my dictionary (by which, ahem, I mean googling for the definition) to learn that, no, these are not the off-spring of Margaret Drabble, but rather a tightly-laced Victorian governess of a story form: 100 words exactly. Ouch. That’s rigid. (Rigidity rather works, though, when it comes to short stories… but that’s for another post.) And the last prize I entered myself (the Fish Short Story Prize 2011) was entirely an online-affair. Did they want my address? No, they didn’t. But what if my email dies, somehow, I was thinking. How will they tell me I’ve won? (Oh, come on, we all think it. Fess up.) In the end I was short-listed (close, but no cigar), and my email continued to function as normal, and yes, the website crashed when the long list was published, but, ultimately, the world kept on spinning, and no-one but me was remotely sniffly or sad for the ritual of giving the big brown envelope a kiss for luck before sending it, actually, physically, off to its fate. Call me an old romantic, but, sigh, there was something I liked about that.

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

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.

What to do when your novel hates you.

Last week, while lovestruck writers all around the globe were frantically conjuring upwards of 1667 words per day for National Novel Writing Month, my own novel announced that it hated me.

Oh god, not you again. Another 500 words about wallpaper… Oh, look, and now somebody’s walking the length of a shadowy hallway… Again. Now they’re opening a door. Now they’re filling the kettle for tea. How exciting. You’re really beginning to grate on me, Lynsey. Can’t someone else finish me? Sarah Waters, for instance. Susan Hill… 

Every sentence I wrote was shrugged off, refused entry, deleted again with a head-shake of shame. In my absence, my novel got dressed by itself and walked off. It went down to the courthouse and took out a restraining order against me. I couldn’t go near it. The moment I picked up my laptop my novel directed me straight to a game of Prolific on Facebook, or opened a shiny new window and filled it with tweets (yes, you definitely ought to read that link, Lynsey: the one about ’20 Mistakes All Writers Make’, oh, and look, here are 49 pictures of cats falling over on Buzzfeed… you know you love cats falling over…)

The first week of NaNo was racing away. On their website, my word count was frozen in time. Other writers were hitting five figures. I drifted through Panic, past Jealousy, onto the Isle of Don’t Care. On the Isle of Don’t Care you’re so far from the book you once loved that you barely remember its name. Weren’t you writing a book once? What, who, me? I don’t think so. You were. It was called ‘Something Hall’… and it had lots of shadowy hallways and wallpaper in it. That sounds pretty dull, to be honest. Let’s giggle at cats falling over instead.

And then… Bam. There I was on the Isle of Don’t Care, doing nothing particular, browsing some articles, making a playlist on youtube, when suddenly everything changed. This was Saturday (day of the NaNo ‘marathon’). Something was fluttering, off in the distance. And there, on the opposite shore, with a white flag in hand, was my novel. Come back, it said. All is forgiven. That Sarah… that Susan… pah! They’re both busy. It turns out there’s no one but you who can finish me. No one else wants to. They’re all writing books of their own. 

So I turned to my playlist and plucked out Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (which it’s physically impossible for me to listen to without feeling something)and out popped 2,340 words. Just like that. As it turns out, the Isle of Don’t Care is a great place to visit occasionally. Ease off the pressure gauge, kick back, and leave your subconscious to wander… and all sorts of things will have planted themselves in your head when you get back to shore. 

Just be sure not to stay for too long…

 


Thank you, Writer Squirrel.

Day One of NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month if you’re one of the remaining 0.0001% of the population that hasn’t heard of it) and I seem to be playing an awful lot of online boggle… (Still, at least it’s not Candy Crush.) My word count for the day is a sorrowful 706 (as opposed to the 1667 I’m meant to crank out).

Last year I scrambled across the 50,000 word finish line by literally (oh all right, figuratively) vomiting ten thousand of those words in the last six hours. What did I write about? Don’t ask me. After roughly an hour I moved to Auto Pilot. My hands seemed to type independently of my head. Looking back on that draft – or, rather, peering at it from behind a cushion – I feel like a 1960s acid casualty watching herself writhe topless on screen in WoodstockIt must have been me who wrote that thousand word scene about peeling potatoes, because – look – it’s right there on my laptop. But, equally, if you told me that one of my cats had randomly tapped out the contents of that document whilst chasing an insect across the keyboard I wouldn’t have had to struggle too hard to believe you. In fact, I’d have been relieved.

The truth is – the whole thing was drivel. M’Lord, I present the following evidence from the festering pus-filled document entitled ‘NaNo2012’ to support this claim:

Thump, thump, thump. Silence. Thump, thump, thump.

Was Miss Bellcomb a virgin, she wondered momentarily, as Nick writhed towards her, grabbing her hair.

‘Oh crap,’ Arthur said. He leaned on the wall. ‘Oh crap. This is bad.’

Couldn’t have put it better myself, Arthur. And who’s Arthur? Forget him: he doesn’t exist anymore. My point is, finding something like this – that you wrote – on your laptop could easily get a girl down. You could start to have dark bleak thoughts of the ‘I’m not worthy’ variety. And perhaps you’re not worthy. (That is, of course, always the possibility.) But aren’t we writers too often too hard on ourselves? Any musician, for instance, will tell you it takes years of practice to master their art. Unlike writers, musicians commit their mistakes to the ether: there’s nobody there with a dictaphone, taping their every last error and storing it up for posterity (by which, of course, I mean future humiliation). Writers, though, are like squirrels in autumn: religiously hoarding our every last sentence in case we can use it one day. What I’m trying to say (I think) is that nothing is wasted. And don’t be ashamed of your drivel. Embrace it. Your drivel is part of your journey, your scales and arpeggios on the way to your Emperor Concerto.

