Mirror mirror

Earlier today, my heart broke. I’ve been working on my second novel, The Hollows, for almost exactly a year – I started it on Christmas Eve 2013, though I couldn’t write for half the year. I’m now 30,000 words into my first draft. It’s excruciatingly hard to write this, but I’m about to change it all. The reason is the best-selling author Kate Mosse, who appears to have written my book already. I haven’t read it, but her latest novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, explores the same themes of memory – suppressed, regressed and rediscovered – as The Hollows. Her novel revolves around a father-daughter dynamic, like The Hollows. Her novel is set in a huge marsh, like The Hollows. I could handle all of that. I’d guess that was true of lots of novels. But today, I also discovered that the lead character of The Taxidermist’s Daughter has no early memories after a traumatic childhood experience; that a modern crime begins to unlock those hidden memories; and that the unlocking of those memories reopens the wounds of an old injustice. That was basically the plot of The Hollows. I’m heartbroken, because I was finally beginning to gain some traction. It was finally starting to move, but I can’t stomach those similarities. It’s too close. It’s no good.

I’m not going to start again, because I’ve written some good stuff. But I am going to change it radically. That means significant cuts – again – and it means the whole enterprise will take longer than I’d hoped, and that’s devastating. I was almost halfway through, and now I’m back to the beginning. I can’t just get hold of The Taxidermist’s Daughter, read it, and rewrite around it; no story is built from omission, and the thought of it makes me sick. But it does mean revisiting the crossroads I discussed last week, and taking another path. It hurts, and I’ll set out with heavy heart, but I know, with every fibre of my being, that I’m nourishing the kernel of a good story, and I’m not going to let it go.

Whales, mandolins and singing bottles… and once again, I find myself staggered at how my stories hurt me.

Notebook

On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, one of the things I always suggest is to carry a notebook and a pen. I’ve lost count of the thoughts, ideas, plots, characters and dialogue I’ve let slip through the gaps in my atrocious memory. It’s heartbreaking. I took to carrying a pocket notebook years ago. Sometimes I fill one in a month, and sometimes in six months, until it disintegrates to dust and fibres and I need to tape the spine. I keep them all on a shelf above my desk. Once, while backpacking in Australia, I spilled a hipflask of Maker’s Mark all over my notebook, and the whiskey erased the ink. I lost my bourbon, and I lost weeks of passing thoughts. As my friend Ali said, it was the very definition of two wrongs not making a right.

Notebooks aren’t just for the utility of capturing ideas. It’s important to remember how to write the hard way. I’m a thug of a typist, but I’m pretty fast, and I spend a huge amount of time glued to my computer, whether that’s writing or editing. My default setting is electric, and when I have an idea, I tend to go to the computer first.

This is all relevant because I’m finally dipping my toes back into The Hollows. I started on Christmas Eve 2013, wrote sporadically through the new year, and hit 25,000 words around June. I haven’t worked on it at all since then, but last week I finally had the space to look at it again. On reading it through, I was a little unhappy with some of my work. Parts of it read well, but simply weren’t right for the story any more. No matter how much I shuffled chapters or copied and pasted paragraphs to try and make it fit, the story wouldn’t gel. Instead, I put on some music and sat back with a fountain pen and an old office diary I nabbed years ago to use as a notebook.

The diary was a red hardback day-to-a-page thing, brand new and unused from 2006, a ribbon bookmark folded flat between the crisp blank pages. It was perfect. I started scribbling down my worries and woes. I made lists of characters I liked and characters I didn’t need. I wrote down what worked, and what never could. I drew lots of dots and stars and arrows connecting things that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. I wrote questions and answers. I wrote until my hand hurt and I had a dent in my forefinger. A few hours later, the mist was beginning to clear, and some new ideas were beginning to show themselves.

That night, I talked it through with Mon. She’s so good at giving me space to shape my ideas. Often the act of explaining a story to Mon explains the story to me, too. Vocalising something gives it clarity. After chatting it through, I spent another hour or two jotting down new ideas, new people, new places to explore.

This is all the planning I do when I’m writing. Rough notes and loose association. It works better with ink than on a screen. It makes the process tangible. I couldn’t do what Ali did with his last novel, and write the whole thing longhand – that wouldn’t work for me – but I’d forgotten how healthy it is to make a mark, to scribe into the fibres of the page. The act of writing with a pen has conjured new ideas, too – things that couldn’t have occurred in pixels.

The hardest part is making the decision. I went back to the manuscript, and cut 11,000 words. It hurt, but it was important. There were good scenes in there – good chapters – but they’d sent me off course, and they had to go. Now they’re gone. My draft is 11,000 words lighter, but I’m more confident in what is left. The shape of the story has changed. The characters are starting to stir, beginning to show themselves.

