30 Days of Nano: Day Fourteen

The one in which I (accidentally) wake an hour early and decide to start writing immediately (by which I mean, after checking Facebook and twitter), amassing 2378 words before breakfast and earning my virtual badge for passing 25,000 words.

It’s been a long week.

On Wednesday I wrote nothing.

On Thursday I wrote garbage.

Discarding paper rubbish

The fruits of Thursday’s labour.

Today I caught up with the story again and, although, yes, I wrote garbage, it was useful garbage.

I had a little epiphany in the shower (which isn’t a euphemism): I think I can actually finish this book. Which isn’t the sort of epiphany you perhaps ought to be having after TWO YEARS of work on a project, but finally it feels concrete and real: an achievable journey – like driving to Sainsbury’s, for instance, as opposed to hang-gliding over the Atlantic ocean.

For so long, a sizeable chunk of this book has been nothing but air. I’ve got lots of beginnings (I really mean lots) and a couple of bits that belong near the end, but the rest was a grey area, filled with Things That Happen and Bits I Haven’t Worked Out Yet and Bridges To Be Crossed When I Come To Them.

Q: Why did the writer cross the bridge (after watching the bridge through binoculars for four months, making copious notes on the bridge’s design and structure)?

A: To get to the other side.

It happens to us all in the end. (Even those of us who could procrastinate for England.) The longing to get to The Other Side becomes so intense that you can’t put off crossing the bridge any longer, no matter how wobbly it looks or how fiercely the wind might be blowing. No matter how many trolls there are underneath it.

Baaaaaaaaaa.

Baaaaaaaaaa.

Image source

Goats have to be brave sometimes, and so do writers. Doing anything that matters to you – really matters – is going to be scary. So long as you’re only thinking about it, and not really doing it (or doing it half-heartedly), the Thing That Matters remains on its perfect pedestal in your mind: unsullied, unspoilt, a work worthy of Shakespeare, and if by any chance it doesn’t quite meet Shakespearean standards, well that doesn’t matter either. You’ve only put half your heart into it: if you really, really, honestly, properly, truly tried it would certainly be a work of brilliance.

And then, eek, you do really try. You honestly, properly, truly try to write this book you’ve been sort-of-writing for so long. And you’re on stage naked and everyone’s pointing and laughing. And what if they’re right to laugh? And what if you’re not very good at the Thing That Matters, the thing you’ve been dreaming of your whole life?

Oh dear.

That’s scary, isn’t it?

Last year I was picked by the Writers’ Centre Norwich as one of their ten ‘Escalator Literature’ writers.

escalator tweet

 

I won’t go on about that, because I’ve already gone on about that probably more times than the average human can bear, but as I wrote in that guest blog for Writers’ Centre Norwich (follow the link if you’d like to know more) our year of professional development had downs as well as ups. Thank the Lord we were never actually naked on stage, but my innermost soul was exposed on a couple of sorry occasions. ‘You want an extract from my novel? For your website? You mean the novel that doesn’t exist yet…?’

‘You want me to give a reading? In front of a bunch of agents? And this would be a reading from…? Oh, right. That novel that doesn’t exist yet…’

If I actually finish this book, then I’ll have to be naked on stage all over again when I send it to agents. And that’s a bit daunting. Am I all mouth and no trousers? Am I scared to put my money where my mouth is? Will I need mouth-to-mouth when the first rejections arrive?

The answer to all three is: maybe. But if three little goats have got the balls to cross that bridge, than so have I.

Although, PS, I don’t actually have balls. I am considering a larger penis though.

 

 

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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!

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.

Channelling one’s inner thespian, darling.

Last night, in a warm and welcoming space at the top of Foyles book shop on Charing Cross Road, a group of us ‘Escalatees’ got together to read our work to an audience of family, friends, and industry professionals. (Pics to follow shortly.) This Showcase is an annual event that rounds off the Escalator Literature ‘year’ (more details here), and it’s fair to say that it’s loomed fairly large in all our minds for the past few months. To help with the collywobbles Writers’ Centre Norwich very kindly supplied us with a performance workshop a week earlier (taught by the super-talented Aoife Mannix) to equip us with the necessary skills. And for one writer at least (by which I mean me) it was a revelation.

As a kid I loved acting. I even trod the boards for two years in panto at Norwich Theatre Royal as one of the Central School ‘Babes’ (back in the day before ‘babes’ had acquired its saucier connotations), and I still remember the joy of the jingling brown envelopes on payday. (Yes, jingling. Not rustling. It wasn’t a hugely lucrative career.) But the part of myself, all pale and quivering, that sits hunched and bleeding at the keyboard (to paraphrase Hemingway) had always been Land’s End to the John o’Groats of that kid who loved acting. They’d never so much as set eyes on each other. So when Aoife suggested that we might perform our work, rather than read it – that we might, God forbid, use gestures – I had a bit of an epiphany. ‘I write to be read, not heard,’ I’d told my fellow Escalatee, Mary Nathan (you can read her fantastic work here), rather pompously, as she gave me a warm-up coaching session. And, yes, that’s still true (the page is what really matters to me), but as The Writer moves ever further from the Graham Greenish creature of fifty-odd years ago to the all-singing, all-dancing festival stars of the 21st century I suppose it can’t hurt to have your inner actor and your inner writer exchange a sweaty-palmed handshake at last.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a poet nominated for the Forward Prize. In which case, maybe don’t bother…