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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
A very worthy work was published last week, and I wanted to take a moment to shout about it. In The Empty Places is an anthology of art and short stories published by the Bantuan Coffee Foundation, an amazing organisation that provides shelter and education for victims of child prostitution and trafficking in Indonesia. It’s a fantastic cause delivering real, practical solutions on the ground, and I’m honoured that they considered some of my work for the anthology. The editors accepted a short story about the Chinese cocklers that drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2001. I lived in Lancaster at the time, only a few miles away, and I never managed to shake off a sense of uncaring tragedy; relentless winter skies, the media circus, the restaurant owners protesting their innocence.
My piece is in the extraordinary company of writers including Toni Davidson, Rodge Glass, Tendai Huchu, Kirsty Logan, Anneliese Mackintosh, Iain Maloney, Suhayl Saadi and Chiew-Siah Tei. Some of these stories are appearing in translation for the first time. The book also includes artwork by Tomi Muller, Mayra Martins Redin and my wife, Monica Metsers.
In The Empty Places is helping to provide real solutions and real escapes for children who have been forced into prostitution. If you’d like to help too, then follow this link for a copy of the book; there are far worse ways to spend your money this Christmas.
Another year, another holiday. A fortnight before our wedding, and with a thousand things to organise, Mon and I have taken Dora for a week on Kefalonia in the Greek Ionian islands. Some people thought we were crazy, leaving so soon before the big day, and others thought we’d done exactly the right thing. It’s been wonderful. Our studio was cheap and cheerful, but had stunning views of the sea. The beach at Lourdas was only a few minutes away. We’ve done as much sunbathing as Dora would allow, and spent the rest of the time building bad sandcastles or splashing in the shallows. We visited Melissina cave, where they filmed The Goonies, and drove round onto the Lixouri peninsula to the secluded beach cove of Petanoi, ringed with sheer white cliffs.
View from our balcony
Kefalonia is intoxicating. Olive trees spill into the verges, and fig trees grow in long-abandoned lots. The cliff-top hairpins are graffitied with faded communist slogans. Goats dawdle as they cross the road in scraggy herds. Each of their bells is tuned slightly differently, so the goatherd knows where each animal is foraging. When they’re hidden by the pines, the bells sound like secret orchestras, playing just for you. Skinny feral kittens bat at grass stalks and dry leaves. Cacti grow on roadsides. Beehives, painted rainbow bright, cling to precipitous hillsides. After lunch, old men sit in the meagre shade of trees and smoke. All the while, the island is alive with cicadas. They chatter all day in a raucous chorus that never stops, resounding all around in a cacophony of tones and clashing rhythms. After a day or two, I learned to tune it out, but occasionally I’d become suddenly, urgently conscious of the racket, and the world would explode again with sound. In the hour either side of sunset, when the heat was exquisite, the evening air grew heady with jasmine and lemon. The jumble of architecture felt strange and at times a little sad. The global crash hit Greece harder than most, and there are abandoned building sites everywhere. The skeletons of these half-formed houses cling to the hills and wrap themselves in vines. It’s an extraordinary place.
One of my favourite things about going on holiday is having the time to read. I’ve been reading a little more often in the last few months – trying not to work so late, and going to bed with a book instead – but on holiday, I can gorge myself. This time round, I went through The End Of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, Thursbitch by Alan Garner, Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey by Fat Roland, The Coma by Alex Garland, It’s Lovely To Be Here by James Yorkston, Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel and The Evil Seed by Joanne Harris.
I love Joanne Harris, but struggled to get into The Evil Seed. As Harris explains in her introduction, it was her first novel, and she doesn’t feel she was firing on all cylinders. I found the regular switch of narrators a little jarring, for all that her writing was as wonderful as ever. Harris is a master, but The Evil Seed simply wasn’t for me. I also struggled with The End Of Mr Y. It started well, with a great premise – in a second-hand bookshop, a research student discovers a novel no one has seen in a hundred years. The book is supposed to be cursed – anyone who reads it will die. What a brilliant idea for a novel! Scarlett Thomas is extremely good at explaining the complex scientific theories that underpin the book, but as the plot unfolds, The End Of Mr Y felt increasingly like a collection of philosophical discussions tacked together with incidental actions. It was too disjointed for me – no flow.
I bought The Coma by Alex Garland years ago, and have been saving it until I finished writing The Year Of The Whale – because Garland’s book is also an illustrated novella, which is how I’d like The Whale to appear, if it ever does. It’s another good premise – a man exploring his own coma for meaning about his life – but one that is better managed in Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh or The Bridge by Iain Banks. Using minimal text, Garland brilliantly navigates his way around the dreamworld of the coma, wonderfully abetted by stark, startling woodcuts, but the final sequences became convoluted and disjointed with exposition, breaking an otherwise immersive experience. It was a shame, on finishing the novella, to realise that it came to a little less than the sum of its excellent parts.
Now we come to Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey, the second collection of flash fiction by Fat Roland. Disclaimer: I know and like Fats. I hope that won’t detract from my review of an excellent collection of shorter stories. Fats tends towards the weird in his work – or the really weird, in fact – often working with the mundane to expose the inherent strangeness of this grand and rolling shambles we call life. And he’s extremely good at it, too. Hey Hey Hey is a generally very strong collection, but some of the stories are exceptional: stand-outs for me were The Listener, and Michael Is A Horse, A Beautiful Horse, which rank amongst the best flash pieces I’ve ever read. I preferred Hey Hey Hey to his first collection; although Andropiean Galactic Lego Set Blues is also good, this second collection feels more assured in its use and abuse of the surreal, more convincing. It’s funny, chilling and thrilling, all at once.
Several of the stories are about swimming pools, and then I noticed this. Curious, no?
…and he’s one of my favourite musicians. I’ve seen him play three times – by accident at The Raigmore Motel in Inverness back in 2001, I think, supported by Malcolm Middleton, though it may have been the other way round; then with his full band at The Brewery a couple of years ago, which is one my all-time top gigs; and then solo at The Dukes in Lancaster last year. He’s brilliant live, and these diaries – witty, honest, funny, poignant and a little sly – give a compelling insight into the flip side of life as a touring musician. I guess it gave me pause to think of the times I’ve approached him (or other musicians) after a gig, gushing praise and wishing well. Especially now I’ve started performing my stories live (nowhere near the same experience, but in the same universe, I suppose), I better appreciate that sometimes that’s the last thing a performer wants – to be inundated with people, and all the psychic tension and expectations they bring with them, when they’d rather go to bed. These diaries are funny and wickedly honest.
I never planned on reading Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I absolutely hated Beyond Black, the only other Mantel novel I’d tried, and I was therefore cynical about the praise heaped on this book and its precedent, Wolf Hall. But when I’d finished all the books I’d brought with me, I had to turn to the graveyard of dog-eared abandoned holiday reads in the hotel. Bring Up The Bodies was the only one I even halfway fancied, though I started reading with reluctance. And do you know what? It’s magnificent. Set in the court of Henry VIII, it plays out the last few months of the life of Anne Boleyn from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s fixer. Bizarrely, Bring Up The Bodies actually gave me what I was expecting, but failed to find, in George R R Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire – thrilling, page-turning intrigue on the price of power and the rise and fall of dynasties. It reads like The Godfather. Mantel’s Cromwell is an absolutely astounding narrator. I’m definitely going to seek out Wolf Hall, now, and I was delighted to see in the author’s note that she has more plans for Cromwell.
Finally, there’s Thursbitch by Alan Garner. I’m relatively new to Garner, off the back of his wonderful collection of British Fairy Tales and his short novel Strandloper, though I probably read The Owl Service when I was a kid. I’m still digesting Thursbitch. It’s profound and important, but it isn’t much fun. Garner creates worlds real enough to touch. His prose is so sparse, his stories so lean, that it often feels like there’s nothing there at all – as though his work is invisible, and his books are slices in time, windows into centuries when the world was young and hungry, and land still mattered. Thursbitch is about an old magic, a northern magic of white hares and white bulls and bees, of toadstools and snakes. It’s almost voodoo. A magic of the stones and the seasons and the night sky and the bog. It’s a magic of balance – of keeping the land and the people in check, pragmatic, without mysticism or spirituality. It’s heady stuff, and I’m still reeling. Like Strandloper, it’s dense, often using language so archaic it feels alien, and Garner gives nothing for free. I’ll read it again in a few years, I think, and see how it’s changed – how I’ve changed.
Back into pre-wedding mania. The garden has bloomed without us. The Black-eyed Susan has climbed to the top of the trellis, and the Russian vine is turning into a triffid. They remind me of the plants that explode everywhere in Kefalonia, wild and reckless in the dust and dirt. It’s strange to come home. Mon and I talk a lot about living abroad. I get depressed by the daily horrors this government continues to inflict on anyone who isn’t already rich, and I harbour visions of growing my own peppers and onions and garlic and chillies. We talk of Spain and France. Of a simpler life, I suppose, where we’re not drowning in screens and SATs. One where I can write and Mon can paint and Dora can chase katydids in the pear trees. There are times it feels like a boy’s dream, to run away, and times it feels like the brightest, broadest road we could take.
Halfway through the holiday, there was an insect drowning in the pool. It was my turn to rescue it, so I slipped into the water, swam across and scooped it out on the end of one of Dora’s toys. It was a honeybee. It dried in an instant and flew away, and I swam back to the edge of the pool. Just before I clambered out, I spotted something and stopped. It was a speck, no more than three millimetres long, but it was unmistakably a mantis, intricate and perfect as clockwork. I’d never seen one in the wild. I called Mon across to have a look. Even as we watched, it flexed its killer forelegs, snap snap, and marched across the baking tiles, three millimetres tall and a king of the world. The day before, driving back from the cove at Petanoi, Mon saw a golden eagle.
I love Cumbria, but there’s a splinter in my head that says we could be living cleaner, should be living simpler. Living slow.
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.
Last night, with slightly more than an hour to go before the deadline of the MMU Novella Competition, I finally finished my novella The Year of the Whale. The image above is a randomised cloud of the most common words in the manuscript, which is a really satisfying way to look back on what I’ve made.
I started writing it in 2009, and it has spent entire years untouched, waiting for attention in the dusty recesses of my hard drive. It’s written in first person with a very particular voice, and it’s been strange to return to it so sporadically over the years, and take up the mantle of that voice again. I’ve wanted to finish it for a long time – it was one of my New Year’s resolutions, no less – and I’m thankful to the competition for giving me the spark to get it done. I don’t expect anything to come of it – that way madness lies – but I’m thrilled to have wrapped it up last.
The Year of the Whale is the story of a man called Henry Cowx. He is a fisherman and walking guide in Morecambe Bay, riddled with arthritis and wracked with guilt. His story explores that guilt, and gives some quiet thought to what it means to remember. It’s about walking and place and ghosts and folk tales, and our connections with the land. It’s at the heart of my obsession with threshold spaces. It’s a meditative, elegiac story, and a long way from where I’d like to develop my work – but Henry has never been far from my mind, and I’m glad to give him closure at last.
I discussed some of the genesis of the story in my Thievery post for Kirsty Logan.
I’m working my way through some film jobs at the moment, but it’s almost time to get back into The Hollows.
I’m honoured and delighted to have contributed a post to Kirsty Logan‘s long-running series of story inspirations, Thievery. It’s entirely possible to drown yourself in the wealth of stories Kirsty has curated, and I thoroughly recommend you do.
For my post, I confessed about a novel I abandoned at 50,000 words, because I no longer knew what it was about. One day, it will be reborn as The Year Of The Whale.
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.
I’ve talked a lot about wanting to get back to my novella The Year Of The Whale, and I’ve just spotted this novella competition judged by the excellent writer Jenn Ashworth. The deadline is distant enough that I think I can get it finished in time, so that’s now a concrete target for me.
In the course of researching and writing The Year Of The Whale, I’ve come across a huge variety of whale material. I’ve seen Medieval whales, drawn as dragons and devils, and countless images of beached whales, spilling themselves in streaks onto the shingle. And then there’s much weirder stuff, like this profoundly sad, surreal animation. It’s about childhood betrayal, I suppose, but there’s a lot of other things going on in there at the same time. I would say ‘Enjoy’, but it’s not that sort of film.