I’ve been tinkering on my new book since the summer. It’s coming together, slowly, slowly — I learn more about the world of it every time I sit down to work. My writing days have been overtaken lately with a succession of film jobs and Real Life things getting in the way, but I’m still onboard with my second 100 Days Of Writing, and I usually manage somewhere between 30 and 300 words a day. One step at a time, right? It’s all going in the right direction.
After this morning’s writing session, I’ve been reflecting on how stories change. Halfway through The Visitors, the lead characters took me completely by surprise with the way they wanted to go. By the time I’d finished redrafting and rewriting, it was a completely different book to the one that started out. It’s sometimes only on finishing that I realise what the story actually is. That’s true of every long story I’ve worked on, I think, and it’s almost certainly true of the current book. The core idea has stayed the same throughout, but the characters have swirled about it like satellites, each waiting for the gravity of the plot to draw them in. The ones I thought would lead the story have drifted away into space, mute, watching the world recede into a dot of light. And others, characters I assumed had only minor parts to play, have crashed into the story like meteors, hitting hard enough to shake the orbit — to tilt the axis into something new.
If you’re new to my blog, please note that I love an extended metaphor.
Back in November, I cut the story from 35,000 words down to 15,000, as the characters corkscrewed into my head and the story revealed itself as something new. Having steadily built my way back to 28,000 words, I’m about to cut the first two chapters — they’re only short, but I thought they were important for backstory and building the world. (And actually that’s true — but only for me and my understanding of the journey I’m embarking on.) No one else needs them, not really. Instead I’ve come up with a single sentence that literally does the job of 2,500 words. Knowing that I’m going to dispatch them to the great black hole of deleted chapters feels rather freeing — like dropping ballast. Ballast has an essential function until the exact moment it becomes dead weight.
The book calls louder, the further I run with it. The relationship between the lead character and a very minor character has become the hinge on which the whole story swings, and it’s quietly stunning for me to sit back and soak that in — to think that it’s been there all along, and only now do I know why. Back to it tomorrow. 100 words a day. Steady away, lad — casting ballast, rising up.
I forgot to do this last year for a bunch of reasons I can’t completely remember, but I’m back on track for a round-up of my favourite things that have happened in the last 12 months. In no order, these are:
1. The kids. This year has been another cracker with my wee family. It hasn’t always been easy, but seeing Dora and Indy getting on with the world has been a treat. In particular, Indy learning to talk has given us such joy — almost every day now we get a new word, and with every word our communication grows, our interactions develop, our bonds become stronger. He’s funny, he’s happy. Dora is still mostly feral, but she’s finding her way, all the time, a few steps back and then a few more forward. She’s developed an addiction to Lego, she loves reading Ottoline and Harry Potter and the Worst Witch, she argues about pretty much everything, she laughs all the time. They’re good kids, and I love getting to know them.
2. Mon’s art. Mon’s finally, slowly, getting to paint again with some regularity. Like me, she doesn’t get nearly enough time to make her work — and it’s therefore brilliant that she’s finished off these astonishing paintings and started on some really exciting new work. After she lost so much time in Indy’s first year, it’s been a real thrill to see these pieces coming together, and I’m so so excited by the work she’s sketching out and backpainting. She’s a bloody genius, my wife, and I count myself beyond lucky to watch her art unfolding in the studio.
Dora in The Window At Allen Bank
3. Kefalonia. I used to write long posts about my holidays, but don’t blog as often as I used to, and so haven’t. But we went to Greece for two weeks in the summer, and it was brilliant. We went swimming every day and collected pretty pebbles. There was a titanic storm that rumbled all morning while Indy stood at the window and thumped the glass every time the lightning struck, and the day broke into vast grey Miyazaki clouds that washed away into the bluest of sweet blue skies. Waves had painted the beach in perfect smooth sand. The insects were incredible — a praying mantis, big black bees with pearlescent wings, swallowtail butterflies, a great emerald beetle that zipped about my head and lit on my hand. It then bit me, which wasn’t quite as cool, but for a wee moment I felt like Dr Doolittle. I read loads, wrote loads, and threw Dora in the swimming pool about a thousand times. It was brilliant. This is the actual moment Indy fell out of the sky. We decided to keep him.
