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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

Crossroads

I haven’t blogged for ages – sorry. The reasons are almost too mundane to mention, but the short version is that my workspace has been out of action for two months. This has cut my video editing and writing time down considerably, and in what time I’ve had, the video jobs have to take priority. I wrapped up my second promo for Born Survivor, and I’m a whisker away from finishing my long-running hay meadows project. I’ll write some more about that when it’s finally complete; unlike any other job I’ve taken on, the meadows film has changed the way I think about the world. This is tied up in Scottish independence, vegetarianism/veganism, and plastic. To be discussed.

I’m writing this post as something of a confession. After months away, the last fortnight has actually given me three solid days to write. In that time I’ve added 11,000 words, and surged from despondency to exhilaration. I’ve now levelled out somewhere in between. (I’m a lot more neurotic than I probably appear.) This is a confession because, in these last few days in particular, my imagination and awareness have been completely invested in The Hollows. I haven’t had much space for anything else. I’ve been ratty and irritable – not because I’m actually feeling ratty, but because this story is a sore tooth – constantly nagging, constantly distracting, always there – and I’m struggling to live in two realities at once. I’ve now written about 26,000 words, which I estimate is about a third of the finished manuscript, and I find myself in the extraordinary position of not knowing where to go from here.

That sounds bad, but it isn’t. I very much believe in giving stories space to breathe, in letting them evolve, and this one has evolved radically around the busiest year of my entire life. I’m positive about all of the routes I could take, though each of them entails some changes. I’m now brewing on which way to go. Bluntly speaking, my choices could be defined by genre, but it’s not that simple. It’s about my sense of self-worth, and the value I take from the act of writing. This story feels entirely right to me, but I don’t know what it is. It’s like reading a map in another alphabet: the world is removed from me yet fleetingly familiar, and I haven’t yet worked out where I am. At a crossroads, perhaps. Each route has pitfalls and detours and summits to climb. (My friend James Hannah says to turn left. If it all goes wrong, I’m blaming him.)

I’m spending hours at a time with my notebook. I’m listening to Rachel’s and Balmorhea. I’m floating in a sea of puzzle pieces. If I can pin down one or two, I’ll build the rest from there, but they are quick as fish.

Writing is easy, and writing is hard.

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.

Tipping

I had two brilliant days on The Hollows last week, and it’s entirely thanks to my friend Ali. I’d just finished reading a draft of his new novel – which is absolutely scintillating and is going to be massive – and called to talk to him about it. We spoke for a long time about lots of things, and he ended up clearing my head of cobwebs I didn’t know I was carrying.

This is how it is: I’ve been enjoying my first forays The Hollows, but it’s been tough going in places, because I’ve been trying to build the story chronologically, making each current chapter as clean and tight as possible before developing the next. It was only through talking to Ali that I remembered that I don’t write like that. I’d forgotten that I’m writing for me. Or, as Ali put it: “Writing’s a big fuck you to the world.”

This is an abstract thing to explain to myself. It’s not like I was writing someone else’s story, or writing with someone else in mind. But I think I’d spent so long redrafting The Visitors that I’d forgotten that it was rough, too, at the beginning; and, in starting to write The Hollows, I essentially picked up the same point of bug-eyed perfectionism that I left The Visitors. I was working back-to-front. I’d forgotten that some of whatever strength I might have as a writer comes from rewriting – from redrafting and reworking. I’d forgotten the unfolding joy of a first draft – of cutting loose, of jumping feet-first into all that glorious blank white empty space. Talking to Ali reminded me that this is my story, and I need to tell it my way.

When I had my next writing day, I sat down, disabled the internet, and raced through 3,500 words. The next day, I wrote the same again, as well as tearing apart swathes of what I’d already written, rebuilding the plot of the first third. It was exhilarating. I ignored the chronology and jumped ahead to work on scenes and chapters I’ve been dreaming of for months. In writing them, brand new scenes unfolded as though they’d been there all along. I worked late, and it hurt to blink by the end of day two, but I’d turned 18,000 words of clunky plot into 25,000 of viable draft. There’s a forever still to go, but the story is starting to move.

It’s funny how time and memory contrive to fool us. The Visitors didn’t write itself until I was well over halfway through. The first 50,000 words were hard, and the second didn’t need me there at all. That’s the bit I remember. Since then, I’ve been so immersed in my redrafts that I’d forgotten it took six months of slog to hit that tipping point.

First drafts are where the fun is. I’m going to dive in and get messy, and rejoice, and despair, and laugh, and burn myself out, and despair some more, because that’s how I live, and that’s how I write. It’ll take months from now, or years, but I finally feel like I’m getting The Hollows on course for where I want to go.

