there must be a name for this feeling you get in the middle of a novel when actually you HATE your novel and you want to throw it out of the window and start over and your friends have to talk you down and talk you up and you read blogs that say WHATEVER YOU DO DON’T STOP WRITING DON’T GIVE UP PUSH THROUGH IT and you think what the hell do you know about it and you go to your own blog and you write one long run on sentence with lots of shouty bits and there is a little part of you that is thinking just get on with writing it and you can throw it away later if you really want to and so you keep going even though the voice is flat and there is no action and it’s so boring and you don’t know what you were thinking all those weeks and months when you thought and planned and plotted and worked it out and thought this is going to be great but you didn’t know you would hit this WALL and that is what it is A WALL and if you want to get through a wall you can climb over it or you can tunnel under it or you can get a load of weapons and blast your way through it but except for the weapons option it probably won’t be any fun and it’s only later you will look back and say I’m glad I didn’t just stop there because it made me feel good to get past that wall and on the other side of the wall there is a lot of great stuff that I honestly wasn’t expecting
It’s highly possible that by the time I get to the end of the first draft of this novel, all that I’ll have to show for it is the first draft of a novel. My home will be ripped apart by feral mice (they’ll become feral after eating the thyroid medication I’ve carelessly left lying around the place). Moths will turn all my clothes into lace. My phone and electricity will be cut off (obviously) and I will have to work by candlelight, except the mice will have eaten all the candles, which will turn out to be a good thing, as when the landlord turns up to evict me from this place, a huge waxy dead mouse will be wedged under the door, making it impossible to open or close. My friends will stop leaving me plaintive, slightly desperate messages about needing to ‘catch up soon!’ and ‘what do you mean you’re not coming to my wedding? You’re the bride!’
I will emerge from the writing of this first draft like something undead crawling out of its own grave. I will trudge around the streets, pressing my unedited manuscript into people’s hands, telling them they’re my favourite beta reader and asking them for spare change so I can buy stamps and send my work of genius out into the world where it is sure to cause a bidding war between the major publishing companies. I will react to suggestions that I self-publish by setting my hair on fire.
One day I will go to sleep in a hollowed-out tree trunk, and when I wake up, some squirrels will be ripping up my manuscript and using it for bedding. Not even red squirrels, but those ordinary grey fuckers. I’ll fight them for the papers, incurring several painful bites and scratches, and ending up with nothing but a few scraps of soiled squirrel bedding and an incipient case of septicaemia which will quickly prove fatal. My remains will be found on a hillside, perhaps months later, bloated and green from the rain, a single piece of paper crumpled in my dead hand. The police officers who find me will attempt to prise the paper from my fist, but it will be nothing but mould and pulp. “Fucking writers,” they will say. “That’s the third one we’ve had this month.”
So the last few weeks have been crazy busy but yesterday I finally handed in three assignments, cleaned my flat (sort of), made dinner for some people, drank a lot of red wine and laughed a lot and rolled my eyes a lot at the silly things everyone was saying. And later I said goodbye to a friend who is leaving for America and never coming back. She gave me a load of stuff she didn’t want to take back with her, like curling tongs and a blanket and the biggest pack of q-tips I have ever seen. I said goodbye to her on my doorstep, and I wanted to say something big and important that she could hold on to, but I didn’t know what that might be and life isn’t really like that.
This morning I had a dream about being at a party with my best friend. We were about to go home, when another friend turned up and told us – you can’t go, I’ve got you some drugs. And the drugs were all completely legal, smart drugs. They were in the shape of big lozenges and they had words embossed on them, like Friends and Just Friends and Sweet. I had a ‘Friends’ and it made me feel really happy.
Then I woke up and I lay in bed the whole morning, reading a book. Because for the first time in weeks and weeks I didn’t have to get up and do things or worry about not having done the things. My course isn’t over yet, but it nearly is. Assuming I pass my assignments (not a given,) the worst of it is over. No more classes, none to speak of, anyway. I mean, I have to write a novel, but I would be doing that anyway. And I have two jobs now, so it’s not completely easy. But it feels like a big, horrible thing is finally done with, and now I can start to get over it.
So, here I am again.
What I learned about writing this week is that you can research and plot and plan and outline and do all the preparation in the world, but when you actually start writing – that’s when you start to work out what your story is all about.
I’ve got my novel broken down scene by scene – a piece of work which took ages to do – but now I’m just looking at it and thinking, nope. That is not going to fly. That is not how this thing goes.
It’s just crazy how much you don’t know until you sit down and write. This novel is my major project for my MA and I’ve done everything ‘right’ – done everything I’ve been told to do – for what may be the first and only time in my life. But it’s come out all wrong. Because it’s only in the writing that the story reveals itself to you.
