The last working day of the year. Tonight I am free from the desk for a whole week and a half. Just imagine the creative possibility. Already I see blank pages peeling down their stockings and enticing me with their musky warmth. Except of course Iíll spend the time Ė just like I did as undergraduate and graduate alike Ė planted at my desk in paralysis watching the seconds ebb away, knowing that as this window of opportunity closes the next hasnít even been measured for its badly fitting frame.
Management of expectations. Itís the lesson that everyone crippled by perfectionism can learn from New Labour. Time was I thought every new holiday Ė no, every spare weekend Ė no, every free evening would see me crack one of lifeís last conundrums, or at worst churn out 2000 good words a day. But now Iíve learned that the road is long and paved with difficult turns, that the process is fraught with danger, and the potential limited at best, in fact that any step forward Ė no, possibly even stasis itself, is cause for celebration.
This is, in fact, cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT, at its most basic, the gold standard of treatments for anxiety disorders like perfectionism. They have it in politics too, only there they call it spin. Not the wild optimisms of Campbell and Blair, but the slow-drip caution of Charlie Whelan and Gordon Brown that makes us see life for what it really is Ė a bloody war where every battle is hard won. Itís the same genius that makes you feel like embracing Gordon in gratitude every time you open the curtains and see that the world is still there because but for him it would have been so much worse. Perhaps itís no coincidence that the first major policy announcement I remember of Mr Brownís premiership involved a bid to expand access to CBT on the NHS, drip-feeding expectation management to even the most disenfranchise on the borderlines of electoral capacity.
So this festive season I wonít expect to half finish Harlequin is Dead (in fact I should be dancing in maenadic delirium that I even have a name for it). Iíll expect to hang my head over piles of research papers I canít quite get to grips with and sob occasionally at my woeful inability. And if, come January 2nd, I open my curtains and find that the world is still there Ė or open my notebook and find within a hint of a scribbled something, I will crack open a bottle of the very best Tokaji and rejoice that the holidays have gone so wildly better than all expectation.
Today Iím feeling reflective about my writing. Which is code, of course, for saying Iíve done diddly squat. Iím also feeling the after-effects of reading Kundera on the bus. I feel in desperate need of working on another short story for my ongoing Ode to Jouissance collection of mildly erotic short stories about modern Europe, but I know I mustnít. I know I have to graft (but see, even as I think about working on pulp fiction the stylistic stirrings begin with a little gratuitous italicising Ė ah how the mild winters make the seeds of creativity believe that itís spring!). Itís as though Iíve got a literary hangover and Iím denied the hair of the dog and have to make do with soda water. I love to produce writing that deals with important questions. I would say itís the academic researcher in me but that would be putting the cart before the horse. I became an academic because there are questions that gnaw away at me from the inside like an ideaphoric succubi. Leaving academia was like having that part of me, parasitic as it may have been, ripped out. I write because itís like a reflexive Iíve had for as long as I can remember, but I still feel those insistent questioning voices creeping under my skin like Bilharzia.
Home, thatís still the primus inter pares of all questions. Perhaps it was talking about gender and international relations yesterday, feeling the nostalgic pull of Kristevaís Strangers to Ourselves. I wonder from time to time if I should flesh out my proposal for a documentary series on the importance of the concept in the twenty-first century, a series structured around Platoís simile of the cave. Home is not a piece of land (the flickering shadows in the cave); it is not a culture (the puppets dancing in front of the fire); it is not to be found in our (sub)conscious (the real world outside the cave) or any other psychoanalytic New Age guff; it is, instead, to be found only by rooting that self in its proper metaphysical place (the sun, the form of the Good). But of course I would only get a series commissioned if I got famous. But Iím only likely to get famous if I make it as a writer, which means leaving the script aside so that when I am famous I will have forgotten the idea altogether. Besides which, what commissioning editor would make such a series fronted by someone known only for writing pulp fiction, however articulate, dashing, and charismatic he may be!
