The Slump

In the nine years since I started writing fiction, I have completed three novels and a novella. All of them have been written in the first person, and needed me to immerse myself entirely in another character, another world; and so I’ve been a veteran of WW2, flitting between London and Burma; a 17-year-old girl, desperate to escape her Scottish island; an arthritic fisherman walking across Morecambe Bay; and a fortune-teller seeking herself in a world of swamps. My stories are becoming steadily more fantastical. They’re taking me further from myself. That’s fine in terms of what I want to write about, but it also makes it harder to come back. My friend Ali Shaw once compared writing to being underwater, and I think that’s right; the deeper you go, the further you get from the surface.

After finishing each of these four stories, I’ve experienced a few weeks of manic creativity, cartwheeling through handfuls of shorter pieces. Most recently, on wrapping up a first draft of The Hollows, I redrafted and typeset Dare in a week. But then, after these bursts, I’ve always fallen into something of a slump, and that’s where I am now, casting about for what to do, suddenly convinced that all those months of work are worthless.

I’ve talked before about how I write to drown. Over time, that immersion—especially in something as big as a novel—becomes total, until it’s the real world that becomes disorientating. I’m so fortunate to have in Mon someone who understands that stories leave me stoned; she helps me find my way. But returning to the real world feels odd. I’m struggling to get excited about things I should be excited about. I’m distracted and quick to gloom. I suspect that almost all creative work is built on a measure of doubt, and right now that’s all I have, needling and nagging all the time: what if it’s garbage? All of it? Everything I’ve done? The last year was wasted work. What if this year is too? How would I start again?

I would start again, because I have to. But the further I get from The Hollows—and it’s vital, I know, to get some perspective, to put distance between me and it before I go back to redraft—the more that doubt creeps in. Almost everyone I know, and certainly all the writers and artists, struggle with doubt. Carving out and sharing these inside parts of your head is an excruciation. I couldn’t write without that doubt; it keeps me lean, questioning, pushing myself to do better, to be better. Doubt is the compass of when I’m not good enough; and so to cut, rewrite, cut, rewrite, cut. But here’s the crux: when I’m not writing, not working on a story, that doubt—the same doubt I need to write in the first place—has nothing to gnaw on but me. It bites harder than ever after spending so long in another world, and then leaving it behind. That’s the Slump.

So quit wallowing and start something new, right? It’s not so simple. I have several ideas lined up for what I’ll do next, and I’m 2,000 words into my first proper short story in over a year. But from a pragmatic point of view, it’s senseless to start another big project before I’ve polished off the last, and every redraft is distinct and demanding. The Slump goes beyond that anyway. It’s a spiritual anticlimax. It’s hitting a wall after running a marathon. It’s a burn out, an exhaustion of ideas. I don’t really know how to get myself out of the Slump, other than to take heart from the knowledge that I always have before. This morning I played hide and seek with Dora. That helped. This afternoon I’m going back to my short story. That may help too.

Half-a-dozen people have now read The Hollows. They’ve all enjoyed it, I think, and they have all suggested a few things that don’t quite work; thankfully, these things have pretty much been the same for all of them, and they also tie into my own sense of the story, now I’m getting some distance from it. Redrafting would be impossible without that sense of triangulation, which is, in turn, why writing needs community. I’m gearing myself up for potential edits, but I’m not there yet. I think I’ll be ready by the time this slump comes to an end; or perhaps the slump comes to an end because I’m ready. It’s coming closer, but it’s not here yet.

Writing is doubt. Writing is perspective. Passion. Immersion. Empathy—books are empathy machines. Writing is the witch in your kitchen in the corner of your eye. If you spin to look at her directly, she’s gone. Writing is a sideways mirror. Writing is accidents of words, like wind chimes are accidents of music. I don’t know what else to do but play on through it.

john kenn

Cellar steps

Last night, more or less six months since I started, I gave the first draft of The Hollows to Mon to read, and I sent it to my amazing agent Sue. Mon and I took Dora out to tea, then she started reading. Sixty pages in and she hasn’t ditched it in a flurry of disgust, so there’s hope for me yet.

I thought it would easier to let go of the second book, but I was wrong. I thought I’d feel more confident, more certain. I don’t. If anything, the stakes feel higher. What if I’ve moved backwards? What if no one likes the story, the characters, the writing? I’m happier with this story than anything I’ve done before, but what if I’m wrong? What if I’ve got worse?

