big fat book of doom

running away from a scary tunnel which i would actually rather run through than write my book

Have spent every spare minute over the past few weeks thinking and sketching out a plot for a big, complicated novel I’ve been desperate to write. It covers two worlds and three timelines, and it combines all the things I love about ghost stories and haunted houses with everything weird in science fiction, and a dollop of domestic realism on top of that. Basically, imagine putting Shirley Jackson, Jeff Noon, Simon Ings, Christopher Priest, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Lewis Carroll and Siri Hustvedt in a blender and pouring the bloody mess into a broken jug… or something like that. Suffice to say it is big, and it is complicated, and messy and full of blood and broken bones.

I’ve got a rough plot, character notes, setting notes and so on. Today I finally solved the structural problems. I sorted the big logic issues and figured out how the timelines would run together. It works! At least, it potentially could work. It makes sense, at least to me.

But you know what? Now I’ve done all that, and there’s nothing left to do but start writing, I find myself staring glumly at the wall and wondering if it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe I should write some short stories instead. Or a different novel altogether, one I haven’t even got an idea for yet. Literally anything else.

I suspect, or perhaps I just hope, that this is THE FEAR sinking its gloomy, doomy claws into me. If not, then I guess I burn it all and start again.

dark dark dark… we all go into the dark

Well, maybe not all of us, but definitely meeeeeeeeeee! “Her Bones the Trees,” my blood-soaked, bear-infested, twisted Twin Peaks fan fiction is to be reprinted in acclaimed literary horror magazine THE DARK. Looking forward to sharing this story with more readers.

The story was originally published as “Her Blood the Apples, Her Bones the Trees,” in The Silent Garden journal of esoteric fabulism – a truly beautiful book chock full of illustrations, essays, reviews and stories from weird fictioneers such as D.P. Watt and Helen Marshall (whose story really ought to win awards galore – check it out).

In other news, edits are done on my forthcoming collection! Michael Kelly is a brilliant, sensitive editor and it’s been a very positive experience. I’ve had to dial back my tendency to get typographically extra, but my House of Leaves homages are set to continue with my current work in progress, which is going to put the punk in punctuation… 🙂

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.

masters at work

Not everyone knows how cognac comes into being. To make cognac, you need four things: wine, sun, oak, and time. And in addition to these, as in every art, you must have taste. The rest is as follows.

In the fall, after the vintage, a grape alcohol is made. This alcohol is poured into barrels. The barrels must be of oak. The entire secret of cognac is hidden in the rings of the oak tree. The oak grows and gathers sun into itself. The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom of the sea. It is a long process, lasting decades. A barrel made from a young oak would not produce good cognac. The oak grows; its trunk begins to turn silver. The oak swells; its wood gathers strength, color, and fragrance. Not every oak will give good cognac. The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb. Wet ground is acidic, and then the oak will be too bitter. One senses that immediately in a cognac. A tree that was wounded when it was young will also not give a good cognac. In a wounded trunk the juices do not circulate properly, and the wood no longer has that taste.

Then the coopers make the barrels. Such a cooper has to know what he is doing. If he cuts the wood badly, it will not yield its aroma. It will yield color, but the aroma it will withhold. The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker. A good barrel can last one hundred years. And there are barrels that are two hundred years old and more. Not every barrel is a success. There are barrels without taste, and then others that give cognac like gold. After several years one knows which barrels are which.

Into the barrels one pours the grape alcohol. Five hundred, a thousand liters, it depends. One lats the barrel on a wooden horse and leaves it like that. One does not need to do anything more; alcohol now enters the oak, and then the wood yields everything it has. It yields sun; it yields fragrance; it yields color. The wood squeezes the juices out of itself; it works.

That is why it needs calm.

There must be a cross breeze, because the wood breathes. And the air must be dry. Humidity will spoil the color, will give a heavy color, without light. Wine likes humidity, but cognac will tolerate it. Cognac is more capricious. One gets the first cognac after three years. Three years, three stars. The starred cognacs are the youngest, of poorest quality. The best cognacs are those that have been given a name, without stars. Those are the cognacs that matured over ten, twenty, up to one hundred years. But in fact a cognac’s age is even greater. One must add the age of the oak tree from which the barrel was made. At this time, oaks are being worked on that shot up during the French revolution.

One can tell by the taste whether  cognac is young or old. A young cognac is sharp, fast, impulsive. Its taste will be sour, harsh. An old one, on the other hand, enters gently, softly. Only later does it begin to radiate. There is a lot of warmth in an old cognac, a lot of sun. It will go to one’s head calmly, without hurry.

And it will do what it is supposed to do.

From Imperium, by Rsyzard Kapuściński.

there’s a name for this

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

an end and a beginning

And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

T.S.Eliot, Little Gidding

Something I learned about writing this week is that when I write what I love to write, it becomes a much greater and more beautiful thing to do. (Whether it is more beautiful to read is another matter!)

I am – I have come to know – the sort of writer who can spend hours over one sentence, putting everything into balance. T.S. Eliot’s notion of the right sentence is precisely what I am striving for in my writing. It is not a case of writing what you know, or writing from your wildest imagination, but of writing exactly what you mean, or as close as you can get. That is authenticity.

I can write very fast when I want to. I wrote my first, failed attempt at a novel very fast indeed, in a matter of weeks. I loved writing that way – I felt so productive! It was useful, too. I needed to know what it felt like to write that number of words, to write a story that big. But it was a terrible attempt at a novel. Terrible. Awful. It had no soul, and it didn’t mean anything, or the meaning was so obscured by the dreadful writing that my courage failed at the thought of trying to fix it. So I know that, for me, it takes time and craft to find what’s true and worthwhile in my writing. By craft, I mean only what is quoted above: the balancing of words and sentences and scenes and chapters, one against another, until they are right. For me, that is a slow, careful, thoughtful, insanely difficult business.