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The destination

The Visitors was officially published on Thursday, and I was away all day on a college trip – for the second year in a row, four of my students had made it to the semi-finals of the World Skills competition. We’d driven down to Hinckley on Wednesday, stayed up till 1am practicing their pitch, then risen at 6am to practice and get to the venue. They had a 5-minute presentation to deliver, and we stayed all day, waiting for feedback. Throughout that time, I was quietly flooded with emails, texts and messages – so many that I felt helpless – I could barely respond. Friends sent me photos of the delivered book – out of my hands, now, and into theirs – and all the while I sat with my students, and talked with other tutors, and wandered round Hinckley College. It felt incredibly weird to be so far removed from the book on its publication day. The students succeeded with their presentation, and won a place at the finals in November. We left at 4pm. It was supposed to be a three-hour drive back to Kendal, but took more than five. The motorway was a purgatory of second gear. It flattened me. I sat in traffic jams and wished I could walk along the central reservation, alone in a sea of stationary cars, the hubcaps and ring pulls and single shoes scattered all around.

Back in Cumbria at last, I dropped off the college car and walked an hour through the gloom to get home to my amazing wife. By the time I turned the computer back on, I’d had scores of congratulations from friends and family. I felt humbled and very lucky. Then, in a mark of the rollercoaster this trip has become, I received an email saying I hadn’t been awarded a Northern Writers’ Award. That’s disappointing, though I’m still very glad I applied.

Thursday was a topsyturvy day, but then I woke on Friday to the news that my short story What I’ll Do To Be In Love With You had been accepted by the National Flash Fiction Day anthology – and then, a few hours later, the amazing Tania Hershman alerted me to the presence of my story Art Is Long, Life Is Short on the BBC Opening Lines longlist. I’d long-since written that off as a rejection. Talk about frazzled. On Friday night, Mon and I drank a bottle of posh fizz and sat and talked it over. That felt good.

I don’t entirely know what to say about The Visitors being published. I’m proud of what I’ve made, and I’m delighted to share it with other people, but my good friend Ali Shaw warned me that it might feel something of an anticlimax, and he was right. I don’t feel any different in myself. I’m still planning lessons, ploughing through my mountain of marking, and stressing about whether my four-month hay meadow time lapse is going to work out. Publication hasn’t changed any of that. But it is an affirmation of all I want to do – to coax the stories in my head out into the light. It has also reminded me how blessed I am in my friends – I feel almost ashamed to have had such support from such incredible people. These few days have made my heart beat bigger, and I’m thankful.

All this has whetted my hunger to push on with the next novel. In that respect, I guess The Visitors is the culmination of the first stage of a long road. More than anything else, I know, with every cord of my being, that this is the right path for me. Writing is a journey, but publication is not a destination. I don’t want it to ever end. I want to walk till my heart gives out.

Flow

On a good writing day, I write 2,000 words. When I’m working well, that’s fairly consistent. Whether it’s 1,800 or 2,500, I always seem to end up in the ballpark of 2,000. In terms of quantity alone, a month of 2,000 word days is a 60,000 word manuscript (which is the philosophy of NaNoWriMo, of course).

Obviously there’s an awful lot more to it than that – 2,000 a day doesn’t include all the back-peddling, redrafting, tea, editing, notes, research, cursing, blogging (!), procrastination and rewriting – and it doesn’t include the bad days, when it’s a struggle to carve out 400 words. I have plenty of bad days as well, especially at the start of a new project, when I’m still feeling out my way, finding the right path. For context, I don’t believe that the key to good writing is simply writing and writing and writing until something mystic clicks and the good stuff comes pouring out – check out J. Robert Lennon’s ‘ass-in-the-chair canard’.

When I started writing The Visitors, it was completely plotted out. There were about thirty chapters, and each chapter had a paragraph, or maybe just a line, detailing what would happen. That plan became redundant within weeks, if not days. By the time I was even a quarter of the way through, my chief antagonist had switched to someone completely new, and the plot expanded hugely – the final draft has around sixty chapters. But the biggest changes lay in how the characters escaped me. As I wrote them – as I spent more time with them, and came to know them better – I realised they were evolving. They were doing things I hadn’t expected, but those things became inevitable and essential as their personalities developed. Their autonomy dictated their story. Once that happened, and they were set upon a path of their own making, the manuscript generated a momentum that I could not control. In the final two or three months, I’d regularly write 4,000 or 5,000 words in a session. On the last day of writing, I wrote 11,000 words in 14 hours. That surge, that flow, was intoxicating. I drowned in my characters, drowned in the island I’d created. The story became a gyre, and I was tumbled in the centre.

