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:
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.
With a first draft of The Hollows finished and sent away, I’ve emerged, blinking, into the light, with pasty skin and mild RSI. I’m still hungry to keep working while I have these little windows, though, so I’ve tweaked and typeset all the stories in Dare, and sent it to the printers; I’ve started thinking about some new flash stories for my guest spot at Verbalise in October; and I’m catching up on some long overdue blog posts, including this one.
When I wrote The Visitors, I had a tight-knit soundtrack to shape my work. This consisted mostly of:
Come On Die Young by Mogwai
Mar of Aran by British Sea Power
Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You Black Emperor
Just Beyond The River by James Yorkston
…and everything by Bat For Lashes.
In combination, they did what I needed them to do; for me, music for writing needs to hit several things at once. It must be engaging, immersive, transporting; but also neutral enough to let me tune out and play it in the background, and not get too involved. For this reason, I tend to go for records with minimal vocals; or, at least, records (like the James Yorkston and the Bat For Lashes) where the vocal is tonally consistent, drifting, utterly woven into the fabric of the music.
On starting The Hollows, I developed a new soundtrack. Some of the same culprits are there, but with different albums; listening to my Visitors soundtrack takes me back into The Visitors, and I needed to be somewhere very new for The Hollows, which is a more fantastical, more magical place. And I say ‘evolved’ quite deliberately; albums have dropped in and dropped out as the manuscript developed. Ys by Joanna Newsom was a big part of last year’s stumbles, but she gradually shifted down the running order as the story unfolded. Instead, Jonathan Eng’s wonderful soundtrack from the computer game Sailor’s Dream moved in to take her place (thanks in no small part to the wonderful vocals by Stephanie Hladowski). Another video game soundtrack has proven to be extremely good music for writing: Thomas Was Alone is an utterly beautiful game in and of itself, but the score by David Housden stands alone.
The most recent addition is I Want To See Pulaski At Night by violinist Andrew Bird. My friend and colleague Dom introduced me to this record while we were in the depths of a marking slump, and it parachuted into my writing soundtrack next day. Mostly instrumental, Pulaski takes its title from this glorious centrepiece:
The running order is important (to me, anyway – it’s totally cool if you don’t care). Andrew Bird is first on the list, as I Want To See Pulaski At Night is both sleepy and sparky, making for exactly the right way to start the day. Then comes Thomas Was Alone, which takes me somewhere deeper, calmer, more concentrated:
From Thomas Was Alone, British Sea Power take it up a notch with the drive, shift and transporting tumble of their film soundtrack From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Thanks to pal Kirstin Innes, Mon and I were lucky enough to witness them play this live at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year. Their performance was magisterial. I’ve now seen the film half-a-dozen times, and it’s a masterpiece: a social history of Britain told through our relationship with the sea, drawing together a century of archive footage from the British Film Institute. Watch it. Watch it again. Tell everyone.
Next up is Sailor’s Dream. By this time I’m ready for something less immersive, and the vocal interludes of the days of the week (this makes sense if you’ve played the game) saturate my head with little magics, thresholds, otherworlds.
Next comes Balmorhea. I discovered this post-rock band last year when friend Jon kindly gave me his old iPod, and I became addicted in days to their sweeping arrangements. There’s a timelessness to Balmorhea’s music that I find completely immersive. They sustain this over several records with different measures of minimalism, but it all works for me. After Sailor’s Dream I go into their album Constellations, but from this point they recur every other album, working up to Live At Sint-Elisabethkirk, which is perhaps the best £5 you’ll spend today, because this:
After Constellations, Mogwai strike back with Rock Action, the follow up to Come On Die Young. Here’s why it’s one of my favourites of their many awesome albums:
Then comes phase two of the mighty British Sea Power, with their short and astonishingly sweet soundtrack Happiness, then Balmorhea again, then Rachels and Remember Remember. I seldom make it all the way to the end, though. After Happiness, I tend to start the playlist over. It’s almost nine hours long, which is most of a working day for me.
Every time I think I won’t find any more music that’s right for me, something always comes along. Dom introduced me to Andrew Bird, and Jon to Balmorhea. I do wonder, looking ahead to next novels, how the soundtrack will change.
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’ve been keeping this schtumm for a wee while, but I am now absolutely thrilled to share the news that The Visitors has packed a suitcase to go travelling, and will be published in America this December by the good folks at Melville House Books. I’m delighted the U.S. edition is in the hands of such an exciting publisher. You know you’re in a good place when you see a thing like this: