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: Praise the Lord, it’s Day Thirty!

Am I sad or happy that NaNoWriMo, and hence my 30 Days of Nano blog challenge, comes to an end at midnight tonight?

I’m a mix of the two: I’m shappy.

I didn’t do any writing at all yesterday. I’d already locked and loaded the day’s blog post ahead of time, so I didn’t even write a blog. (Boo! Hiss!)

Statler: I hear they're calling this the Medium Blog.  Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn't rare or well done!

Statler: I hear they’re calling this the Medium Blog.
Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn’t rare or well done!

But the day before that, I finished the first draft of my novel.

I don’t think you heard me.

I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL!!!!!

Oh yeah. Go me.

Oh yeah. Go me.

 

I had my headphones in when I ‘validated’ on the nano site, and was promptly deafened by their cutesy recorded cheers. But I get to call myself a Winner. Hurrah! I like being a winner. Although it’s possible I’m only a winner for the remainder of 2014…

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

But at least I’ll have a month off from being a loser!

What have I learnt from this year’s nanowrimo?

We could really do with a Team America montage round about now.

 

Instead, have some bullet points:

  • The more often you write, the easier it gets.
  • Dorothea Brande was right: the subconscious will provide, if you let it.
  • The more you write, the more frequent your typos.
  • The more you write, the less inclination you have to amend those typos.
  • Sometimes, when you’re writing a lot, your brain attempts to reread, reflect, revise with every random thought you have, and this is almost as annoying as an Agadoo ear worm when you’re trying to sleep.
  • An insight scribbled in your notebook at four in the morning is better than two insights in a bush.
  • Two years of planning and writing and failing and writing and failing and tearing up plans and despairing and agonising and shredding and howling at the moon are all worth it when you’re not even writing your final scene: you’re following it, like a child in the Pied Piper’s wake, and you eat dinner because you have to eat dinner (you’re a human being, natch, and human beings need dinners) but you are eating with your left hand so you can carry on typing with your right.

Over the coming weeks and months it will all go pear-shaped. Of course it will. Bliss is fragile. I’m enjoying it now, because I can. I haven’t read my first draft yet. Why would I? I’m enjoying my honeymoon. You don’t go checking your new husband’s internet history when you’re on your honeymoon, do ya? No siree. You leave that for a rainy day in the future.

It’s not raining today (yet). And it’s too soon to go back to it yet. Fireworks and first drafts: leave ’em alone, for the love of God! 

But I have got a nagging awareness of the ‘project notes’ in my Scrivener file, where I noted down inconsistencies as I thunk of them. And I’ve sent Nancy Drew on the case of The Missing First Four Chapters and she’s presently teaming a rib-knit sweater with a pair of capri pants and enjoying a morning coffee with her kindly-eyed housekeeper Hannah Gruen, but she’s made some preliminary observations already:

  • At 8.04 a.m. the chapters were seen to be partially assembled.
  • They seemed not to be written in English, but gibberish.
  • Consultation with relevant sources suggests that it’s easier to write the beginning once you’ve got the end.

So, mainly because I find that I want to be writing today, and every day thereafter, I’m heading back in to the war zone with my dictaphone and my camera to start fiddling around a bit. (NB: Not to read the draft. Oh no. I don’t want to blow my face off with an unexploded rocket, thank you very much.) Expect further dispatches at some point in the future:

Novel is shit stop send reinforcements stop wondering if I should just stop 

And what have I learnt from my 30 days of daily blogging?

  • I should never compose a post in public, because I find myself quite funny sometimes (and that isn’t socially acceptable).
  • Some posts are bigger than others. (As Morrissey almost said.)
  • If I had to blog every day for the rest of my life, I probably could. But I don’t, so I won’t.

I do like blogging, though. And I like it when folk like my blogs.

This is me in the internet pond:

4496504859_3e846f5198

Image source

This is not me:

That's me holding the fish. Kidding.

That’s me holding the fish. Kidding.

Image source

But that’s cool.

Sometimes a few people stop by. They get snagged on some click bait in a tweet I wrote, or they google a search term that whisks them my way, or they (just occasionally) set out intentionally to come here. They put on their shoes, and coat, and gloves and they strap their binoculars round their neck and they brave the harsh winds of the internet in winter to peer through the fast encroaching fog for the faint glow, up ahead, of lynseywhite.com, where legend has it there are comfy chairs, hot tea, fluffy slippers for frostbitten feet, and a roaring log fire full of clichés. Not to mention willy jokes.

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in...

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in… they’re cold and tired and mightily in need of a joke about members.

Blogging gives me something (an outlet for my lunacy) that I don’t get from fiction – or don’t get so quickly, and easily, from fiction. So, whether or not there’s anyone out in that snowstorm searching, there’ll always be a brew on at lynseywhite.com (tea only; I don’t do coffee). It’s just I’ll be boiling the kettle slightly less often from December 1st…

We’ve had muppets, and fireworks, and insights in bushes, and weary travellers, and tiny fish… and if that ain’t enough confusing analogies for ya, then let me point you to some of my favourite posts from this whole 30 Days of Nano experience:

Day 18: in which Nano comes of age.

Day 10: my homage to Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer

Day 28: on being an older writer. (The internet liked this one the best.)

Day 6: something quite sensible about finding your ‘seed word’ (as Scarlett Thomas calls it).

Day 29: in which nanowrimo reports on my progress. 

December, here we come.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Four

A first draft is for telling the story to yourself.

The second draft, and the third, and the fourth… and the twenty-seventh… and the four-hundred-and-eleventh… are for telling the story to the reader. In other words: what to leave in (so that everything is not completely baffling) and what to take out (so that you’re not too patronising) and what to rephrase (because that sentence was aesthetically pleasing as the spiral of cat poop that was left for me in the bathtub yesterday morning – not a joke), and so on and so forth.

I wrote 9000 words yesterday, although large swathes of the day were spent on other things, which seems such a miraculous happening that I think we need a spontaneous picture here of some ‘Assorted Saints’ (that’s what the image is called; again not a joke).

And when, then I'd written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

And then, when I’d written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

 Image source (if you’d care to purchase some religious wallpaper)

There has been some fall-out along the way. A surprising amount of typos can be made when you’re writing as if the story is a train that you’re racing to catch. I’m aware (as I said in yesterday’s post) (which slightly, old-fashionedly, makes me think I’m inside the postbag, or the postbox, or being squeezed through someone’s letter box) (um anyway…) WHERE WAS I? Ah yes. I’m aware of wanting 70 thousand words, instead of the recommended 50 thousand, from this hectic month of November, but that’s only a back-to-front way of approaching the fact that the story seems to need/want/demand another twenty thousand words or so. (The Story should get together and go on a date with those Markets we’re always hearing about, and have a good chuckle over the power of an abstract concept to enslave humankind.)

Really, I’ll just keep writing until I run out of story. It doesn’t matter if that’s 70K or 170K, and

Unknown-2

 

before you tell me ‘no one ever buys first novels longer than 100K’, because first drafts have their own rules, and one of those rules is: THERE ARE NO RULES! Hurray. Cast caution to the wind

Goodbye, caution!

Goodbye, caution!

Image source

and write your little ass off, as badly – or goodly (erm…) – as you like. You will never, never, never again be as free (with this particular book) as you are now.

Remember those halcyon days at the start of a long-term relationship? When it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying, because the other person isn’t listening: the fact that you’re speaking at all – the fact that you exist – is reason enough for your mouth to be opening and closing, while they gaze at your face through the rose-tinted candlelight and wonder how ever their heart could have bothered to beat in the wasteland of their existence before you – you, oh wonderful creature – walked into their life. And even though you never fart in front of them, if you did it would waft like a squirt of Chanel no 5, because nothing can really be wrong that comes out of your body. You could probably even (don’t take my word on this) have a dump on the ground in front of them – possibly even in their shoes – and get away with it. And they’d still want to snog you.

That’s where I am with the novel right now. It can do no wrong. I think about it constantly. I don’t want to know what other people think: if its breath smells like a month-old egg sandwich, or it once went out in public in a denim hat, or it’s actually a closet Tory, or it wanted to do some really strange things with the last girl it slept with. I don’t want to hear that now! I don’t need to hear it. My story’s on a pedestal, god damn it, and it’s going to stay there.

For now.

After Christmas, when I come out from behind the curtains and sneak up on it, unawares, I’ll have taken my love-goggles off and I’ll see it for what it really is. I’ll cringe when it tells me that anecdote about getting arrested in Prague that it doesn’t remember telling me, already, two months ago – and I didn’t really enjoy it the first time, if I’m honest – and I’ll tilt my head and say, ‘Is that a beer belly under there?’ I’ll stop looking under the sofa cushions for that month-old egg sandwich and start leaving breath mints next to the bed. We’ll be out somewhere for dinner with friends, and I’ll hear my novel braying about privatisation, how that’s a good thing, and I’ll notice the man sitting opposite me at the table, who’s telling his neighbour to boycott Shell, and I’ll think to myself, ‘Now he seems nice. Why can’t my novel be like that? Look, he’s pouring water for everyone else first… My novel’s just taken the last shrimp off the plate, and he’s already had his fair share already and then some… Oh Christ, did he just burp?’

It’s going to be a sad and disappointing time. When I start the second draft, I’m going to think everyone at that table is kinder and sexier and sweeter-smelling than the novel I’ve been lumbered with. And I’m not saying I should stay with that novel forever (god forbid, in fact), but you’ve got to at least try to make it work, right?

No matter how much it stinks.

30 Days of Nano: Day Thirteen

Happy thirteenth day of NaNo! It’s the day your novel gets its tongue pierced and tells you to go feck yourself.

'Thirteen' good film, but seriously bloody scary for anyone who has a teenaged daughter...

‘Thirteen’: a good film, but seriously bloody scary for anyone who has a teenaged daughter…

At least it’s not a Friday, right?

Is your nano-novel having a teenaged tantrum? I left mine alone yesterday, entirely without supervision. Heading back there now to check it hasn’t trashed the house in my absence…

5 minutes later

Fixtures and fittings still in place. An empty bottle of vodka inside the toilet cistern and some fag butts under the bathroom window, but otherwise all seems much as I left it.

An hour later

Hmm. Well, this is a bit annoying. Until today, I had all of my nano words in a single Scrivener file (easier to tot up the word-count that way, as I reasoned) but every five thousand words or so there were strange blank spaces appearing (as if the words had been struck-through, but the strike-through itself was invisible, if that’s not too horribly complicated an image to fathom). Hence, a decision was made! Create a new project, solely for nano, split everything in that way too long document into separate scenes, give the scenes little titles, and see where we are. (It turns out it’s the work of, oh, about six seconds, to click: Project; Statistics and tot up the total.)

Where we are, people, is 410 words down on what I thought my word-count was. I’ve heard mutterings, on the internet, about Scrivener word counts not being entirely reliable, and I’m as confident as a jelly-head like me can be that I haven’t accidentally deleted something. So I’ll have to push on, writing 410 extra words on top of the double quota I already had to do today, anyway, because yesterday didn’t happen, blah blah, world’s smallest violin, etc. 410 words is a small price, though, because two important things have happened:

  • I’ve been reminded of things I’d forgotten I’d written (continuity errors ahoy!)
  • I’ve gained a bird’s eye view of proceedings (insert proverb here about ‘wood’ and ‘trees’ and not being able to see one for the other).
I heart Scrivener.

I heart Scrivener.

