Re-search: because you didn’t find it the first time.

It’s 2nd November 2016, and what am I doing?

Am I having another bash at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated) and another bash at writing Madder Hall?

Sort of.

And sort of not.

What I’m doing is NaNoREWriMo: National Novel Rewriting Month. Because I’ve already (more than once) written the (&*$^%^$@%ing) novel. I just haven’t written it well enough.

Hey ho.

‘I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it.’ So begins the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s The Book of Household Management and (leaving aside the juicy fact I learnt recently, courtesy of Jeremy Paxman, that Mrs B had syphilis) I kinda know the feeling. It’s not quite true, in my case, that I’d never have commenced the thing at all. What is certainly true in my case, however, is that I would have commenced it differently. Like most things in my life, I went about it arse over tit.

While being forever grateful to Writers’ Centre Norwich for all the lovely side-effects of my (2013) year as one of their Escalator writers (agent exposure, professional workshops, one-to-one mentoring, delicious lunches…) I can’t deny that I entered the programme at the wrong time for my novel-in-progress. It didn’t exist, when I sent off my application, as anything more than a flicker (a glint, as I think Nabokov called it – or was that Henry James?) of a single image, slowly moving: a yellow-haired girl, a teenager, wheeling a bicycle towards a country house. It still didn’t exist (not really) when I uploaded a draft chapter to the Writers’ Centre website. Or even when I gave a reading ‘from’ the novel at an agents’ showcase in London, several months into the process. To be honest, it didn’t properly exist until November, two years ago, when I hit my stride at last by splurging 70,000 words, going way over NaNo target (50,000) and posting a daily blog as well. In the end it was writing quickly, as I began to do at the time of writing this post (with thanks to the late Ray Bradbury), that helped me make the leap from nothingness to novel. I still think writing quickly is the key (‘in quickness is truth’, as Bradbury said).

But, like most things, a novel needs more than one kind of approach. And, occasionally (as has happened to me – cue ‘lightbulb moment’), it needs to be older than you thought it did. Madder Hall was, all along, a Victorian novel, in spite of the fact that its author (that’s me) didn’t want it to be. There were long months of locked horns. But, eventually, it was clear as proverbial crystal: the story was horribly ill at ease in the 20th century.

screenshot-2016-10-18-14-53-20

My brain experiencing a lightbulb moment. (Also, fact fans, the flash-powder igniting in an 1850s-style photo session.) 

I was just about getting my head round the mountain of research that awaited me when – hello, bombshell – I had to have a sex change too. In the process of getting to know my antagonist I’d discovered that, actually, he was more fascinating, to me, than my sketchy yellow-haired protagonist (who never – damn her – seemed to react to anything, or have any feelings). Her raison d’être was to be mysterious – therefore, quelle surprise, I couldn’t get under her skin.

So, antagonist became protagonist. And the 1970s became the 1850s.

And, thus, the research began. In my day job I’m a research lecturer, and I have an enduring fondness for finding things out. Therefore I didn’t (and don’t) mind the mountain of research, which continues each day and helps me push the plot along. But it does tend to slow things down temporarily, by which I mean (almost) stop them entirely. What is necessary, for me, is to get to a bursting point: to be so blown-up, balloon-like, with Victoriana that, come time to write, I need only the littlest pinprick to get going. It’s not really about knowing things (although, obviously, it is partly about that, because pesky facts have to be faced); it’s mainly, I think, about feeling Victorian. Sensing the mindset. Imagining what it was like to wear six starchy petticoats, laden with sweat; to think of a telegraph as blindingly new and exciting; to only just know of the word ‘scientist’; to think of child abuse as ‘seduction’; to love God devotedly and not even know (yet) about Darwin or (properly) about dinosaurs.

I can only cling to the notion that I’ll get there in the end. And, come November – as each November regularly does come, year after year that I labour (in vain?) on this book – it’s a rather nice, comradely thing to look out of my hidey-hole, like a tortoise in Spring, and find legions of other writers openly, publicly, sharing their own twisted journeys towards achieving something ‘novelly’ in shape and size (if not, exactly, a novel – because 50,000 words, although entirely admirable, isn’t quite book-length, outside YA). For the last few days, as a run-up to NaNo, I’ve been doing 1000+ words every day – with no regard to quality whatsoever – as you can see here in my Scrivener ‘scene’ files:

Screenshot 2016-11-02 15.25.14.png

The upshot has been that I (usually) exceed my target every day… which led me to think I’d be breezing through come November 1st! But you know what they say about pride and falls… In the spirit of openness, here’s evidence of my own limping start to the month: Screenshot 2016-11-02 13.42.35.png

‘At this rate you will finish on August 4th’… and this book (for reasons I won’t divulge) absolutely has to be finished by June 2017. So, on I press. I’m comforted, as I slog, by sensible advice in a book called Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch: you might get it wrong, he says, ten thousand times… Getting it right the ten thousand and first is all that matters.

Here’s hoping…

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Back to square seven or possibly eight (with apologies for radio silence).

All right, then. Here we are again.

It’s been so long since I blogged that I had to sit, for a little while, staring hard at the screen. I wasn’t looking for inspiration; I was looking for the ‘new post’ button.

It’s funny how quickly your brain un-accustomises itself to things that once seemed normal and natural.