When you write a lot of short stories, your process tends to be mainly thinking, walking, intuiting, imagining – and then writing. Or the other way around. After one, two, or a few drafts, you ask your trusted beta readers to look for all the things that are wrong with your story, and you fix those. It might take a long time or not long at all. You might need to put the story away for a while. You might be working on a story that you don’t quite understand yet, and have to put it away for a very long while. But in essence, the process is simple. You think, write, revise. It’s not hard to keep it all in order inside your head.
Novels are a different kettle of fish. You can’t keep a kettle of fish inside your head. Trust me, I’ve tried.
When I first conceived of this novel, I had no idea how much planning would go into it, and I definitely had no idea how much I would enjoy it, particularly the research. It’s fun! You start to develop a familiarity with the available resources in a particular field, to recognise names and dates, and to feel the beginnings of a sort of expertise that is interesting in and of itself. This is very far removed from academia: it feels practical and urgent. After all, it serves a specific purpose. It’s not knowledge for its own sake, but it connects up a network of ideas and hunches that are part of what underpins your artistic creation.
So, it’s very cool. Even painstakingly setting out a scene breakdown for your entire novel is cool. It’s a fragile, interconnected structure that demands every piece of information find its own rightful place, the place where it can make an impact. Everything has to be proportionate. Everything has to be balanced so that it supports the structure’s internal strength. It’s not ‘plotting’, but a feat of imaginative engineering.
Writing short stories trains you to create work in a certain way. It trains you to focus in on intimate, metonymic images. You become adept at suggesting a whole world from a single moment. But a novel asks you to do something utterly different. It asks you to build reality from scratch. It asks you to create a machine that is capable of generating a whole world. And if you want that world to be strange, if you want meaning to reside in the gaps, absences and interstices of that world (as it does in reality) then you are necessarily working with something complex. You need to develop a sensibility akin to an engineer who knows that if her calculations are a fraction of a degree off, we’re all going to die in a fiery explosion. You have to think it matters.
The trouble with research is that EVERYTHING IS INTERESTING. I mean, everything is really interesting. I start off looking for stuff about sisters, and end up reading a mother’s account of how her son went crazy smoking too much weed. Or I try to find out about religious music, and end up reading about anchorites and tithes. (Actually, this latter is an abiding interest of mine, and there’s always a temptation to delve deeper.) I research strokes, and find out about painting. It’s a demonstration of how all knowledge is dependent upon all other knowledge. It’s fractal-shaped: you can start anywhere and travel a million miles along fronds and petals that replicate and spawn their own fronds and petals to investigate. (Fractals: I am also obsessed with fractals.)
I would like some kind of brain implant that allows me to upload the contents of books directly into my knowledge centres. Maybe this will be the next Kindle upgrade. It would certainly make everything quicker. Time is of the essence, because my schedule demands that I finish the first draft of this novel within the next few months. I can understand, though, why so many writers get stuck at this stage. There is no natural end point to researching a novel. You can just keep going. All you need is a library card and an open mind.
In the meantime, let me share a little gem from my current researches. This is from a book called ‘Shadows as Bright as Glass’ by Amy Ellis Nutt, which tells the story of Jon Sarkin’s massive, life-transforming stroke. She describes how in the 1930s a surgeon called Abse was rummaging around in someone’s brain, looking for a tumour, squeezing bits of brain tissue and prodding stuff (this is how those old-time surgeons rolled) when the patient, who was nearing death, suddenly became alert and called out: “You sod, leave my soul alone. Leave… my… soul… alone.”
Pretty freaky stuff.
Oh how I neglect you, my poor little blog. Truth be told, I haven’t had a huge amount of fun things to write about yet this year, what with a freezing apartment, money worries, school assignments left til the last minute (of course!), work problems, health problems, family problems, crazy/neurotic/unpleasant/violent people being in/fucking up my life problems – all the problems really. But! It is a new year, and though completely arbitrary, it does feel like a time to change stuff, make plans, and renew commitments.
So, with that in mind, I’m seeing 2013 as a year of massive opportunity for me. This is the year that I write and sell my first novel. This is the year I get an agent. This year, I’m going to sell a minimum of twenty stories (two sold so far!) and get placed in at least one major competition.
This may also be the year of other things, maybe some not so nice things, but I’ll deal with those as and when necessary. If there’s one thing that 2012 has taught me it’s that I’m really fucking tough. Negative people just need to stand back now and let me do my thing.
The Flame Alphabet may be the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. The fact that it is beautifully written only adds to the nasty queasy feeling one is left with at the end. The sense of being made complicit in a series of cruel acts. I’ve never read a book which contains so much that is wrong and off and weird in the most unpleasant ways. Oh, but it is brilliant.