I know I’ve gone on about Scrivener before (here), but I really, honestly, do recommend it for those of you writing novels. If you do what I’ve done, and name every scene, you’ll be able to look at the spine of your story, so far, while you’re writing, in that left-hand column there (see above). I much prefer finding the spine in a book that has flesh on already, instead of the more traditional way: spine first, flesh later. Which isn’t to say I’m a ‘pantser’ (a person for whom plotting is anathema). It’s just that plotting ‘cold’ doesn’t work for me: I need to plan a bit, write a bit, plan a bit, write a bit. Realise my original plan was bullshit and start all over again. It takes longer that way (unsurprisingly). But, for me, it’s more truthful. I can’t get on board with a scene – no matter how ‘vital’ to my plot – if that scene doesn’t yank my chain somehow. And there’s simply no way to know what will yank your chain, when you actually sit down to write it, and what will leave you colder than David Cameron in his underpants than to… well, to actually sit down and write it. 

I don’t think I’m that great at the nuts and bolts of plot, but I do know when it isn’t working (I’m in good company, here: Stanley Kubrick – one of my top five directors – often knew what he didn’t want, more than what he did want). I make up for it, I hope, by being pretty good on theme and unity. I try to convince myself, quite often, that what I’ve got is okay, serviceable, perfectly good – but there’ll always be a niggle, until I’ve condensed all the disparate elements down to their absolute minimum. As I wrote about here, you don’t want any extra baggage.

Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.

How to be interesting.

Today on ye olde twitter I’ve been a-tweeting some quotes about writing a novel from the artist formerly known as the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. tweetTedHughes1 TweetTedHughes12 As you see, I’ve been hashtagging the quotes #NaNoPrep (and thinking, as I write this, how kinda ugly hashtags are – sorry if that’s hashtag-ist – and recalling the chill in my heart, many moons ago, as I watched a web address appear at the foot of the screen on a BBC – yes, BBC – telly programme without a capital letter as if the whole world had gone e.e. cummings crazy: ‘ugh,’ thought I, ‘well that‘ll never catch on.’ I thought the same thing about the Spice Girls, incidentally. I have my fingers in many proverbial pies, but never, as I learnt long ago, on the pulse of the nation.)

Where was I? Ah yes, #NaNoPrep. If you read my last post you’ll know that by NaNoPrep I’m referring to preparation for ‘NaNoWriMo’ (National Novel Writing Month), and if that means about as much to you as Fermat’s Last Theorem, or an episode of Golden Balls, or some other unfathomable thing, you’d be best off (a) reading that last post instead, or (b) switching off the internet and doing something less boring (one for the 70s kids). There’s a reason these quotes are especially apt if you’re planning your November novel; and here’s one that is far too long for twitter, but is probably most useful of all:

‘Now when you are writing a novel […] you are constantly thinking of what is coming up next, and there occasionally arrives a time when it seems to you that nothing comes next – you dry up, you run out of ideas. This is the commonest difficulty among writers who write long stories. Even if they are the sort that plan out every incident ahead, they are sometimes brought to a stop, and their next incident somehow will not go, it will not come to life, it no longer seems the right thing, and they are stuck. This is a sign that the story has led them outside their genuine interests, it has lured them over the boundary into country that they have no real feeling for. It is as if their brains said: “We have nothing to say about this, we don’t know anything about it and we don’t feel anything about it and it bores us.”‘ (Italics mine. This is from Poetry in the Making: A Handbook for Writing and Teaching, which I heartily recommend to all writers.)

In spite of being on Team Sylvia, I've always been slightly in love with Ted Hughes.

In spite of being on Team Sylvia, I’ve always been slightly in love with Ted Hughes.