The problem is that if I donít scratch the itch the musings find their way into my novel writing whence they have to be extricated before rendering the books totally without an audience rather than just somewhat on the esoteric side of popular.
What to read when youíre trying to immerse yourself in research for a new book, hoping that somewhere through the fug of information a group of characters, little more than a few forlorn souls huddled at a bus stop at first, will begin to make their presence known, wave and say hello? Do you avoid the genre youíre writing in? Do you flood yourself with it? Do you, and the thought makes me shudder, cease reading altogether? Well, today I gave in to the desire to read some Kundera and skipped through the ironically-titled Slowness in the space of the bus ride. Itís a quite beautiful (of course) piece of ephemera about the power of the gaze Ė of society, of history, of us looking back at the two as phenomena Ė and the workings of memory.
But more than that it illustrated the serendipitous nature of the writing process. Not an hour before reading the book, that I had already put in my bag, I found myself on Marilyn vos Savantís website, where I intended researching giftedness, high IQ, blah blah, and found myself instead reading her diet page that read like an advert for the slow food society. And an hour before this I had found myself at the Faculty Christmas Party (and YES, I did feel different after yesterdayís close encounter. I was able to move amongst people unashamedly enquiring, observing, enjoying but always noting, human behaviour, and to do so with my Ė metaphorical Ė notebook out, because I felt like a writer) stumbling across a discussion of the role of the gaze. And of course itís that kind of emergent crystallization of ideas that can seed a whole book, let alone the countless short stories it nudged to the front of my mind.
Two paragraphs is, I think, all the loftiness that so short a Kundera novel can sustain. So my final reflection will have to sink for its subject matter back into the stews of the banal. Researching my second book in the series is Ė to state what is technically known as the bleeding obvious Ė a totally different process from researching the first, because every road that I see open up in front of me, every new direction, each fresh angle, I am intimately aware I will soon be paring down to its osteoporotic bones. With the manuscript of Company of Fellows sitting on a shelf in the study every so often acquiring an expletive and yet another correction of a misplaced comma, I am working at both ends of the process simultaneously, which does a very good job of showing just how different they are. On the one hand opening the floodgates, on the other mopping away the smallest droplet; on the one hand carrying out some tired clichť that denotes expansiveness, on the other carrying out a different one that denotes pernicketiness.
It could turn me cynical, of course, make me wonder why I bother researching when ninety nine percent of it will end on the cutting room floor, make me into a walking ball of biliousness, a personified vanity painting. Then again, it could remind me just how much research needs doing to produce 90,000 words of anything but dross (which could inspire or send me off the nearest bridge). I tend rather to hope optimistically that it is at least getting my left and right hemispheres back on speaking terms. They have been out of touch for such a long time and have so much to catch up on. It also serves to remind just how varied and interesting a task writing is, and just how applied one has to be to make the most of it. It is a process that cannot be skimped at any stage Ė no use filling your head with research and slapping it down without the surgeonís knife (think Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys), and no use saying I need 90,000 words and writing 90,000. Theyíll still need thinning just the same and youíll be left with something on the short side of a novella. No, everything has to be done, and at the correct place in the process. Every book needs, as it were, an appropriate slowness if it is to be memorable.
I feel like Iíve made first contact. In reality, of course, Iíd cast the die the moment I decided to take the envelope out of my bag and stuff it into the postbox. But that didnít make me feel different. I was still the same administrator whoíd tell everyone he met, ďthatís just the day job, though. Iím really a writerĒ. It was still just as much a spiel to me as it was to everyone who pretended to be interested and hoped they wouldnít wake up to find their inbox winking in their hung over face telling them the full manuscript had arrived any that feedback they could give me before Christmas was really appreciated. But today the SAE with my rather untidy scrawl (oops Ė thatís all they had to go on of my real handwriting. No artistic copperplate, no characterful flourish, just my rather workaday print to make sure I got it Ė double oops Ė maybe they think I canít even do joined up) was waiting for me when I got home. Someone actually has the first 50 pages of The Company of Fellows, someone who does this kind of thing for a living. All of a sudden my writing isnít something I talk about for want of something better to do at dinner parties. Iíve taken the first step to the first of the many rejection slips that will I hope contain enough useful criticism to help me write something that will get something other than a rejection slip and then, who knows, once the world has decided it really cares about the sleuthing sideline of a manic depressive theologian turned interior designer and his Detective Sergeant girlfriend who just happens to work for the woman he dumped a decade and a half earlier, perhaps I can scrape together enough that when I go to dinner parties I can say ďIím a writer. Thatís my day job!Ē
A random thought, which is all I have time for before the oven will be ready to receive the cottage pie I havenít started mixing together yet from several promising saucepans full, that I have never found explained in any of the dozens of how-to books Iíve read, even those aimed at thriller writers like me. Weíre told that the first, second, probably third manuscript will end up on the scrapheap and then, once weíve practised our craft sufficiently, we might stand a hope of hitting the paydirt of acceptance.
Aargh! The mushrooms burned Ė which is just one of the prices one pays for putting oneís art first! Tommy (my hero) doesnít burn the mushrooms Ė perhaps he should, perhaps it would be an interestingly human character flaw.
Anyway the problem is this. We are also told we have more chance of success if we set out to write a series. Great, because having got to know these characters the last thing Iím going to do is consign them to the bin yet anyway (donít just flog that horse to death after all: flay it, tan its hide, turn it into dog meat and use its bones to make literary glue!). But Iíve already introduced most of the main elements of their past in the first book. Sure, Iíve got places to take them. Sure, I have plans for them to develop Ė Tommy might even LEARN to burn the mushrooms so Rosie doesnít get fed up of hi being so damn perfect in the kitchen. But do I reintroduce all the old stuff over and over again with every book I write, as though it were the first in the series, just because none of the others got published? Or do I carry on as planned, knowing full well that no-one other than me and those poor sods stupid enough to give me their e-mail address at a dinner party have the first clue what happened to Emily fifteen years ago, or why Rosie hasnít been back to see her parents in Hong Kong?
Iíve finally figured why itís been so long since I updated the blog. Itís not because Iíve had writerís block with the book, which has actually been chugging over very happily. Itís because Iíve had blog block. Or rather something akin to stage fright. And Iíve finally worked out that itís because Iíve been so desperate to make my blog humorous. But itís not supposed to be humorous. Itís supposed to be about the tribulations of getting published. But I guess thatís half the point of the tribulations of getting published Ė working out just who exactly you are as a writer. And (academic writing aside, but thatís a whole other matter, and I donít even want to think about the fact that Iím presenting a paper on metaphysics and eros next week) I write thrillers. Fairly trashy thrillers. Not like pulp fiction, and not procedural, but somewhere in the dark, swampy hinterland that lurks behind real genre pieces to snap up unwary readers. Iíve always really thought that An Unsuitable Job For a Woman would be the example Iíd give if I had to say to a publisher, ďitís likeÖĒ or, ďitíll be read by the same people who readÖĒ. Except that, of course, Tommy West, unlike Cordelia Gray, is a man. But the point is I donít write humour. And if one day someone publishes my blog it will be because of its insight and its truth. Oh the joys that come from these little moments of aufklarung.
Where Iím actually at is in possession of a first three chapters that I finally like. The truest thing I ever heard about writing is how little of the original you end up keeping. But of course without the original youíd never have the end product. And Iíve very nearly finished an intense thorough annotation of the whole manuscript that will see it tautened and sharpened and expanded in several places. It has also shown me how blindingly obvious it is that I missed one particular red herring that was sitting up and begging with its tongue out to be used. Itís been a battle not to skip over bits I like because I like them Ė I did a couple of times and itís amazing how quickly, going back, those became the bits that really didnít fit. Itís also been really interesting how much poorer the style is for the first 20 chapters or so than the last 50, how much looser they are in structure, how obvious it is that at some indefinable point in the process I hit my stride.
OK, so now it's official that i should be writing the authorial sequel to Dumb and Dumber called Spreading myself Thin and Spreading Myself Thinner, which isn't a reference to my diet but to the fact that I simply have not been able to resist working on some new lyrics, and putting a moderately serious amount of work into my proposal for a TV documentary series. The excuse (you see, I've got one! I've always got one, which is why, of course I still don't have an agent) is that I'm waiting for some crucial feedback on my synopsis before I can do anything else with the book. Which is true (but then we always believe our excuses are true, don't we? No, really believe them. You really couldn't have stayed up an extra hour after your family trip to your auntie's when could 13, could you? I mean it was actually physically impossible) because everything except the synopsis is ready to go.
Of course new projects are always exciting, but they're not what brings in the pay cheque.
What a busy week. Again. Which is such a great line. Iíve taken to using it as my opening gambit in any conversation with anyone who might say something like, ďHow are the rewrites going?Ē Itís the kind of pre-emptive bugger off that people spend so long perfecting whilst doing their doctorates.
The truth of the matter is, though, that the rewrites are actually going rather well. Iím finally happy that the opening begins in the right place, from the right point of view, and with the right amount of characterisation. So now I can actually get on with the pitch letter, whilst I consult with Anne-Marie over the synopsis, and then itís off to the agent post haste whilst I sit and mull over the intricacies of characterisation.
Iím also finally getting my energy levels back up after my post-conference collapse. Of course, I am my own worst enemy. The conference made me think about my own academic career, got me flicking through my old notes on the ontology and metaphysics of marriage, and made me resolve to do something before it was too late. So I fired off an abstract to a fascinating conference Iíd this September entitled Human Persons and the God of Nature, which is about as fascinating and relevant to where I am at the moment intellectually as it is possible to get. To my surprise the response that came back was positive, which is fantastic news, and the thought of hearing my own voice talking about something Iím really passionate about, rather than trying to spice up a health and safety demo is incredibly exciting. And who knows, perhaps itís the first step to getting something academic published.
What it certainly is, though, is further proof that I really am a master of the fine art of spreading myself too thin, which is of course what causes the tendency to have these exhausted collapses in the first place. Itís still writing, though, I console myself, and the paper is not only short but will essentially write itself. This (title: ďIt Was All Done With Mirrors: How Special Providence Exposes the Trick of the Disappearing Female Ontology in Thomas Gatakerís Marriage SermonsĒ, the over-egged nature of which goes to demonstrate my preference for style over Ė rather, in addition to ;-) Ė substance, although in this particular case, the paper being about ontology and what constitutes non-being, this is actually all part of a really deep pun. No, honestly) is a subject I know backwards, and on which my thoughts have had six or seven years to ferment. Now, like a Gran Riserva Rioja, they are finally ready to be unoaked.
So the disruption to the rewrites is not actually that great. Really. I will almost certainly have Tommy publish a paper on the same area. And at the moment my writing style is so desperately amateurish that any way of connecting my brain with the written word simply feeds into a giant cauldron called ďcouldnít do anything but make it better.
Wow! It's nearly a month. What a busy bee I've been, and none of it to do with writing. I've done more overtime than is strictly healthy all month to organise the big Launch Conference at work. I know it wasn't strictly healthy because I collapsed on the final morning. In a big heap like a rag doll.