I didn’t entirely understand the proverb about not seeing the wood for the trees until I started writing novels. When I’m so immersed in my work, in my worlds, it’s easy to lose perspective on whether it’s actually any good. My own, personal instinct for story is stronger than ever, and getting stronger still; but there’s nothing on Earth to say it’s actually right. There’s no way to triangulate what happens in my heart with the world around me. In that sense, every novel – and I’ve written three of them now – is a first novel, feeling in the dark for cellar steps. Maybe it gets better in time. Maybe it gets easier. But I can’t imagine what that feels like, how that would be. It’s strange to be so terrified of the only thing I want to do. As Mon was reading, I glanced across at her every thirty seconds, every minute: which page is she on? What happens there? Oh lord, is that all right? Does that dialogue work? Do I believe it? Will she believe it?

Dora woke at 4.30am this morning, claiming it was too dark to sleep. I put her back to bed, where she fell asleep in moments, but then I couldn’t because, ahahaha, it was too light. So I’ve been up for hours, listening to songs I love, making a Mogwai mixtape for a friend, catching up on email, gazing out the window and thinking, thinking. There’s no light quite like the glow of dawn. The world is luminous, and then it turns to gold, and it sleeps on into the rising sun. No one knows but foxes, cats and milkmen. I imagined what it must look like on the river Kent between Burneside and Staveley right now, right now, with no one there at all, only the swallows and the martins flitting on the river, vapours coiling on the water, sun sliding sideways through the trees, a hidden valley with half the world in shadow and half the world on fire.

I know what my next four or five novels look like, and I have fourteen flash stories to write. Today, though, I’m taking my daughter swimming. She’ll be Peso the penguin and I’ll be Kwazi the cat, and we’ll look for treasure and help sick sea creatures along the way. Dora loves swimming, but she’s scared of having water on her head – she won’t jump in, and hates being splashed. But today, for the first time, we’re going to see how things go with goggles. Maybe – with some support, some courage, and some curiosity, today will be the day she looks underwater, the day she discovers there are other worlds, other places, other ways to see. Letting go is hard. Feeling for that cellar step is hard. Maybe all of us need to be brave.

Melville House

I’ve been keeping this schtumm for a wee while, but I am now absolutely thrilled to share the news that The Visitors has packed a suitcase to go travelling, and will be published in America this December by the good folks at Melville House Books. I’m delighted the U.S. edition is in the hands of such an exciting publisher. You know you’re in a good place when you see a thing like this:

Dare bared

And while I’m breaking radio silence, I might as well say that after selling out Marrow earlier this year, I’ve decided to self-publish another flash collection. I don’t know when I’ll be releasing it, though, so don’t get any funny ideas. It’s called Dare, it will contain two poems and twenty-four very short stories, and the cover looks like this:

dare snapshot

Radio silence

My blogging has been exceptionally poor since returning from Thailand. And I’d apologise for such awful radio silence, were it not for the fact that I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do, which is to get my head down in The Hollows and write my ass off. Five months later, I have no ass left. It’s completely gone. That’s how much writing I’ve done. No ass.

Last night, I finished a very first, very rough draft of The Hollows. It comes in at just over 101,000 words. I started in February, and couldn’t work in May (because of this). If I add up my two days a week of writing time, and the myriad mornings of sentences and paragraphs, I estimate the draft has taken me a total of approximately 35 days. That’s a ludicrously short space of time, and I’m still not sure how it happened. The Visitors took me near enough six months, I think, while my first (and thankfully forever unpublished) novel demanded a year of full-time work. I don’t think I’m getting any faster, though the muscle memory will be there – this chair, this keyboard, this notebook, this pen – but perhaps I’m believing a little more in what I want to do, where I want to go.

After spending all of 2014 torturously writing the wrong book, I’ve reached the conclusion that the key to writing is writing the right damn book. And The Hollows is right – right for me. I know it to my fibres. Even though there are weeks or months of editing still to come before I’ll feel ready to share it with my wife, I’m pleased with it. My first instinct for this story revolved around memories and mud, and while it has taken a roundabout route to get here, morphing through a dozen incarnations, it has finally come around, finally delivered what I wanted. My heart broke when I realised I was writing someone else’s story. The subsequent weeks spent with a notebook and a pen were some of the most productive of my life, but none of it could have happened without setting off along the wrong path. Sometimes it takes the wrong path to find the right one. Right? Write.