Instead of trying to write more! and write faster! I am trying to write less, and write more slowly. It is a strange feeling to be making myself slow down at a time when I feel terribly unproductive. All other writers in the world appear to work faster, harder, and more successfully than I do. But I have learned that comparing myself to other writers is a surefire way to mess my head up. I eschew all writing advice, all rules, all guidelines. The only knowledge you can bank on is that which you learn through your own experience. That which you know to be true, because it is written in blood, tears, scars, years – that is truth you can depend on. No one can help you with that.

 

never say never

How do you know when it’s time to stop writing something? Is it when the very thought of it fills you with a sense of paralysing ennui? When you can’t imagine ever being interested in the characters? When the plot makes no real sense? When, after writing several drafts, you still have nothing more than one or two images that seem powerful to you – and no story, no emotion, no thrills?

Or should you never give up? Should you always finish what you started? Should you power on through, ignoring those feelings, ignoring the problems, just fighting to get to the end of it?

A lot of writers say you must ALWAYS finish what you start. I am not so sure. With this current project, I feel that when I started it, I had a particular idea in mind, and that idea has failed on a number of levels. It just wasn’t a good enough idea to sustain a whole novel. Plus, it was too directly autobiographical – writing it well means writing about myself in a way that no longer feels relevant or important to me. And at the same time I can’t get enough distance to see what I might change or how I could make it work better.

I have learned a hell of a lot from trying to write this story. But now I think it is time to put it away. Maybe next year, or the year after, I will dig it out again. Maybe then I will be able to see exactly where I went wrong and how I can put it right. But for now… it’s Sayonara baby.

the time it takes

There’s this moment in the writing of a story, when you’ve written and rewritten, revised, edited, taken out all the extra words, and given your characters a few more things to do other than nodding their heads, shaking their heads, smiling and shrugging; there’s this moment where you think you have finished. Yay, you wrote a story! So you give it one more go over, correct your spellings, and send it off into the world.

About a year and a half later, you read your story again, and see all your clumsy sentences and all your mistakes. You realise that there is a way to resolve that nagging plot problem. You suddenly understand why that character does what she does. You see how easy it would be to rewrite that section of prose and make it say exactly what you failed to say the first time around.

Unfortunately, by this point, it’s very likely that you are reading your story in some magazine or book, which you have also encouraged all your friends and family to buy. Cringe-a-rama!

If you’re still holding on to that story – perhaps you couldn’t sell it, or maybe something didn’t feel quite right, and you never tried – you are now the luckiest writing piglet in the world. You get to revise the hell out of it, make it beautiful, and correct all those terrible mistakes you had no idea you were making at the time.

As much as we want to get published NOW and have people reading our stories RIGHT NOW, patience and slowness make stories better. I suspect this goes double or triple for novels, where there are so many more elements to fuck up, and so much more impatience to get the damn thing over and done with.

It’s reassuring to know how much we improve as writers, simply by continuing to turn up and write as often as we can. Even when you feel completely stuck, you are processing all that experience into wisdom, so that one day you can say to yourself, wow that is really a crappy story I wrote. I could write it so much better now.

words words words

I’m a few thousand words into the second draft of my novel. It’s amazing to me that it has taken approximately 100,000 words to get to the point where I am ready to start actually writing the story. I’ve realised that the first draft was more or less just a very detailed outline. From that, I got a structure and plot. But it wasn’t until I started rewriting that I found the voice of the story.

Even apparently basic decisions, such as what tense and pov to write in, eluded me until now. And basic aspects of characterisation and  setting were also very muddy. It’s made me realise that the first draft is really just to get the bones of the story down, and it’s this draft where I feel that I am actually writing.

When I wrote the first draft, I was churning out thousands of words every day – I think about 10,000 was my highest word count for a single day. But now my words per hour have dropped drastically to about 600 – 700. That is about half what I would normally expect to write in an hour on a story. But I can see why it’s so slow: I have to be careful now, to stay in the voice of the story. Every word must speak the story.

I still don’t know some basic things, like whether or not it’s going to be worth reading in the end. I don’t think I’ll be able to know that until this draft is finished. I still want to write it, and I am still interested in it, so I’ll take that as a good sign.

And so to work!

progress

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman with one novel on the go is always hankering after another. I honestly think that the best way to guarantee a steady flow of exciting new ideas is always to be working on something that keeps you away from writing anything new.

That notwithstanding, this morning I hit a sweet spot with the novel I’m working on and managed to get about 3000 words down. I’m finding that splitting my writing time up is working well for me – I start by revising and polishing what I wrote the day before, then I write new stuff after that. I don’t know if that method would work with every project, but it seems to be keeping me anchored in the world of this story and the voices of the characters. I reckon I’ve got another 40, 000 or so words to write on this one (having cut about 20,000 already), so it’s not going to be finished very soon. Unfortunately I haven’t got a big chunk of free time to throw at my writing at the moment, and am just trying to fit in as much as I can every day.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, fb messages and emails on the ‘sympathy with the devil’ post I wrote a few days ago. Everyone’s ideas and advice has been really interesting. I know it’s a difficult and emotive subject, so thank you.

In other news, I’m hungry and off to forage for food. Anon, my dears! Laters, innit!