i am dreaming

You know it’s time to start writing your book when words bleed through the palms of your hands, in mirror writing, and lightning sparks from your fingertips. It’s one of the more obvious symptoms.

I’ve been dreaming of this book for a very long time. It’s just a book. But like dreams, it makes its own sense and has its own language. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means. Writing is such a mystery. But at the heart of the act of writing is a kind of listening.

It’s rhythm, I think, that I’m listening for. It’s what powers the sentences. Rhythm creates emotion – we know this from music. And it’s there in writing, too. It’s in the play of one word against another, in the balance of a sentence, in images juxtaposed, opposed, enmeshed, at war. Rhythm is how a sentence snags us, draws us in. When you open a book and you’re instantly hooked, it’s because you’ve entered a whole world of sound, an emotional universe. A book can do that, through its music, which begins with the rhythm of every note or word or space or stop.

I never listen to music when I write, but try to listen for the book’s own music. It takes some focus, but nothing deliberate. Each word, sentence, image is tried for harmony with the whole piece. The structure itself wants to be like music, building up and leaping forward, looping round and twisting back, reprising its own imagery, chorusing and responding in echoes of itself. It’s not a formula, but a feeling you have when you write, when everything is flowing forward: effortless, you are part of the song.

(It should be clear by now that I know fuck all about music.)

My book is called ‘The Mirror Book.’ It’s actually two books: the book and its reflection or inversion through the mirror. It’s a haunted house story, it’s a hall of mirrors, it’s about a crime, it is full of nonsense. I have no idea if I can even write it, but I have started. There are words. There is a kind of music, faint and far away. I hear it in my dreams.

how to write a novel in no easy steps

1: Start writing. An idea is not necessary at this stage.

2: Keep writing. Pay no attention to mundane matters such as plot, character, setting, structure, or story. Just keep writing words until you have around half a million of them.

3: Now take those half a million words and throw. them. away.

4: Stare into the void. Woah. Stare into your computer instead. Rescue an idea you find limping around in the aftermath of the word-apocalypse.  (This idea has survived purely by virtue of its fiendish ambition. Its most impressive quality is its refusal to die, despite having seemingly nothing to live for.)

5: Write until you figure out some kind of structure that can cage this ugly, tenacious bastard of an idea. Fail horribly, shamefully, and repeatedly. The writing will be enriched and nourished by your desperate tears.

6: Completely lose perspective. Employ diversionary tactics.

7: Keep writing the bits you’ve already written. It is important not to give up on the dream of writing something that makes actual sense.

8: Give up. Any ending will do. Who cares.

9: Finish it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

10: Send it to whichever person in your life you consider to be the most psychologically stable.

11: MOVE ON.

and then and then and then

When Haruki Murakami sat down to write The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he didn’t have a plan. When Stephen King wrote The Stand, he didn’t have a plan. When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she didn’t know what was going to happen or how it would end.

And when I sit down to write my book, I don’t know exactly where it’s heading, either.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing myself with these literary greats, not in terms of talent. But it does give me comfort and succour to know that I’m not the only writer who starts simply with an idea, an image, a sentence, and that’s it. To me, writing is partly a process of discovering the story. I cannot – and I have tried – write a story that I have already plotted out in detail. It’s dull, it bores me, it makes every word die on the page.


what i know

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.


when we talk about love

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.


I started using Scrivener a couple of days ago.  It is pretty impressive! By the end of this morning I had managed to create a full scene outline of my novel, import everything I’d already written, and start making a synopsis. It makes it easy to structure your work, because you can split it into folders and files without you having to open different documents – and you can also view it as one long document if you prefer. You get a good overall view of the big picture of your novel, and at the same time, you can go into detail on whichever part you want.

I’m surprised at how much I like this. I always thought that outlining was incredibly boring (but total pantsering really scary!) Now I think it was just the idea of one, long, linear document that I couldn’t handle. With Scrivener, it’s all hypertext – you can go wherever you like, but still keep your place.

I don’t know if it will help make sense of what is a rather muddled mess at the moment, but every time I open my project file, I have a sense of calm clarity about what I’m doing. Not to say it’s good or bad – but at least I’m not panicking about it!

Is anyone else using this software? Would love to know what you think.