The subject of the novel is language. When language becomes toxic and lethally unspeakable, unhearable, and unreadable, all relationships fall apart, and love itself becomes impossible. Society breaks down, and the post-apocalyptic world is characterised by an inhuman desperation to re-connect with one another. That’s a very basic summary of the plot. The strangeness of the setting, the twisted Heath Robinson-esque contraptions deployed by the narrator in his efforts to cure himself of language illness, the secret cult of the Forest Jews who listen to sermons through flesh-like ‘listeners’ attached to cables underneath the earth, the scripts and signs that are also diseased – this all makes for a very odd novel full of thematic richness. But the most disturbing elements of the book are to do with parenthood, with fatherhood, to be precise. And in many ways, the novel is traditional – it has a protagonist and a plot, a beginning, middle and end. Yet there is something absolutely surreal and estranging about the writing that washes you up somewhere very far from home.
This novel made me feel slightly sick, if I’m honest. I appreciate that this is a meta-message – language is toxic – but mainly, I just feel a bit ill.
When it comes to a choice between moving and staying, taking action or standing still, I have always favoured movement. Some people believe in the value of staying put, of being where you are and appreciating it. Maybe they feel that wherever they are is where they’re meant to be. Some people believe that everything is an illusion, so there is nowhere to go and nothing to do, and one must simply be. In that place where you are, maybe you can write or paint or simply watch and listen. It sounds so wonderful, so perfect. So final.
If everything is an illusion, then it doesn’t matter if you move or stay still. You could spend the next 40 years staring at a rock, or you could walk around the whole world, and there would be no real difference. There is no world, and there is no rock, so what does it matter which illusory thing you focus on? But if there is no difference, perhaps it would be more comfortable and sensible to choose the rock.
But some of us, we just can’t see things that way. We are not content with being. We want to become. Better, different, more. (And some of us get stuck, in cities and houses where we don’t belong, with people who are not our people, and we are seized with urgency: we must go now.) If something isn’t working, then let it go. Don’t stay because you’re stuck. Pull yourself up by the roots, start again.
In writing, though, I’ve been trying to cultivate a different way of being. Sticking with it. Sitting with it, even though the natural urge is to move on. I love to start new things! The feeling of starting a new story is so shiny. Short stories are great because you stay just long enough to get the gist, then you move on. And novels are so long. You have to stay in one place for a long time, and just sit there. Staring at the rock. It’s just a big grey rock. The challenge is to see that it is flecked with silver, that it has faces and shadows, that it has history. The challenge is to see that the rock contains the illusion as completely as anything else, including the whole rest of the world. And then to just keep sitting, keep writing, and keep hoping you haven’t made a terrible mistake.
Sometimes I put so much pressure on myself to WRITE MORE! WRITE FASTER! WRITE BETTER! SELL STUFF! BE THE BEST WRITER EVER IN THE HISTORY OF WRITING! that I completely forget why I started writing in the first place. And that’s a shame, because it’s a really good reason, and probably it’s the only decent reason for ever doing anything at all. I write because I truly love writing.
I don’t love it all the time. Sometimes I actually hate it. There have been times when I’ve thought about just not doing it anymore. And I have other reasons for writing too, to do with survival and escapism and dealing with shit that I don’t know how else to deal with. But I must keep remembering that somewhere underneath all this anxiety and madness, there is love.
Recently I have felt a resurgence of joy in my writing. I think that it has come from approaching my work more honestly, from finding the voice of the novel I am writing, and from allowing myself to focus on the parts of writing that I’m good at.
I’m good at language – making beautiful sentences. I like to spend a long time choosing the right words. My best stories come from images and fragments of sentences, from scraps of emotions and memories and ideas. It takes me a long time to dig around those fragments and find actual people and stories and plots. Plots? I don’t love them. I don’t love working out a sequence of events. I don’t love thinking about how one thing should follow another, or how to get from A to B in my stories. Any time I approach a story from the perspective of what actually happens, I kill it stone dead, because plotting is terribly, horribly boring to me. It feels artificial. Feels like I’m making it up.
The way I like to write is to build a story from the words. I have an initial inspiration – an image, or a strange sensation – and I dig at it and pick at it until it starts bleeding. Sometimes my stories trail away into nothingness, and sometimes my stories make no sense, because the plots don’t work. But sometimes, the plot grows organically from the words, so I hardly have to think about it. Sometimes the story is there, contained in that fragment of an image or idea, and you can slowly, carefully, tease it out.
That is the kind of writing I love to do. I wish all my writing was like that, and maybe it can be. It only works, though, if I blank out all thoughts of success or failure, all comparisons to other books and writers, all comparisons to my own previous writing. It takes patience to let the story grow from almost nothing. It takes courage, too. The temptation is to invent a brilliant plot and start writing straight away, and it’s hard to just sit with something for a long time until it becomes real. I have a story I’m thinking about at the moment that I have been sitting on for five years. Like an egg. I think it is about ready to hatch, but I’ve thought that before and been wrong.
I think maybe love comes with taking the time you need to do things right.