It’s insane to think I’ve achieved so little since starting it almost a year ago. I feel like I should have a finished draft by now. I know, looking back, that we’ve been extraordinarily busy this year, and that I’ve completed a multitude of other things, but The Hollows is back in my life and shouting louder than ever. I’ve spent some time on the wrong path, but now I think I’ve found my way. A pen, a compass.

Art Is Long, Life Is Short

After years of occasional submissions, I’m delighted to report that the outstanding spoken word night Liars’ League London finally accepted one of my short stories. For those that don’t know, Liars’ League has grown into one of the finest story nights in the country (now with branches in Leeds, Leicester, New York and Hong Kong) by using professional actors to read stories. Or, as they rather more succinctly put it:

Writers write. Actors act. Audience listens. Everybody wins.

When I first started writing short stories, what feels like a century ago, I experimented relentlessly with different voices and techniques. Over the years, I’ve moved away from straight-up literary fiction and towards the modern genre fiction that I prefer to read myself. In doing so, my writing has become, to me, more believable; I believe my own stories more than I used to. At the same time, for reasons I’m still brewing on, most of my story narrators have become female. This wasn’t a conscious decision. It happened organically as I drifted happily into low fantasy and magic realism. When I thought of The Visitors, I always knew Flora would be Flora. In my current work-in-progress, I always knew Kerry would be Kerry. I have my next four or five novels blocked out, and they all have female narrators, because they could only have female narrators. That’s just the way it is.

The Liars’ League story is called Art Is Long, Life Is Short. It’s one of my oldest unpublished pieces, and one of my favourites. As one of my older stories, I wrote it with a male voice. I imagined someone like Larry Lamb. A grizzled gentleman of the world – a Cockney – down on his luck and pouncing on a break. A male actor was booked to read the piece, and I was delighted to be a contributor to Liars’ League.

But – with a week or so to go – they contacted me to say that the actor had to cancel. Would I consider an actress instead?

YES. Yes, I’d consider that. On re-reading the story, I was amused to notice that there isn’t a single marker of gender – and the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Actress Carrie Cohen shows why Liars’ League were absolutely right. She reads better than I’d thought possible, and I’m really, really pleased. She embodies the character with humour and pathos, and the story works far better with a woman than a man. It’s a thrill beyond measure to see it all brought to life.

There’s something else, too. I loved giving the story away. It’s not mine anymore. It belongs to Carrie, and the audience, and that’s incredibly exciting. Having spent years sitting on a piece that I thought had some merit, it’s wonderful to share it out – to see it adapted, altered and ultimately evolve from my wee idea into something bigger.

So here it is. Please enjoy Art Is Long, Life Is Short, read by the wonderful Carrie Cohen:

The Curse of White Paper

There are few things as scary to me as blank white paper. Gorgons live in blank paper. A ream of paper holds universes. The infinite weight of that potential is a terror.

I’ve been shying away from it for weeks, claiming other jobs and seeking different priorities, but yesterday I finally started work on Grisleymires. It’s been roughly planned for months (the plan gets vaguer towards the end, allowing for inevitable mutation, but it’s all there). Yesterday, at last, I had the brain space AND the opportunity to sit down and start work. I’m still expecting another draft of The Visitors, but hopefully that should be fairly light, and this novel has been clamouring at me. I didn’t want to wait any more.

Working in the wonderful Scrivener, I sat down and blasted through most of the first chapter. 2,750 words, which is pretty good for a disjointed day. A dozen words came easily, and the word count raced to the first hundred. From there, progress slowed. The thousands took hours, and tens of thousands will take weeks or months. A hundred thousand might take me a year, around my various jobs, and that’s how it goes.

To be clear, I don’t think word counts are important to anyone but the person counting. It’s not something to boast about, and it in no way measures the quality of those words. I’ve had great writing days when I’ve written 11,500 words in twelve hours, great writing days where I’ve written a single sentence, and great writing days when I’ve deleted 10,000 words over a pint of beer. I’ve also had a stupendous amount of terrible writing days, where every word is a breeze block.

I think it was Graham Greene who advocated writing no more than 500 words a day. I guess the idea was to make sure those words were perfect, and to be fresh the next day. That doesn’t work for me. I need a word processor, I need to copy and paste and cut as I work. I need to work fast if it suits, or to dawdle over minutiae, depending on what the story wants from me. When I worked as a feature writer for a magazine, I wrote well over 10,000 words of published copy each month, not counting the blogs, the emails, the phone calls or the coffee run. Word counts became the way I managed my work. I had deadlines, and I hit them fast, because that was what paid the bills. When I started writing fiction, looking for a way to save some of my sanity, I brought the same workflow into my stories. Workflow is an interesting word. The flow is one of the things that generates the work. I’m talking about immersion; I’m talking about drowning in a story, and writing as though words are air. Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in a month.