4. Reading sea books. My original resolution was to read only sea books in all of 2017, and in this regard I’ve failed. I abandoned the task around August after finishing Moby-Dick, firstly because I stopped writing the sea book I’d been working on, secondly because very few of the sea books I tackled actually had much to say about the true nature of the sea, and finally because nothing else quite cut the mustard after the Melville. The stand-out was Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, which is an extraordinary book and everyone should read it. Overall, though, I mostly felt relief when I decided to let it go and read some books that were not about the sea.
5. Wainwrights. As a family, we’ve started the long, slow process of sending Wainwrights. We’ve now walked about 16 of the 214 fells that Alfred Wainwright ascribed in his famous guidebooks, so there are clearly still loads of them to go, but we’ve loved every one we’ve done so far. The uphills are hard, the downhills are hard, but the tops are completely worth it — especially the plateaus and ridges, and earning a sense of having climbed up out of the world below. At some point Indy’s going to get too heavy for the sling, and then we’ll have to slow the numbers a wee bit, but for now — up we go.
6. Film and video work. This has been a fairly steady year for my freelance video work, but most of all I’m soaringly proud of my work for Kendal Mountain Festival. Along with my friend Dom Bush, I edited the trailer for this year’s festival, as well as copyediting the voiceover poem. The film edit was difficult and time-consuming, and I’m really proud of what we made:
7. Getting veganised. Come June 2018 I’ll have been vegetarian for 10 years, a decade in which I’ve eaten wider and healthier, become a much better cook, and made better decisions in spending my money. Taking that to the next step hasn’t been easy, but over the last two years, Mon and I have moved steadily towards a vegan diet. We’re pretty much dairy-free and I go weeks at a time without eggs — and again, it’s improved my cooking and my eating and my thinking about where my food comes from. I’m not quite ready to go fully vegan, but I am moving steadily in that direction (especially since working out how to make my own seitan, which is just tremendous).
8. British Sea Power. I saw my favourite band three times this year. First was in London, where I took my students on a college trip — on the Tuesday we watched Under The Skin with a live soundtrack by the London Sinfonietta, and the students all despised it — beautiful, discombobulating enigma that it is. But on the Wednesday, we watched BSP perform a live soundtrack to a collection of Communist-era existential Polish animations, and they were majestic. Their music was sublime and transporting and wonderful in every way. The second gig was on the tour of their new record, Let The Dancers Inherit The Party. It’s another cracking record — of course it is — that slots in perfectly with the rest of their catalogue. Fave tracks are Electrical Kittens, What You’re Doing, St Jerome and Bad Bohemian, but the whole album’s brilliant. Third and finally, Mon and I zipped down to Manchester to see them headline the People’s Festival in the Albert Hall, which was epic — Dutch Uncles and Field Music playing too — a heart-thumping whirl through their finest moments. Their music is consistently superb and in constant reinvention. They’re the best band in Britain. I hope I see them three times in 2018.