I’m now about 16,000 words into The Hollows. On each of my last four writing sessions, I’ve cut around 1,000 words, and written around new 1,000 words. The overall count isn’t changing much, but I think I’m making progress. I’ve learned a number of things along the way, about writing, and about myself. Because I had to go through such an excruciating redraft with The Visitors, I originally tried to plot out The Hollows as tightly as I could. Each chapter had multiple paragraphs and notes, with detailed ideas about the how the story would unfold. It was comprehensive. I was decided: this time round, the novel was going to write itself.

I should have known better. I raced off to a strong start, writing the first 10,000 words in three days. Then I applied to the Northern Writers’ Awards for funding towards a research trip. As part of the application, I had to include a synopsis of The Hollows. Seeing the plot condensed into a single page, I realised at once that the story was too tight. It had no room to breathe – I’d strangled it with structure. It was far too dense. I ditched all my planning and rewrote the synopsis for the purest story I wanted to tell – about a man who loses his memories, and the woman who goes to find them – and sent it off. I haven’t heard back yet, but regardless of how my application turns out, the process of writing a new synopsis was revelatory, and for that alone I’m grateful.

I want to start The Hollows right. Unravelling some of my first draft has been heavy going, but it’s important to me to know I’m on a better path. I’m getting there. I’m starting to meet my characters. I’d forgotten that I didn’t always know Flora, and Izzy, and Ailsa, and John – it took time to find out who they were. I’d forgotten, in the dizzying exhilaration of finishing The Visitors, that it wasn’t always so easy to write. The flow comes only after all the hard graft has been done.

On Friday, I finished my novella The Year of the Whale. That’s been five years in the making, including sessions when I’d struggle to chip away at 200 rotten words. But on Thursday, the day before my deadline, I soared through 5,000 words with joy in my heart. That was the flow, and I’d forgotten how it felt. I’d forgotten that I could feel so engrossed in my stories – that I could drown. That’s where I want to get to with The Hollows. That’s how I want to finish, whether it’s in six months or one year or two years’ time. But I know, now, that all the graft comes first.

My friend Ali Shaw believes you can’t know if a novel will go all the way until you hit 20,000 words. Author Matt Haig feels the same, but his mark is 40,000. Word counts only matter for the person counting. Like climbing grades, they measure nothing but an individual’s own sense of progress. They are a poor measure, perhaps, but they are all I have to mark my way: yan, tan, tethera.

The Hollows has been stuck on 16,000 words for weeks, despite long, hard days of work. I haven’t enjoyed that. I crave that sense of flow, when everything makes perfect sense. When I had that moment in The Visitors, I described it as a ‘glittering open highway’. I suspect I’m still a long way off reaching that highway in The Hollows, but it has truly settled me, on completing The Year of the Whale, to remember that the flow comes from the writing – not from the writer. From the story, and not the storyteller. For all the times I beat myself up about not working hard enough, not writing fast enough, not doing more – finishing that novella has been a gift. It has helped me remember why I write. I write to drown. To drown, I need the gyre. To make the gyre, first I have to fill an ocean.

 

Not right not writing

I’m a bit behind on my blogging, so here’s a quick round-up while I have the time to do some rounding.

I’ve barely written a word for two months. A combination of college, gardening and film jobs has demanded every scrap of time, and my writing has taken a unfortunate but unavoidable back seat. That makes me ache. I’m not right when I’m not writing. I’ve only recently become aware of how writing relaxes me; and that not writing is one of the things that stresses me out. I’ve also noticed that ideas are more of a struggle when I’m not writing with any regularity. When I’m working often, I’m flooded with plots and characters and lines of dialogue. Not having that internal chatter makes me anxious, and I haven’t been feeling quite myself; this has been exacerbated by pushing myself to come up with new work for the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, which is only a fortnight away. I think I have the three pieces now, but they’ve been hard work, and I’m not yet convinced they are the right stories.

I travelled to London last week to meet my agent Sue, editor Jane and publicist Margot. The amazing Quercus building feels like something from a James Bond film; everything is glass and aluminium, with automated barriers and security cards. It’s a far cry from my little house, where starlings and sparrows have started nesting in the slate walls. We popped down from the Quercus office to a quiet bar called Hardy’s, and we drank wine and talked about publicity for The Visitors. There’s an idea to offer short stories or flashes as bonus material with the book – and I might make a couple of short films about how it came to life, too. We also talked about some of my future ideas, including current work-in-progress The Hollows. It was a great meeting, and I left it feeling really enthused. With all the chaos of my day jobs, it’s easy to lose sight of the novel. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of for five years, and it’s actually happening. Sometimes I forget.

What else? I’ve written a post for Thievery, Kirsty Logan’s fascinating series of story inspirations. I decided to confess about a novel I started in 2009, but abandoned at 50,000 words (though I recovered the central strand for my novella Year Of The Whale – I really, really need to finish that). My Thievery post will be up in May – I’ll post links when it’s live.