I count climbing grades, too, when I go bouldering. Like writing, climbing is a competition of one. And exactly like the grades of rock climbing routes, word counts measure personal progress. In other words, they exist for me alone.

So, why share them? That comes back to my feeling that writing is a profoundly lonely thing to do – not simply being shut away for the time it takes to actually get words on paper, but to be lost in another world, to know characters better than best friends, to be so buried in a story that big chunks of real life feel like something to endure between writing sessions. Counterintuitively, this is also the good stuff – this is why I write. Redrafting makes something worth reading, but that first draft is where the magic is. Sharing the progress of a story is how I connect with the world outside – how I remember that there is a world outside.

RedraftredraftBRAINMELT

For the last eight weeks, this has what my life has looked like:

RedraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftredraftBRAINMELT.

In case you hadn’t noticed from my incessant moaning, I’ve been redrafting my novel. Again. It’s been a vast job, because – following discussions with Jane Wood, my amazing editor at Quercus – we decided to change the ending quite substantially. This isn’t as simple as knocking off the last few chapters and rewriting, alas; to make the climax and conclusion fit, organically and emotionally, the threads of the plot need to extend a long way back into the story. Because The Visitors is already woven rather tight, unravelling the narrative to make the new ending fit has been tough. Around college and film jobs, I’ve been working on it in evenings and spare days since mid-October. After the first fortnight, I took to saving the manuscript as a new document at the end of each session. This is what the folder looks like:

redraft of death

That’s right. It’s called the REDRAFT OF DEATH.

But check it out, humans; I have actually finished. I sent the new draft off to editor Jane and agent Sue late last night, along with a summary of everything I’ve changed. On reflection, it’s been a massive rewrite. As well as the new ending, I’ve changed names, moved locations, cut chapters, written new chapters, tightened dialogue, tightened prose, and – perhaps biggest of all – introduced an important character at the start of the story, rather than halfway through. Maintaining his presence from this early beginning meant a light rewrite of the entire first third. I’ve also made a big change in the death of another character, which brought a new angle to the idea of ‘killing your darlings’.

Dealing with the sheer volume of information is what causes brainmelt. Trying to keep everything in perspective – emotion, story, plot, character, description, geography, chronology – is exhausting. To help manage the changes, I riddled the manuscript with notes to myself, so I wouldn’t lose track of the things that needed work. It was quite telling to come across these messages, later on, and reflect on my thought processes. Here’s an example:

“Move the distillery to the island where it should have been from the beginning, you dick.”

So yeah, it’s been tough. I’m expecting another round of line edits, at the least, but hopefully the bigger structural stuff is now finished. I would have worked quicker but for the day jobs. Trying to switch into a more creative mode and recover a spark is tough. There have been times I’ve sought out any distraction to keep me from inflicting more destruction on my work. That’s where Freedom has really helped. I can’t recommend it to writers (and other procrastinators – YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) highly enough.

For all the effort, I still wouldn’t be doing anything else. I saw a great quote the other day. Though I can’t remember who said it, it was something like, “For all that writing is incredibly tough, it’s worth remembering that it’s still making up stuff for fun.”

True dat. More than anything else, I’m increasingly looking forward towards my next novel. It’s called The Hollows. It’s mostly planned, and I’m champing at the bit to start work. Now term is almost finished, I’m going to give myself a few days off to clear my backlog of video jobs, then try and take a day or two over Christmas to get writing.

After dealing so exhaustively with a manuscript of 94,500 words, it’s very strange to be faced again with all the promise and terror of a blank, white page.

Flash fiction challenge: Libraries

BigCharlie Poet (the nom de guerre of Simon Hart) and I have been trying out a picture-based flash fiction vs. poetry writing challenge. In case you missed it, here’s round one: Cathedrals.

It was Simon’s turn to choose a picture, this time, and this is what he chose:

libraries

I found this one very difficult. With Cathedrals, I had the story in an instant, and writing was a cruise, but this has taken some working around. I guess that’s the way with writing. I can’t turn it on like a tap. Sometimes the stories shimmer into view as though they’d been there all along, and sometimes they come word by word, kicking and fighting, refusing to stay on the page. This one’s been a toughie, and I’ve tried it three times. My first attempt was an illiterate dystopia where an old man found a book he couldn’t read. It spiralled very quickly, and I abandoned it at 600 words. My second attempt was about a haunted library, and that was a little better – I think I can rescue it for a short story – but it wasn’t good enough for this, and I hadn’t the heart to stick at it.

