This is a long overdue post. Actually, all my posts are overdue these days. Last month I was honoured to take part in Nothing Stays Secret For Long, a one-off event at Manchester’s Chetham’s Library organised by First Draft cabaret nights. Chetham’s is an extraordinary place — the oldest public lending library in the English-speaking world, and a collage of architectures — it’s been a house, a courtroom, a school, a college, and at one point served as home to Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist, scientist, philosopher and spy. We left our coats in the room where he accidentally summoned the devil.
Nothing Stays Secret For Long gathered several poets, writers, singers and performers to respond to a key item in the library’s collection — the diaries of Dora Turnor, an invalid Victorian teenager. She was very poorly but also very rich, and the survival of her diaries offers an astonishing window into her life and times. We were asked to create a ten-minute piece from the transcripts of her journals, some of which can be read online.
Reading someone else’s diaries is an extraordinarily transporting thing. Taking that private experience for your own is a betrayal, a theft and an intimacy, all at once — even 150 years later. I liked Dora. For all of her wealth and occasionally snobbery, there was a humour and a hope that carried her personality across the decades. When she was ill — and she was often ill — her loneliness, frustration and misery boiled on the page. There were also plenty of wry moments that are still written in teenage diaries all over the world — ‘Will I die alone?’ — ‘Does everybody hate me?’
With such rich source material, I was absolutely flooded with fleeting ideas — writing boxes and grumpy golems — but none of them seemed to stick. I wrote a story about a haunting in the waters of a Victorian spa, but it wasn’t working either. With less than a week to go, I started anew, and wrote a story called A Choice & A Choosing — although, in the end, it almost wrote itself, as many of my favourite stories seem to. When in doubt, go weird. I’ll pop it up at some point.
The event was a wonder. I love the sense of community at spoken word nights, and Nothing Stays Secret was packed with it — 80 of us sharing the vaulted ceilings of Chetham’s, swords and lances on the wall. I loved how each of the performers had taken something slightly different from Dora. In combination, the patchwork of our words brought something of her into the room as well (though I imagine she’d have been rolling her eyes at it all). In particular, I want to acknowledge the startling, mesmerising poetry of Nasima Begum and Amina Atiq, the bittersweet cabaret “or whatever this is” of Mitch Robinson, the comedy of Sophie Galpin and the music of Yemi Bolatiwa. It was an absolute honour to share the stage with such talent.
I’ve been needing something like this to remind me who I am. Mon and I are scrabbling for every scrap of time we can find, engrossed in a project that’s taken over much of our lives — I’ll share news of that later — and it’s all too easy, when I’m not writing, to wonder whether I’ll get back to work at all. I’m thankful for nights like this to remind me where I’m going — a map to my compass.
First Draft are doing five more of these events in Manchester and Newcastle, so try to support them if you can. They’re doing good work.
Let’s play out with this woozy delight from audio whizz Rickerly, produced in response to Dora’s diaries. Rickerly is also the magpie maestro who creates the Hillside Curation podcast with genius David Hartley, and you should definitely check that out too.
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.
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 some writery friends 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.
Well, I could scarcely be more pleased with this: the mighty Liar’s League of London have accepted another of my short stories. After Carrie Cohen did such a fine job with Art Is Long, Life Is Short, I’m absolutely delighted to share this brilliant reading of What’s For You Won’t Pass You By.
The actor, Cliff Chapman, has transformed the story. The dull-witted violence I imagined for the farmer is gone — and in its place something far more human, far more visceral, and far more frightening. The farmer has become more downtrodden, more wounded, sadder and more reactive, and the character is all the stronger for it. I’d imagined him as Irish or Scottish, but Cliff’s West Country realisation is absolutely perfect — it’s better than my version. This is the second time Liar’s League have transformed one of my stories, and I absolutely love seeing what these talented actors bring to my work — on each occasion, they’ve elevated my story and made it into something bigger.
Here, then, and nicely in time for Hallowe’en, is my short story What’s For You Won’t Pass You By, read by Cliff Chapman for Liar’s League.
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.