9. Moy’s 90th. My grandmother Moy turned 90 this year. She’s amazing. She’s travelled all over the place. Once, in her 80s, she sent me a postcard from a youth hostel on a glacier in New Zealand. For her birthday she wanted all of her grandchildren together, and so we went — Kate, Anna, Ali, Emma, Kirsty, Tim and me, plus partners Kees, Ian, Adam, Ina and Mon, plus great-grandchildren Tom, Jack, Dora and Indy. We descended on Aberfeldy in the rain and spent all day drinking tea or wine, and it was brilliant. I don’t get to see anyone in my family as often as I’d like to, and it’s always a treat to catch up. Anyway, Moy’s a badass. Here’s the squad:
10. Writing. A year of ups and downs for me and my writing. Then again, aren’t they all? In the last 12 months, I finished my third distinct draft of The Hollows, decided against rewriting it again, and moved on with surprisingly few regrets. No regrets, really. The more space I put between me and that third draft, the less I like it, and the more I want to get the story right. I’ve now sketched out the plot for the fourth draft, which already feels more cohesive and engaging, but that’s on a back-burner until I’ve finished something completely different. To that end, I’ve been working on another novel since June or so, tapping away with 100 Days Of Writing. It’s going okay, by which I mean that I’m enjoying it. I very seldom had fun while working on The Hollows #3, and on leaving it behind, I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend all these hundreds of hours wallowing in my own head unless it was making me happy. Novels aside, my short story output and publications have been very few and far between — only half-a-dozen pieces here and there, with barely as many written again. I’ve mostly finished a couple of short film scripts, another flash collection and a ‘novella-in-flash’, but there’s nothing wrapped up and ready to go. I only get one day a week to write, and that time needs to go on the new book. And that’s okay. I like the novels best of all.
So that’s that. Looking ahead to 2018, there are a few things I want to do. Most of all, I hope to finish the new novel and another flash collection. And if, by hook or crook, I somehow manage to get those finished, then I’ll start The Hollows #4. I’d like to go back to a Scottish island for a bit. I’d also like to direct a short drama film, which is something I’ve had in my mind for a while. It’s about 12 years since I directed people, and I’ve learned a lot about cinema since then — and about people. Finally, I want to read more, because books are the best of things.
2017 has been a strange one. For all of the terrific things I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, Brexit is still the batshit stupidest thing in the world, and Trump is still a howling sphincter. Those twin sprawling catastrophes have haunted and defined my year, and they both push me into furious despair pretty much whenever I think about them. It hasn’t got easier. It’s worse. The longer they endure, the worse they become. Maybe 2018 is the year we can put them both to bed and step back into the light. Please, 2018. We’re ready.
Day 84 of my 100 Days of Writing! I’ve been steady away on the novel, and it’s been feeling pretty good. Managed to blast through 4,074 words, and I liked most of them, too. It’s been my most productive writing day in well over a year — a year of missteps and wrong turns, 100 words here and 200 words there, fuelled on the blind optimism that it would somehow work out in the end. It’s strange how these things go. After three versions of The Hollows, plus my very first, mercifully unpublished novel, I’ve now written five of the blasted things, of which only The Visitors was published — and that came after a torturous year of redrafts and rewrites. As much as I’d like to, I don’t know if I’ll ever work out how to write a long story in a single go. My stories seem to meander and discover things along the way. Characters change, plots change, I change — in particular, I change. Once I’ve lost faith in my writing, I find it hard to reclaim.
I needed a total break from The Hollows, and I have one in the new novel. Writing into the new and empty pages is my favourite part of the process — it’s like reading a book for the first time, and knowing I’m the first person in the world to read it. Possibly the only person, given how the stories stutter. So far on this book, I’ve already battled up to 35,000 words and then promptly cut 20,000 of them. No matter how it hurts, the last years have taught me to understand when it isn’t working — and why. If it takes all that pruning to discover the true shape of the thing, then not a word of it is wasted.
My soundtrack today has been a combination of Mogwai, Rachels, and Gavin Bryars. I first heard Bryars’ astonishing work Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me on BBC 6Music, and immediately set out to track it down. It’s twinned with the equally extraordinary Sinking Of The Titanic — two tracks soaring through 50 minutes of woozy wonder. Check it out, popsters:
I’m fortunate to have some terrific writers as friends. On finishing my third version of The Hollows, I sought the indulgence of their feedback, and they were kind enough to give it. As well as my wife Mon, who reads everything first, I’ve now bounced the book off David Hartley, Abi Hynes, and Ali Shaw, and had the time to digest their thoughts.
The first piece of good news is that all four readers had almost the exact same reactions to the book. It would have been abominable if they’d had totally different responses. The second good thing is that their responses made complete sense to me — they chimed with a lot of my own thoughts after some time away from the story. The third good thing is that although, from the feedback, there are definitely things I need to change — none of them are very terrible in terms of the structure. Reworking the structure is what hurts the most. And the final good thing is that all four readers seem to have enjoyed the book very much. After so long buried in the mazes of The Hollows, it’s been incredibly uplifting to feel that the work has not been wasted. Perhaps I shouldn’t need the validation of others, but I do. I do.
So — what needs redrafting?
The book is too long. My first draft came in a whisker under 140,000 words, and I already knew I needed to cut it down, a lot. I wanted to get it below 120,000, and that’s not the sort of change you get by combing through the manuscript and filleting the adverbs. I’ve needed to cut and combine chapters, which means removing minor story strands. It wasn’t until I started writing novels that I truly understood the meaning of ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ — and that’s what my first readers have done. It’s the advice of Abi, Ali, Dave and Mon that helped me prioritise what matters to the core of the story, and what’s only fluff.
Secondly, and connected to the length, there’s a lot of repetition and some exposition. In writing such a long book, I needed this to help me navigate the plot and maintain the atmosphere — the descriptions were for me, I suppose, signposts to know where I was. By its nature, repetition is pretty easy to cut and undo, and this has been one of the easiest parts of the redraft.
Third, killing darlings. Grotty work, but important — all those clever little stylistic tics and tricks that I was so proud of when I wrote them, but stick out like sore thumbs for readers. The indulgent stuff, basically. This part of redrafting isn’t hard so much as humbling. What’s the quote? Chandler or Carver or someone — “If it looks like writing, get rid of it.” That’s true up to a point. I love a decent bit of splashy flashy writing too. If you kill all your darlings, then what’s left to love?
Fourth — the only thing I completely cheated on was a character’s reason for doing something. I didn’t believe it myself at the time, but having exhausted dozens of other possibilities, it was the least bad thing I could come up with, so I tried to sneak it in regardless. And obviously all four readers saw through it like a window, which forced me to think again — as I should have done at the beginning. My readers have made me work harder and work better, and I’ve come up with a solution. Threading the new idea into place has required significant changes throughout the manuscript, and this has been the most challenging part of my redraft, even though it’s the right thing to do. For all that editing is painful, it helps to remember that these changes make the story stronger.
Fifth is the scraps. A line of dialogue that doesn’t ring true — an inconsistency in character — the things that smack too much of coincidence. None of it is very difficult, but this is the stuff that makes me wince, because it seems so obvious once it’s been pointed out. How could I have missed it in the first place? …because of the wood and the trees.
I was terrified of sending the book out. I’ve invested three years in The Hollows, and the thought of wasting all that time — all that work — was excruciating. What if my readers came back and said yeah, all right… but naw? In the end, their responses have made it worth the while. I don’t have a deal in place for the book, and it may never be published. That would hurt. But I now believe I’ve written something worth reading, and maybe that’s enough. That’s what I’m writing for.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but writing is nothing without community. Mon, Abi, Ali and Dave — thank you. I owe you, and I won’t forget.
Ever since losing a large document many moons ago, I have become a compulsive hoarder of files. I email myself a copy of the manuscript every time I make any significant changes, keep the files neatly labelled by date and word count, and sleep safe in the knowledge of a bombproof back-up (until the day that California slides into the sea).
The second draft of my story is now finished. This also means, as a curiosity, that I can look back and map my progress with a chart like this:
So there we go. I didn’t really start backing up the manuscript until I had something worth saving, which was in late summer — and thereafter, almost every Thursday and Friday (my writing days) had a file of its very own.
Now, what does this tell us?
Yes, that’s right — bugger all. What we therefore need is some context. Here is my context.
Here’s the thing — I know that word counts don’t actually count anything at all, whether it’s 500 a day or 5,000. They measure only a quantity of words, not a quality. Grinding the fuckers out in the right order is what matters. Counting words alone is the same as counting beans, as Jack Torrance knows all too well—
— and still, with all that said, I like looking at that chart and how it simplifies the last 11 months into the zigs and jigs of gradual progress. There have been so many times when I thought I wouldn’t finish the book, and so many times when it bamboozled me completely, and there’s an odd sense of finality to seeing it mapped out. Those 4am and 5am mornings, those eye-dragging days of staring at Scrivener, and those crushing, inevitable moments of deleting a chapter here, a character there — all that graft set out into a neat blue line.
Will it need edits? Very much so. I’ve now sent the manuscript to somewriteryfriends because I need walls to bounce off, and I’m both dreading and excited at what they’ll have to say. Their perspectives will help me triangulate my own sense of what needs doing. For now, I’m going to put the book away and not think about it until 2017. I might drink a beer or something.
There’s a great line from Stephen King — one of many — that says something like,
If you haven’t got the time to read, then you haven’t got the time — or the tools — to write.
For pretty much all of last year, I didn’t read. This was for a combination of reasons. Firstly, I was playing some truly imaginative and transporting video games on my iPad, like Year Walk, Limbo, Botanicula, Thomas Was Alone, The Room 1 & 2 & 3, Around The World In 80 Days. I convinced myself that they were an adequate substitute for books, and they also filled my need to solve puzzles and problems. Besides, I had so little time, and it was easy to get a quick fix of something in a game, where books needed concentration and space. In truth, of course, they were making me lazy. They needed more effort, but less imagination.
Secondly, as I became increasingly bamboozled by my own book, I deliberately and increasingly shunned other books. This time, I told myself that I didn’t need any more ideas floating around my head when I was drowning in too many ideas of my own. I wanted blank space in my brain, not clutter.
Thirdly, I was so damned tired that I was only managing two or three pages a night before my eyes began to drag. A book a month, a book in two months. I was writing faster than I was reading. So what was the point? In short, reading had become a chore, and my pile of books to be read was going up much faster than it was coming down. I was tired and lost and my wits were dull.
Eventually, something changes, because something always must.
Earlier this year, I taught a creative writing night class. There were some cool writers on the course, and we had a lot of fun. Each week I gave homework of short stories or novel extracts — Neil Gaiman, Junot Diaz, Amy Hempel — and we’d begin the following session with close reading, trying to dig a little deeper into how the author made the story sing — and how we could test the same techniques in our own work.
Around the same time, my friend Steve started an online book club between a few old friends. Living in York, Kendal, Oxford, London and Nottingham, we don’t really get to see each other anymore, and he thought it would be a good way to stay in touch. (He was right.)
Between these two happenings, I started reading again, and more importantly, enjoying it. Somehow, I’d forgotten how much I loved to read. Before Dora exploded in our lives, I used to read two or three books a week. And I’m nowhere near that, but in recent months I’ve read The Final Solution by Michael Chabon, Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun, Thief Of Time by Terry Pratchett, Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Slade House and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, The Book Of Strange New Things and Under The Skin by Michel Faber, The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, After The Quake by Haruki Murakami, Sexing The Cherry by Jeanette Winterson, Stirring The Mud by Barbara Hurd, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, 1356 by Bernard Cornwell, The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, an extraordinarily good short story collection by my pal Luke Brown and a bunch of others that I can’t recall. I also reread His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman — nothing makes me feel quite so aware of my own failings as a writer than that extraordinary trilogy of Northern Lights, Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass.
Now, I know that doesn’t come out at two or three a week, but it’s an awful lot more than none a week. And I’ve come to realise how right Stephen King is. You can’t take a drink without visiting the well. You can’t write stories without reading stories. I’d convinced myself that all those other worlds, other characters, other ideas would jumble and twist with my own, and make things worse — but it hasn’t been like that at all. I’ve come to discover that every time I read a book, it adjusts my compass for what I think writing is supposed to be — and that I can’t write without that compass. I’ve remembered what it is to drown in a story, to be so totally committed to another character that I forget myself, and to come out the other side it, changed.
Listen to the King — reading is the tools for writing. I don’t know how I’d forgotten it, but I’ve remembered now. My compass is beginning to right itself, and the needle ticks, ticks towards the track. The direction is still murky, but it’s surer underfoot, and I’ve Lyra Belacqua ahead of me, tutting.
What have you been reading, people? What have I missed? What are your tools?
This is my first post since 1st October 2015; a window of more than three months, and the longest I’ve gone without an update since I started the blog. I signed off because my head was on fire and I needed some space. As a result, I haven’t shared some amazing things that happened to me last year—ten awesome days of rain and shine on the beaches of Coll and Tiree, an appearance at Bloody Scotland crime-writing festival, the US publication of The Visitors, and most especially my first time at Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I was reading with the ManBooker shortlisted genius Chigozie Obioma. Maybe he was as nervous as me about the festival, but something just clicked. I don’t know if I’ve ever warmed to someone quite as spontaneously as I did Chigozie. In the middle of our discussion a battered bookmark slipped from the pages of his book. It said, Literature tastes better with beer, and I thought, yeah, this is one of the good guys. (And his novel, The Fishermen, is a wonder.) Edinburgh is a city like no other, and the festival was an extraordinary experience. To cap it all, walking back to the hotel through the summer gloaming, I came up with a new novel idea. That was a good day.
My head was on fire because of The Hollows. I finished the second draft in June and took the print-out on holiday to Coll and Tiree, where I spent my downtime going through it with a red pen. I finished the last pages as the ferry trundled back into Oban, redrafted in a week, and asked some friends to read it. To be completely honest, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’d written the whole thing in about thirty days, edited it in another five, and I thought it was good. I blogged about experiencing something of a slump, but that’s normal for me, and I expected to get out of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get out of it at all. It became worse.
The problem probably goes back to the Kate Mosse incident. I think that skewed my compass more than I realised at the time; in writing the second draft, trying to make some space between me and her, I moved too far into the fantastical, and away from the magic realism I’m pitching at; and my sheer joy of progress in writing the new draft so quickly—the drowning that I long for in my writing—that same joy blinded me to things I should have been more conscious of, things I should have been stronger about. My amazing beta readers enjoyed the book, but a couple of issues cropped up time and time again, and this consensus helped me gain some perspective on the book. Put more bluntly, it became clear that a particular strand of the story wasn’t working as well as it needed to. So go and change that one strand, right?
I sometimes think of writing a book like weaving a tapestry: the multiple threads of the characters, settings, atmospheres, emotions and plot woven against the weft of pace and rhythm, all of them bound together into a single piece. As a metaphor, it works. The problem comes in trying to unravel one or two of the threads: it can’t be done without wrecking the rest. Pull at one, and the whole thing falls apart. When I tried to redraft, I found I couldn’t do it; between the first failed version of the story, and then the flawed second, I was utterly discombobulated. It made me miserable for a very long time. One day, I’d start writing it again, completely from scratch, with the ghosts of my characters screaming outrage over my shoulder—the next day, I’d junk everything I’d done the day before, and go back to my second draft, pussyfooting around with single words and phrases—and the day after, I’d return to the very first version, and work out what I could salvage, looking for something, anything to show me the way.
At this point, I was overthinking it. I was tortured by possibilities, and wound up going backwards. The whole miserable process was compounded by the aching, awful thought of all the time I’d lost—by my reckoning, nearly a quarter of a million words of finished work over two years, and none of it anywhere near an actual book. At times I’ve been utterly inconsolable, and at other times I’ve probably been horrendous to live with. I’m extremely lucky to have in Monica a partner who understands these processes.
At the start of November, half-a-dozen small video jobs dropped into my lap in the space of a fortnight. That meant no writing for the rest of 2015, and I spent the rest of the year working flat-out to finish the films—they are now mostly wrapped, and so my writing days are back. In the end, some enforced time away has been helpful. My feet are back on the ground, and I’m not wallowing anymore. I can’t pretend I have a completely clear vision of the way ahead, but I’ve finally started getting some sense of the way. After days and days of effort and countless hours with my notebook and the myriad manuscripts, I’ve cut 70,000 words from the draft, tweaked those strands I needed to tweak, and I’m now writing into empty white pages for the first time in a year. I no longer know what will happen in some parts of the story, but actually that’s fine—that’s one of the fun parts. As daft as it sounds, I’m going to bed earlier, too, and waking with a little time to write. That helps.
I shared too much about the last draft. I’m never confident about my work, but I think I became a little complacent after discussing it in such detail. Having experienced heartbreak once, with the Kate Mosse incident, I simply didn’t believe it could happen again. I think I felt I’d paid my dues with The Hollows—that I was owed a bit of a pass. I was therefore unprepared, and it hurt much, much worse. It has taken months for me to want to write again—rather than feel I have to. And I do want to write, now. The drive is creeping back. I feel far more cautious, and I’m approaching every writing day with care—care for my story, and care for my heart—but I want to be writing, which is the big thing. I’m miserable when I don’t write.
The Hollows has sung to me for three years, and I’m going to get it right. The characters evolve and change, much like the fens they live in, the fens I’m writing about, landscapes in flux, stories in flux. I would say watch this space—but don’t watch too hard. I’ll be a wee while. Third time lucky.
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.
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.
I woke early and spent a few minutes listening to the sparrows, then made a cup of tea and settled down to work. With a first draft complete, The Hollows is off to one side, ready for a redraft when it has finished steeping. At something of a loss for what to do, I worked on an older piece, making some overdue tweaks. It was slow, frustrating progress and I was relieved, an hour or so later, when Dora thundered on the ceiling overhead. She clattered down the stairs and burst into the room, as she does every morning, and threw herself at me.
‘Morning sweetheart. It’s good to see you. Did you have any dreams?’
‘Good dreams or bad dreams?’
‘It was a bad dream.’
‘Oh no. What happened?’
Her face fuzzled as she remembered it.
‘There was a big swamp. And a little girl went into the swamp, and she stole a ribbon.’
I frowned. This reminded me of something. Dora continued:
‘And the little girl was chased in the swamp by a very bad man.’
I realised what she was saying. I knew what she would say next. My skin began to tingle, crawling upwards from my ankles.
‘And the bad man took the ribbon, and he took the little girl as well, and then there was nothing but the swamp.’
My four-year-old daughter had just relayed to me the plot of the first chapter of The Hollows. Which would be fine, except for the fact that no one else knows it but me. I haven’t shared it with anyone. No one has read it, and I’m the only person in the entire world who knows what happens.
I’ve been ransacking my brain to work out what happened. I’ve never told Dora any part of the story, and she can’t read for herself. Mon hasn’t seen it yet, so she couldn’t have told Dora either, and no one else has access to my computer. I have no idea how she knew this part of the plot. There must be a rational explanation, but I can’t work it out.
There’s just no way. There is simply no way it could have happened.
And yet it did.
A woman always, always tripped on the bottom tread of the stairs in her new house, her muscle memory convinced and compelled to make an extra step for a stair that wasn’t there. This happened for years. When the house was renovated, and the floor was lifted, the builders discovered an extra step at the bottom of the flight. People wake from comas speaking Latin, or dream across a continent of their brother drowning at sea, and wake to bad news on the phone.
I don’t believe in ghosts as sentient beings. I don’t believe in the supernatural as an anthropology. But human imagination is an engine of staggering power, and we are utterly corruptible. The weight of human history drops away below our feet, and we walk in the shadows and the hollows of what has gone before. Like crossing a clay field after the rain, it sticks to our feet in clumps.
Holloways are ancient droving roads. The weight of carts and cattle through the roads caused the ground below to erode and sink, even as the verges to the side of the road stayed the same. Protected from the passing herds, trees grew on the verges and knotted overhead, while below, the path continued to erode, ground away by centuries of cattle, and so, over time, the roads became tunnels: hollow ways.
That’s where we are, all of us. The trees have been cut and the verges levelled and all of it coated with tarmac, but we still walk along the holloways. A sideways glimpse is all it takes to see the fleeting, teeming strata of the lives we’ve lived before.