Writing this seems okay, though. But lonely. A dribble of visitors have passed this way in the six months or so since my last post. If I’m honest, though, I’d forgotten I even had a blog. Or what it was for. I’m still not sure. I think (I think) this is going to be a writing diary, for the summer months (when I’ve hung up my gown and mortar board), while I’m tackling the start of the novel (again) that was masquerading for quite a few months as The Finished Article, before Rogue Traders off the telly came round and said, hold on a sec, you’ve plumbed that chapter in completely wrong, and the sub-plot needs rewiring.

There isn’t a thing I can do about it except: start again.

I don’t (thank Christ) mean start again start again. What I mean is, the book learned to write itself as it went along. It got better. (Which is better than getting worse, as I’m sure you’ll agree.) The book was like Terminator 2 as opposed to 1, and when it got to the end of itself it had to send me back in time to… make itself pregnant, or something along those lines. Ah, you know what I mean. It’s not quite good enough, is what I mean. I can’t send it out like that.

So it’s back to the notebooks, where I found this little doodle…

.Help!

And this message I wrote to myself (pardon my French)…

Help2!

And this is the front door of my book (although in the actual real world it’s a door at Felbrigg Hall).

No entry!

And these are the circular stairs I’m eternally walking up (or down) till the day (please God let it be soon) that this book becomes good enough.

Stairs!

And the problem is that I don’t hate the bits I’ve got to get rid of. It’s harder to say goodbye when the words have been carefully ordered, or happen to have fallen in a lucky way. I quite like a lot of it. Having written well once, I can write well again. I think, I hope. But the plot isn’t right. There are characters who need to die. Someone’s feet need reattaching (really).

I can’t promise much excitement here, on this blog, for the next few weeks, but you might find succour if you’re stuck, a bit, with your own book (in particular with a book that you once thought was finished).

For now, then, it’s back to the grindstone. Back to square… seven, or possibly eight. (Square six, on a bad day.)

Never mind, eh.

30 Days of Nano: Day One.

images-5Words written: 1676 (good). 1½ glasses of wine (also good). 1 chocolate cupcake, 3 rows of Galaxy Honeycomb chocolate, 2 bags marmite crisps (perhaps not so good).

Began the day wondering where to begin.

Posted ‘humorous’ tweets:

Nanotweet1

Nanotweet2

Wrote a couple of paragraphs. Tweeted about it.

Nanotweet3

Tried and failed to update my word count on the NaNo site. Tweeted about it.

Nanotweet4

Watched ‘Sideways’ with my daughter. Quaffed a little wine. Caught the last five unfathomable minutes of Doctor Who. Watched the X Factor (or, at least, was present in the room whilst said programme was on screen). Quaffed more wine.

Climbed into bed with 1026 words written. Appreciated the Beauty of Nano: having set myself this fecking challenge (no, auto correct, I don’t mean decking) instead of resuming my reading of Sarah Waters’ rather marvellous The Paying Guests I’ve been forced to produce another (hmm, sums… oh dear) 641 words (thanks, google). None of which have been good words. But I did, as you’ll see in my word count above, exceed my daily target by six whole words. Yes, that’s right. I went the extra mile. (Oh, all right, the extra millimetre.) ‘What were the six words?’ I (don’t) hear you ask? They were: ‘trapping Iolanthe inside for the night’. Almost Shakespearean in its genius, I expect you’ll agree.

Probably all the good stuff will happen tomorrow.

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.

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

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

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

'The Bath of Knowledge' designed by Vanessa Mancini.

‘The Bath of Knowledge’ designed by Vanessa Mancini.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(S)he makes it look so easy. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilary Mantel avec clothes

Hilary Mantel avec clothes

Did I strip?

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

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

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

I wonder what she dreams about?

Walking the Tightrope of Doom between juicy and confusing.

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

Answers on a postcard, please.

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

The birthing of an accidental plot strand.

The birthing of an accidental plot strand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I went to make tea and forgot it.

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

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

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

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

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

Does the universe need another writer?

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

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

The answer is 18 copies.

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

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

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

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…

Unknown

Enter Scrivener.

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

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

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

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.

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.

Fear of the blank page…

‘Get black on white,’ as Guy de Maupassant apparently once said. (Presumably in French.) ‘Black words on a white page are the soul laid bare.’

So no pressure there, then.

Writing your inaugural blog post, as it turns out, is almost as daunting as writing the first line of a story. Happily, in a blog, you can call on Maupassant to do the job for you.

Anyway… I’m Lynsey, a prize-winning short story writer and fledgling novelist. As a short story writer I’ve bagged the prestigious Bridport Prize and a Canongate Prize for New Writing. As a novelist I’ve kindly been taken under the wing of Writers’ Centre Norwich. Earlier this year I was chosen as one of the ten most promising genre novelists in the Eastern region as part of their Escalator Literature programme, and offered a year’s mentoring from the wonderful Michelle Spring. Very happily, I’ve also received a grant from the UK Arts Council to write my magnum opus, Madder Hall. And that’s mostly what I’ll be blogging about on this site. The highs and the lows (and yet more lows) of writing a novel.

In the meantime, here I am on the Future Radio archives waffling on about music (and myself) instead of writing.