And, while trawling last year’s NaNo drivel for some of the ickiest phrases, I found one I rather quite like:

She sat up, alert, on her chair, as if someone had just pulled her laces too tight.

So, thank you, Writer Squirrel. Keep hoarding.

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…

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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. 

Glassworks. A cryptically-titled post about seizing the day and all that.

What’s the secret of artistic success? According to the (prolific and phenomenally successful) composer Philip Glass it’s very simple: get up early, and work all day.

In the spirit of Mr Glass, for the last three weeks I’ve been setting my alarm clock 45 minutes earlier and attempting to write. Unlike Phil (as I’m now calling him, after two sentences’ acquaintance) I don’t have the luxury of devoting his average ten hour stretch to my artistic endeavours – and neither did he for a very long time (having spent the lion’s share of the 1970s as a plumber and/or taxi driver) – but I’m finding, to my huge surprise, that the ‘getting up early’ part of the equation is working swimmingly well.

Now I speak as a woman who’s had to be crowbarred from bed on a number of gloomy occasions. I do love my bed. I love dreaming. I love sleeping in. I love long lazy mornings in blanket city with nothing particular making demands on my time.

But the thing that I’ve learnt in the last three weeks is that, yes, I love sleeping – but really, when’s all said and done, I love writing much more. In an oddly circuitous way I love writing with Philip Glass’s Glassworks in the background. (Have a listen; you might love it, too.) And, occasionally, when I’m listening, I’ll think about Phil and his ten hour day… and my measly two hours, here and there, feel like blinks of an eye, and each day when the clock makes that horrible peeping at half past six (and I long to curl up in a dream again) I chastise myself with the knowledge that Phil has been up for two hours already.

Oh yeah, and he’s 76.

Enough said.

To doll or not to doll? That is the question.

Any writer currently tiptoeing through the cliché minefield that is the Ghost Story will likely have pondered this question at some weary, uninspired point in the wee small hours: can I, or can I not, have a scene with a Scary Doll™ in it?

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The Scary Doll™, as we all know, has been Done to Death. But so, too have shadows and candles and sinister disembodied giggling – and I’ve happily included all those clichés in my Magnum Opus. But is the Scary Doll™ a step too far across the cliché minefield? Will the Scary Doll™ explode in your face?

For this particular writer the answer is: yes.

In draft 1 of the novel I bravely attempted to ‘doll’ (And now came a clack as it hauled itself up and sat stiffly in lace dress and bootees, the hint of a tooth in its sluttish red mouth). Other drafts have been burdened with kilt-wearing dollies and dollies with teapots and balding monstrosities smothered in lace. But, in each case, the sinister hellspawn I’d set on the page was not, in fact, a Scary Doll™ but, rather, its devious (and far more terrifying) cousin: the Hilarious Doll.

So, regrettably, I’m putting the dolls to bed. There may yet be mileage in a one-eyed teddy bear, but for now I’ll leave with you Hugo, a genuinely terrifying doll from the 1945 horror classic Dead of Night

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A visit from the evil word-fairy.

She comes in the night. Like the tooth fairy. Or perhaps a succubus. And what does she do? She takes the 522 words you lovingly crafted yesterday morning in the white heat of creative genius… and she hands you back something a nine-old-year child would be ashamed to have written.

Last night I had such a visit. This morning I find myself facing The Book in the cold light of Monday morning (and we all know Monday morning light is the coldest morning light of all) and wondering – as I believe Keats once put it – WTF?!?!?!

But where there’s tea, there’s hope. Kettle boiled, mug in hand, there’s no option but to plunge back into the ludicrous piece of sub-Downton nonsense I found on my laptop this morning… and try to write better today.

Sigh.

Blowing my own trumpet. Just momentarily. (Sorry.)

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Being British, I’ve always struggled a bit with blowing my own trumpet. It’s not quite the done thing, is it, chaps? It’s not quite cricket.

But a group of us got together last week at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road to read from our burgeoning novels, and (even if I say so myself) we did pretty bloody well. Every bone in my British body is screaming at me right now to temper that statement (rather well, okayish, marginally above average, slightly better than a smack in the face with a wet kipper) but, screw it, we acquitted ourselves with style and aplomb and it deserves saying. Here’s Laura Stimson saying it much better than me in her blog about the event (on behalf of Writers’ Centre Norwich).

For those who don’t already know, I’ve recently enjoyed a period of professional support from those lovely folk at WCN as part of their Escalator Literature programme 2012/13 (in conjunction with the UK Arts Council). They’ve produced a rather lovely booklet (which you can see in all its glory in the photograph above) containing quotes from myself and my nine fellow ‘Escalatees’ : Mary Nathan, Meghan Purvis, Megan Bradbury, Jonathan Curran, L. E. Yates, Kyra Karmiloff, Sue Healy, Ian Madden and Linda Spurr. There’s some extraordinary talent among them, so do check out their work at the WCN website. That’s me in the spotty dress, clenching my prosecco.

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And here’s me reading from my novel-in-progress Madder Hall, a psychological ghost story set in the 1970s and very nicely summed-up by my lovely mentor Michelle Spring as a ‘playful and menacing’ mix of the Gothic and the grotesque. (All credit for pics and video to the equally lovely Lucy White and Gordon Smith.) Having always loathed reading in public and, let’s be honest, majorly sucked at it too (see my last post), I found the experience about 67% less hair-raising than expected and feel only a modicum of dread at the thought of repeating it all at the Writers’ Centre’s Salon next month. N.B. The instrument I’m describing in this extract is the glass armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, and here’s what it sounds like in the expert hands of Thomas Bloch.

Here endeth the trumpet blowing. Rest assured, normal self-deprecating service will be fully resumed in my next post.