So there it is. We write to the universe. Sometimes it writes back.

I have a full week of college work to come, then ten days camping on Tiree and Coll with my wife and daughter. I’m going to print my rough draft and take a bag of pens, and read through the manuscript while the sea hushes in the simmer dim. Then comes the edit. See you on the other side.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I haven’t really had a chance to share this yet, but I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be at Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, appearing alongside the intimidatingly talented Chigozie Obioma to discuss his debut novel, The Fishermen, and mine, The Visitors. This is really exciting, and very humbling. I’m delighted to be contributing to such an amazing event.

I have also just discovered that all debut novelists are entered into the First Book Award. I’m up against some outstanding competition, so if you’ve read and enjoyed The Visitors, I’d be hugely grateful for your vote: mosey over here for the full longlist.

Crumbs chief!

Memory

Memory is the major theme of my current work-in-progress, The Hollows – how memory moves, evolves, adapts to be what it wants to be. Writer friend Kirsty Logan posted this the other day, and it’s too good not to share it further. I love how we tend to think of memories as the bricks that make up our experience, when really they’re no better than quicksand. In which case, what are we truly made of?

Baby steps

In the end, I decided to start again. I didn’t feel I could salvage enough of The Hollows (take one) to make it worth the while. I was certain I’d be left with a scrappy patchwork of pieces, and that joining the dots between them would give me more trouble than reward – as well as colouring whatever came next with so many prior wrong turns. So I started again.

As I mentioned in my last post, I probably shared too much about The Hollows (take one) last year, and I’m not going to to do that again. I feel like I got ahead of myself, and jinxed it. This post is more of a reflection on how freeing the Kate Mosse incident has been for me. Having decided to bin all 30,000 words of the first draft, I was a little intimidated about starting again. But the huge amount of time I spent with pen and paper in Thailand – dozens of hours – gave me the space I needed to settle myself. Having transcribed thousands of words of notes into Scrivener, I found I had a chapter structure. And having fleshed out each of those chapters, joined a few dots and bridged a few gaps, I realised that, with as much luck as design, the narrative was essentially complete.

I found myself almost arbitrarily drawn to a chapter somewhere in the middle of the story, and tentatively started work. I’ve now had five full writing days on the second draft, as well as five or six mornings before work, and somehow I’ve written 23,000 words. Here’s the thing. I’ve written damn near the same inside two weeks as I managed in all of last year put together, except it’s better. That’s left me feeling slightly staggered. What the hell was I doing last year? Did I really wallow so much in the first draft? For a whole year? What made it so hard? I can’t remember. I suspect, in essence, it’s because I was writing fundamentally the wrong story, and I therefore owe Kate Mosse a debt of thanks.

Nothing guarantees the quality of what I’ve written so far, other than I’m feeling curiously relaxed and cautiously happy in what I’m doing, and excited about what comes next. That’s a far better measure than word counts. (Although, if I’m being honest, word counts help – as long as I’m content with the words.) I don’t even yet feel that I’m immersed, that I’m drowning, and that’s what I’m pitching for, that’s what I want. These first sessions are building my sense of the world. It’s knitting together geographically, culturally, socially. It’s growing. It’s almost ready to get lost in.

Resolve (again)

It’s that time again. Last year, I cribbed together some resolutions. Looking back at them now, I’m quite pleased. The Hollows didn’t go according to plan, sure, but I’ve already talked about that, made my peace and moved on. I finished both Marrow and The Year Of the Whale, and I performed at Verbalise, Sprint Mill, Dreamfired, Bad Language and the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. The only thing I didn’t tackle at all was writing and submitting more short stories. There simply wasn’t enough time on top of the chaos of everything else. Indeed, 2014 actually marked the first year since I started that I didn’t write a single short story, but that’s OK. I’ve been kinda busy.

People can be pretty disparaging about resolutions, but I’m coming to quite enjoy the process of making and sharing the things I’d like to do. Writing them out makes them more tangible, and leaving a record of what I’d like to do makes it more achievable. So here are some resolutions for 2015.