I have spent about two years so far on my novel and during those two eventful years I have stubbed my poor toes on the wooden furniture of a bad idea more times than I care to remember. And what I can say, hand on heart, is that Ted Hughes is right. There are days, or at least the beginnings of days, when your sentences ramble for England (I’m picturing un-herded sheep as I write this); you can’t find your rhythm; you fill your basket from the adverb aisle of the word market. None of those things, however, is fatal, so long as you’re writing about something that interests you. It might all be tangled and muddled and, damn it, the thing in your head is too complex and too beautiful to ever be pinned down in words, at least by a dufus like you, but hurray-with-bells-on if that’s the case: because, if it’s beautiful in your head, then you’ve been there, and done it, and seen it, and felt it, and even perhaps smelt it, and all that’s left now is to find the appropriate words to describe it (and if you don’t really enjoy finding words to describe things, then might I humbly suggest that ‘writer’ is possibly not your calling in life?). I don’t mean to be glib about this: it is incredibly bloody frustrating to argue all day with yourself about whether a non-existent object is ‘ointment pink’ or ‘sulphur yellow’, with all the particular repercussions and connotations each entails, but it’s sort of fun too, right?

Pesky sentences being all untidy. Image at https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/2350258

Pesky sentences being all untidy. Image at https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/2350258

Sometimes, though, no matter how lovingly we nurse it, our scene, or our chapter, or perhaps our entire novel, is on life support, being fed through a tube. In their white coats the doctors are circling, avoiding our eye, mumbling something in sombre tones about making decisions, and brain death, and needing the bed for new patients. As you try to ignore them your prose gets a straw-clutching case of the ‘Suddenly She‘s, (I do love the word ‘suddenly’, sparingly used, but as a substitute for genuine surprise and/or tension it’s a giant no-no); you wonder if somehow your head has a leak in the back, where the hair is, and all of the words you once knew – the good words – have seeped out… And the ones you still know (like suddenly, and realised, and almost, and sort of) lie flat on the page, like words, and refuse to transform into images, sounds, and textures… in that case it’s time to stop blaming the sentences. It isn’t your sentences that have rambled too far (we’re back to the sheep again now): it’s you. Without knowing it, you’ve crossed the border into country you ‘have no real feeling for’.

It is a dark place. It is forlorn and empty, peopled with mutes made of cardboard, and ‘shutter stock’ images straight from a film you once saw, and dialogue made entirely from cheese. Cue Harrison Ford to writer-director George Lucas (on the set of Star Wars): ‘You can type this shit, but you can’t say it’. And, likewise, you can type as much shit as you want (far more than the 1667 words a day that will claim you NaNoWriMo victory), but if it’s all written in ‘don’t-care country’ then what, pray tell, is the point? Let’s forget about sheep for a moment and turn to horses: more specifically, the flogging of dead ones. (Not to mention the leading to water of horses who’ve already had quite enough to drink, thank you very much.) Writing ‘interestingly about something that interests you’ is an ongoing concern from the very first ‘ch’ of chapter one to the ‘d’ of the End, and you have to refresh that interest again, and again, and again. Back to Ted:

‘The difference between a fairly interesting writer and a fascinating writer is that the fascinating writer has a better nose for what genuinely excites him, he is hotter on the trail, he has a better instinct for what is truly alive in him. The worse writer may seem to be more sensible in many ways, but he is less sensible in this vital matter: he cannot quite distinguish what is full of life from what is only half-full or empty of it.’

If you’ve signed up for NaNo this year, or you’re thinking about it, I hope you won’t only be thinking of scene arcs, and plot twists, and points of no return, and inciting incidents – as much as those things are important, yes – or ‘thinking it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic’ (Ted again). I hope you’ll be seeing and smelling and touching the scenes you are writing about. And I hope you’ll be noticing what is alive in your writing – what makes it yours, just yours, and nobody else’s – and, most of all, watch where you’re walking. It’s scarily easily to spend the whole month of November in ‘don’t-care country’ and end up with something that’s fit for the bin.

In other words: ‘Don’t think, feel,’ as a wise man once said. ‘It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.’ Full marks if you get the reference before watching this clip!

How to be interesting? The answer is: be interested. Remember that, fellow WriMos. And the very best of luck.

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.

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?

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.)