I have learned a very important lesson this month though. I worked and worked until I very nearly killed myself for the conference and, dear reader (with a nudge to Charlotte Bronte and a wink to Mark's Gospel), you have absolutely no idea what it cost me (not financially. That was the upside). BUT, the result was that the conference was a resounding success. The lesson I learned was this. If you focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else, and if you work on it until you drop, it is possible to achieve it. It worked for the conference, which was important for work, but hardly figured in the grand scheme of my future dreams, but the lesson is learned. Focus on one thing, the thing that really matters in those ambitions and dreams, to the exclusion of everything else, do what it takes and hang the sacrifice, and there is a chance of success. Not certainty, but without the work it won't fall into your lap. So that is what the next months require. I'll give it two months this time and take stock. Who knows. Maybe then I can get on with writing. Which may or may not be ironic. See, I am becoming a writer all over again.
The other thing the conference taught me was timing. On Monday 25th I was lost, but because I had planned everything perfectly by Tuesday all was redeemed. One day can make all the difference. Be ready to do something on Monday and your future may be roses and waves lapping on the shore. Not be ready until Tuesday and all may be lost. Timing, which is part of focus - I managed to get my Bridport entries in, for example, right at the very last minute. As a result I stand a chance. A day later. Nothing. So I have two months and a deadline. A day later and nothing. Let's see.
More reductions successfully carried out of the literary rather than culinary variety. It is amazing how something I considered as lean and tight as my original synopsis should turn out to be so flabby and able to have so much culled with so little pain. Rather like someone who takes up bodybuilding, sees the first hint of abdominal muscles and pulls their shirt off on Venice Beach in the proud belief that they are really ripped only to look around them and wish theyíd held back on the italics. Goodness knows what Iíll be down to by the time Iím on my tenth polishing Ė once Iíve got the thing below 3,500 words maybe I can actually start to think about style and pacing and other things you hear literary types going on about that donít quite make sense.
Still no bolt from the sky on the Big Gross-out Question, and still I am divided. Like a child whose mother has taken Solomonís judgment literally Iím slit down the middle on the matter. On the one hand I could pitch my hand in with the comfy cosy brigade and Colin Dexter (no chance of publication for ANOTHER gentle intellectual Oxford thriller), on the other I could head left of Kathy Reichs towards James Herbert country and forever be labelled inaccessible, or go one step further for the Iain Banks model. I love Iain Banks. Passionately, and he has pulled off the double genre thing with the quite brilliant marketing trick of adding a middle initial. Ha! Take that, Barbara Vine and Richard Bachmann. Itís often said that the best disguise is the simplest. Not a beard, not a facelift, just a pair of glasses. Or a middle initial. But what I keep coming back to is P D James, dark, clever, but somehow tangible (a more appropriate word than accessible or comfortable Ė and anyway Iíve used those words already and good writers donít repeat their adjectives, which is another writerly tip Iíve picked up. They buy a thesaurus instead so when they think of the same word over and over again they can replace it on every occasion and readers think theyíre dead clever and think in long words and say things like ďSheís swallowed a thesaurusĒ when what they mean is ďSheís used a thesaurusĒ. Hey, look at me, the Grand Master of Metaphor).
Would P D James gross her readers out? Or would she do it oh so cleverly? Ah the dilemmas. It gives me a body-thumping urge to come over all Harry Hill. At least he had a system. Pork or lamb? There Iíve said it, and now I know what writers mean by catharsis. Chops, eh! O the humanity. Now I think my old friend Miles, who once went with me to the Sild PI Tour before embarking on his stellar career in Balamory (perish the thought I think of him as a serious comedian, oxymoron spotters), is probably the only person in the world who will have a clue what I mean. Which is what writers call an in-joke.
Finally the synopsis is finished. Now all I have to do is cut its length in half, add some emotion and tension, and not lose any plotting. The actual process of polishing the synopsis is, in its initial phase at least, not as difficult as it might be. Admittedly thatís because there were so many basic things to alter, like making sure the characters are always referred to in the same way. The victim, for example, is variously called Charles, Charles Shaw, Shaw and Professor Shaw all on the first page.