Climbing

I kept last year’s resolution, and started climbing again. Not all that often, I suppose, but more often than never. I’d like to do more of the same this year. I’ve started going for a few hours on Monday afternoons, after I’ve finished work, and that’s been a perfect fit with my week. My fingers are slowly beginning to toughen up, week on week, and those little successes feed into each other. I’ll take my climbing shoes to Thailand to do a little bouldering on the beaches, and I hope to get out on some Lakeland rock this summer – the Langdale boulders won’t exactly be quaking with fear, but they give me plenty to aim for.

Writing

Yup. Again. It doesn’t stop, does it? This year, my writing ambitions are twofold. Even then, the first part is for fun: I want to release another flash fiction collection, which will possibly be called Real Life. I’ve been doing a night class in graphic design, and that’s really helped with the various processes involved. Making books is fun, and it’s addictive. A lot of the stories are ready, but my flash fiction took a back seat in the second half of 2014, and I want to tighten up the whole collection. Even then, though, I mostly want to direct my flash fiction for reading aloud, which is where it works the best – there are dates in my diary for 2015, and I’m already looking forward to stomping my way through some stories.

The second thing is bigger. I’d like to finish a first draft of The Hollows. I had the same ambition last year, and it didn’t happen for a bunch of reasons I’ve moaned about already. But this year is different. I’ve cleared most of my film jobs, I’m not going to work on other big writing projects (unless someone pays me a lot of money, which seems unlikely) and that gives me the space to be a bit more structured with my writing time. In the unlikely event that everything goes to plan, then I’ll get a solid two days a week from February to start finding my way again.

The Hollows is proving exactly as tricky to navigate as the swamp I initially wanted to write about. My head is a zoetrope of ideas, all glass pots and ghosts, ashes and blackened timbers, lost keys and tarot. Mon and I are going on honeymoon this year – we’re going to Thailand with Dora – and I’ll be taking my notebook and my fountain pen. Spending some time away from the internet, away from screens, away from everything except the people I love best, will give me space to work it out with pen and paper. At the moment, I’m not even sure if I’m dealing with one book or two. I’m orbiting the right story, peering down between the clouds, catching glimpses of what it’s going to be… but I still don’t know what it is.

I use a lot of metaphors for talking about writing. The weaving of a tapestry, the nurturing of some unknown seed, the orbiting of a strange moon, the navigation of a swamp. It consistently amuses and baffles me how I find it easier to clarify my thoughts on writing using almost anything other than writing itself. The act of making marks, in ink or pixels, is excruciatingly simple. But getting them in the right order? Damn. That bit is hard.

Dora is learning to write. She knows her letters, and she’s trying to form them all the time, trying to construct a sense of meaning. She can write her name, and if I help, she’ll try her hand at anything. The other day, she wanted to write ‘moose’ against her picture of a moose. I spelled it out for her – M – O – O – S – E – but she ran out of room, so went back to the beginning for the last letter, so the final word looked like ’emoos’. I tried to show her the correct way to spell it, but she wasn’t interested.

There’s probably a metaphor for writing in there, too, but I can’t make that out either.

Resolutions, like word counts and climbing grades, only matter to the person who makes them. And – like word counts, like climbing grades – they only matter if you push yourself within them. That means weaving a tapestry – nursing a seed – orbiting a moon – navigating a swamp – or, sometimes – making a mark that matters to you, even if you get it wrong.

wisp

Happy New Year, folks.

 

2014 and all that

This year has been both breathtakingly excellent and occasionally extraordinarily hard. I’m focusing on the good stuff though, because we’re all spinning through the mind-boggling vastness of space on a giant oxygen machine and really, when you think about it, where’s the sense in dwelling on the rough?

So here we go; in no particular order:

1. The Visitors being published

The culmination of two years’ work and the start of an awful lot more to come; in June, the wonderful folks at Quercus Books were kind enough to publish The Visitors. I wrote about the publication here, and it kept on running. Somehow, people keep enjoying it. I’ve summed up the reviews here, and there are reviews from actual real life readers on Goodreads and You-Know-Where. Writing was hard, editing was very hard, and now it’s out there in the wild – it doesn’t need me any more, if it ever did. I haven’t really come to terms with the book being published, other than it makes me scared, humble and really, really happy. Writing is all I want to do, but sometimes every step feels like the first step.

visitors

2. The Hollows

In the twelve months – to the day, madly – since I started, I’ve probably written about half The Hollows. Unfortunately, for reasons like this and especially this, I’ve had to cut gigantic chunks of it; so much, in fact, that I’ll basically have to start again next year, and crib the pieces I can still use from the manuscript. This would be a very bad thing, were it not for how excited I am about those pieces that are left. It’s been bruising, definitely, but the process is now beginning to tip me in positive directions I probably wouldn’t have gone by myself, and that’s terrific.

3. Flashtag short short story slam

Over the last two years, I’ve been trying to read more of my work aloud; I pushed myself further this year by entering a story slam in Manchester. I memorised my three stories so I could concentrate on performing them, rather than reading them, and I was lucky enough to win. That was great, and I was delighted, but what really blew my mind was the culture of live literature I witnessed in Manchester. It’s raw, it’s funny, it’s friendly, it’s immediate. It’s everything short stories and poetry and flash fiction should be about, and it completely affirmed the value of storytelling as an act of community. Stories are a thousand things, and one of those things is churches.

4. Clowning

Way back in February, I attended a clowning workshop run by Belgian storytelling maestro Fred Versonnen. This is the best £25 I’ve ever spent, and it’s true to say that my life hasn’t been quite the same ever since. I see things differently now – I write differently now.

fred

5. The Year Of The Whale

I started this novella more than five years ago. Getting it finished was a thrill – I surged through the final chapters, and I’m pleased with it. It still needs redrafting, but I’m not quite ready to get back into it. It’s waited five years – it can wait a little longer.

6. Marrow/Cerys Matthews reading Circle Stone

Finishing Marrow was another big deal in my writing year. I haven’t written as much flash fiction this year, because I’ve been mentally wasted from work, and that kinda gets in the way, but I did, finally, finish and self-publish a flash fiction collection called Marrow. Of the hundred I printed, I have about twenty copies left, and people seem to like it, which is a source of constant wonder. I wrote about my decision to self publish here. I sent a copy to the excellent Cerys Matthews, and because she’s absolutely awesome, she read out one of the stories on her BBC6 Music show. This is, and will always be, the coolest thing that ever happened to me.

7. Gruff Rhys at Kendal Library

Gig of the year, hands-down. I wrote about it here, but in summary, Gruff was majestic, wise and funny.

8. Greece

One of my favourite ever holidays. A week of sunshine, warm evenings, seashores, swimming and the boundless comedy available on tap from my daughter Dora. We had a fantastic time: ruins, eagles, Mythos and pizza. I love holidays because I’m with my favourite people, I get to read a lot, and I get to think a lot. It went like this.

9. Friends

It’s been another good year for my friends. Iain Maloney published First Time Solo, his excellent debut novel, with Freight Books; also with Freight, Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel/story collection/autobiography Any Other Mouth was released to stupendous acclaim, going on to win the Green Carnation Prize; Salt published one of my books of the year, The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan; Kirstin Innes landed an agent and then a publishing deal for her debut novel Fishnet; and I was lucky enough to read a draft of Ali Shaw’s new novel, The Trees, which is simply scintillating. I’m delighted that Bloomsbury are going to publish it, because Ali is a wonderful human being, an outstanding writer and a great friend.

10. Getting married

Just amazing. We did damn near all of it ourselves, and when I say ‘us’, I mean that I did 10% after I’d finished work, and my tireless, hilarious, wonderful, perfect new wife Mon did the rest. It was a lot of work to pull it all together, but we basically hosted a mini-festival in a back garden with a marquee, a stage, a band, a PA, scores of hay bales, lighting and decoration. We then partied till the following morning with our wonderful friends. My brother gave what was widely considered to be the best best man’s speech anyone had heard, and local legends Seven Seals played their very finest. It was phenomenal. What a day – a thousand thanks to everyone who brought it all together.

Mon is my everything, and I’m beyond proud to call her my wife.

si mon

So there we go. It’s been a good one, despite the harder stuff. Some of the things that have knocked me hard – like the Hollows, like the Scottish independence referendum – will come around again, and next time we will get them right. And other things – like working too hard – will change, because they have to.

Dora’s gone to bed. This is the first year she’s been old enough to really understand what’s going on. We helped her write a letter to Santa, which she signed herself, then made sure to leave a whiskey for Santa. (Jura, in case you’re asking. Santa’s quite particular about that.) I read her Where The Wild Things Are, and we roared our terrible roars, and gnashed our terrible teeth, and she asked me what the words mean: “…and …it …was …still …hot.”

These are the moments we’re working for.

Happy Christmas, folks.

dora