Although I’ve not been writing as much as I’d like, I have been thinking a lot. The Hollows is never far from me, and though I haven’t even opened the document for three weeks, in my head, I’m streamlining it all the time. I’ve learned so much from writing and especially redrafting The Visitors, and I’m determined to make The Hollows a better first draft. In the background to my day jobs, characters have been changing everything from hair colour to their reasons to be alive. The plot is essentially unchanged, but how the characters arrive there is evolving all the time. I found this with The Visitors, too; even as I developed the threads of the manuscript, I returned constantly to the early chapters, forming and reforming them. This is like the twist of a rope; the threads need to be right at the start, or the rope tangles and disintegrates. I’m filming throughout this coming weekend, but next week I should be able to sit down and start making the changes.

Two nights ago, after a long and stressful day at work, I turned out the lights and tried to sleep. From nowhere, my head was thronged with ideas. I had to get up and write them down; first of all, three flash fiction ideas at once, about taxidermy, trains and cheating, and then, a few minutes later, the setting, start and main character of another novel – which looks like being number five in my current queue of books to write, after The Hollows, We Are Always Reaching Out For Heaven, Vanishings and Black Horse. I’m already really excited about it. Which is just as well, really; if I wasn’t excited about the story, I couldn’t expect anyone else to be. You need to be excited about a story to spend so long with it – both the hundreds of hours staring at a computer screen, writing and writing and thinking that I should get up and make a tea, just another minute, one more minute until I make a cup of tea, as soon as I finish the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter – and the time in the world of the book, observing and conversing with the characters, exploring the map of their world, listening to the crunch of dry grass beneath their feet – and back to the computer to sculpt it all together, working until you realise it’s cold and you forgot to find that other jumper two hours ago, and is there any wine left?

The other piece of big news is that in May, Iain Maloney and I will be co-headliners for legendary Manchester spoken word night Bad Language. I’ve known Iain since 1998. We’ve been bouncing work off each other for the last five or six years, and his excellent debut novel First Time Solo is out through Freight at the same time as The Visitors. Iain lives in Japan, but he’s in the UK for a whistle-stop book tour. I’m delighted to be sharing a stage with him for the first time.

Finally, another writer friend, the outrageously imaginative Ali Shaw, has sent me a draft of his next novel. I devoured the first chapter. It’s going to be really, really, really good. I’m currently taking a sabbatical from A Song Of Ice And Fire, and almost at the end of Third Reich by Roberto Bolano (which is also extremely good), and I can’t wait to read the rest of Ali’s book.

Here’s a picture of a scarecrow stick man:

scare crow

Scenes from a copy edit

I’ve just finished the first copy edit for The Visitors. Quercus sent the documents over a fortnight ago, but I didn’t have the time until last week to open the files and survey the damage. College has been relentless lately, and I haven’t had a chance to work on my writing in what feels like forever. At first glance, I was devastated at how much work seemed to be required. Every page of the manuscript was scarred with dozens of red marks, like this:

typos

At first glance, my heart shrivelled in my chest. The thought of that all work was painful – not least as my friend Ali Shaw had already warned me of the perils of copy edits. He explained that I’d need flagons of strong cider to get through it, and I was braced for some late nights.

Thankfully, it hasn’t been too bad. On closer inspection, virtually all the changes are simply a matter of house style – thousands and thousands of “double speech marks” have now become ‘single speech marks’. I had no idea they were allowed – I’ll try writing with single speech marks from now on, but it’s going to take quite some unlearning – hitting shift with the quote key has become hardwired into my typing. Similarly, hundreds of ‘alrights’ and ‘okays’ have become ‘all rights’ and ‘OKs’. Again, I didn’t know these were the preferred form. More startling, I hadn’t realised I used those words so often – especially in dialogue. I cut many of these where the copy edit drew my attention to repetition.

As well as those thousands of standardised changes, there were infrequent issues with capitalisation. I disagreed with some of these. I don’t consider ‘Internet’ to be a proper noun, for example – small things, but they all need looking at.

On top of all that, there were two typos where I’d accidentally omitted a word – which isn’t bad in a 93,000 word manuscript – and a few instances where the copy editor felt certain words (always adverbs – be warned!) didn’t gel. I agreed with all of these, and made the changes.

All in all, it’s been a fascinating process. It took me two days, in the end. I’ve huge respect for copy editors – to be so meticulous and so creative all at once is a massive challenge, but I felt the changes were fair and sensitive. That’s now gone back to Quercus.

This is my half-term from college. I have a few goals for this week. As well as some looking after Dora while Mon has her last week painting before an exhibition in London, I want to write some new work for National Flash Fiction Day, submit something to the Flashbang contest and finish my Drowned Villages poem. Most important, I’d like to spend some time with Grisleymires – I’ve had a month away from my novel, and I miss it.