I have written a previous piece that fits this picture exactly, which doesn’t help. The abandoned library is a perfect representation of one of my Twitter shorts. Struggling to get that story out of my head, I posted it again in the hope of exorcising the blasted thing. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 11.49.06

Having sent that back out into the big wide world, I did feel a little freer, but it wasn’t until I discussed the picture with Mon that I came up with my final idea. She imagined the books dropping away into nothingness, and that was the spark I needed. Time and time again, Mon reminds me of the stories I like to tell the most. She keeps me on track when I’m getting lost. With that image in my head, I sat down and wrote the final piece fairly quickly. It’s the middle of something much bigger, I think. I can see this growing into a novella or even a novel, given time. I’m not done with the characters.

Simon Hart found this one tricky, too, which is a relief. It’s taken both of us longer than the fortnight we’d agreed, but then, hell; we’re busy people. This is what Simon has to say about it:

“Well, it’s finally been written and this has been difficult! I saw the picture and thought it was interesting, suggested it and went ahead with it as the challenge piece… ignoring the fact I have written creatively about libraries before. What it has meant is that those pieces of work have been clamouring at my brain to be let out again. I have refused them, and eventually created this new poem, but not without help. The title and line relating to it come from my Dad pitching me a line far greater than anything my feable mind was coming up with, and I finished only because I cheated and read Simon’s excellent entry on the same photo. Cheers gents.”

Here’s Simon’s response to that troublesome picture:

Engines of Thought

by BigCharlie Poet

There were books strewn everywhere
Left without much apparent care
Though some were in bundles, others in stacks
Most were just left to cover the cracks
In the old dead library’s floor

The words on the pages, scattered like dust
Engines of thought now turned to rust
Childhood stories being lost by the hour
The Tempest losing so much of its power
From the old dead library’s floor

The shelves have been looted for perceived greater worth
And the paper that’s left returns to the earth
The knowledge inside no longer at hand
The words pour away like loose grains of sand
Through the old dead library’s floor

They once taught us magic, and fanciful tales
Told us stories of mad Captains hunting white whales
Taught that being obsessed was a kind of disease
That carried you away on angry dark seas
Not the old dead library’s floor

But now they do nothing, we won’t let them teach us
And where they sit they will struggle to reach us
Abandoned and now out of our sight
They are doomed to their own perpetual night
On the old dead library’s floor

And here’s my response:

Books Like Grains Of Sand

The creature stepped out of the darkness and into the candlelight. It was smaller and far slighter than Morag, and carried itself daintily, as though it was frightened of breaking a limb. Its tiny eyes were black pinheads in the cloth. It had a ragged hole for a mouth. It smelled like coal sheds.

It led her to a door.

“In here, my pet,” it lisped. When it talked, stuffing spilled from the corners of its mouth.

In jerky, spastic movements, it opened the door to the library, and daylight spilled into the gloom. Squinting in the light, Morag peered beyond the creature and saw a vast room. The floor was entirely carpeted in books. Books, books and more books, gathered in loose stacks, strewn by the dozen, piled up in the corners.

“All of them?” she whispered.

The creature’s smile wrapped around its head. Morag heard stitches popping as it grinned.

“All of them,” it said.

It turned the hourglass again, and the sand began to flow.

Morag slung her knapsack, took a deep breath and brushed past the creature into the library. She stumbled to the top of a nearby stack and surveyed the room. The door creaked shut behind her, and the creature’s smile receded to a single line as it melted into darkness.

She was alone in the library. Before her, books lay scattered in their thousands.

“But where to start?” she murmured.

She took a single step, and then she heard the slithering. It was so faint at first, ghostly whispers, but gathered to a rush. Morag scanned the room. The books in the middle were moving. They revolved, and more volumes fell inwards as they shifted, gathering momentum. They spiralled, forming a circle and starting to drop into the floor. It was spreading outwards, increasing speed. It was a whirlpool. With a jolt, the stack beneath her shifted, throwing her to the ground. Morag fell headlong into the torrent.

The daylight closed overhead, grey and fluttering with loose pages. Books battered and struck her as they ground and jumbled in the gyre. The movement was inexorable, dragging her down, dragging her into the centre. Her feet lost contact with the floor and then it all dropped away and Morag was falling, flying, plunging into nothing as the books tumbled all around her. She panicked, flailing and groping for contact, anything to arrest her fall. There was nothing to hold on to. The space beneath her and around her was empty entirely, a sea of nothingness stretching on forever. Books fell around her like rain, covers flapping and pages rippling. As they fell, Morag realised they looked exactly like the sand in the timer.

In a heartbeat, she remembered what Badger told her: about time. About the creature. About this place.

She took a deep breath, shut her eyes, and reached out. Her hand closed around a book. Still falling, she opened her eyes, and turned to the first page. Morag began to read.