But it all seems so simple. Iím riding high a wave of creatorly optimism caused by a cataphatic confluence. The trip down memory lane of yesterday not only paved the way for the pitch letter, it also (and hereís the sentimental bit, but thatís OK, itís allowed now because we established yesterday that Iím not only a writer but an actor) reminded me just how much writing is in my blood. Thereís so much of it in my blood in fact, I calculated to hold it all Iíd have to have approximately 33 times (more threes!) the amount of blood of the average writer. And with all that extra blood think how much more oxygen will get to my brain. And more oxygen is more creativity. QED.
Seriously, though (and hereís the big-headed bit but thatís allowed too, because to succeed you need self-confidence), many people tell you how much they want something. And they work very very hard to get it. And the reason they donít get it has nothing to do with a lack of desire or a lack of work. It has to do with a lack of ability. But with me thatís just another happy confluence. I have always believed I had the ability (I must have the ability. I can use italics. With understated moderation and reckless abandon. All in one easy to manage package). On and off Iíve had the desire. By and large Iíve been a bit idle. But now, with all the extra blood Iíve found (and I've still got some left over to thicken the meat sauce! Then again maybe if I let slip some of my culinary tricks people will stop coming for dinner!) and the rediscovered hunger for success, and a prophecy blowing in the prevailing wind, I canít fail. Itís a strange kind of new start that feels much more like a coming home to something thatís been inevitable for a long time. Itís strange how often setting off on a road thatís totally new feels like coming home. But thatís something for another blog Ė the one about getting a producer for my TV documentary ďThe Long Road HomeĒ. Hmm. That sounds deep. I havenít been drinking for a change; Iím not on anything; it must be a writer thing.
As if to mark the spirit of cultural fast-paced advancement last nightís episode of The Seven Ages of Rock was all about punk. I must have rediscovered my inner Ramone. And tonight there is a documentary about Salvador Dali and I am, for a day at least, the meat in a sandwich between two marvellous creative splurges. Well, maybe the relish on the meat in the sandwich. Or at least the sachet of thousand island dressing.
Now Iím just being perverse. Three chapters to go and what am I still doing? Writing about how close to finishing the synopsis I am rather than finishing it. Well, sort of, anyway. Itís about time to go into a bit of background on why I want to be a writer. Of course, as part of the writerís task is creating a mythology, the reasons I give may or may not be true. But like the Cartesian thought experiment, if it really is a complete illusion then it might as well be real. Either way it explains my motivation. And now I sound more like an actor Ė so many talents.
I have wanted to be more things in my life than the average peasant in the fourteenth century would have learned nouns for grain in their whole life, which is a Genuine Statistic. But the one thing that has remained constant from the earliest age is writing. My clearest memories as a 3- 6- and 9-year old are to do with writing (clearly the 3 times table has also played a big part in my life, so next year when Iím 36 Ė which not only has a 3 and a 6 in it but has 3 as a prime factor twice Ė I will be primed like an exocet for my big break).
When I was 3 my parents bought me a desk. I still have it in my study. But itís a bit low for me now, so I keep a pot of violet-scented ink and a writing set on it, cover it with velvet and use it to hide arch files full of my old writing underneath. I used to come down in the middle of the night and write for hours on end. As I was 3 it was slightly less literate than the monkeys still bashing away in an undergraduateís thought experiment trying to write Hamlet by chance, but it was still writing. Well, graphologists and papyrologists remain split on that one still, but the point is the same Ė I loved it.
When I was 6 I had the single most influential experience of my life. Which may well be a total fiction made up by my mother to stop me joining a gang, pimping my cousins, and dealing smack, but affected me so much that it forms the opening line of every discarded first chapter Iíve written of my autobiography. My mother (the story goes Ė look, a mythology about me but not by me, which lends it weight and authority) came in from shopping and told me that a gypsy had told her that she had a son who was 6 years old, and that he would make his fortune with pen and paper. Now I know there are flaws that I could drive a Sherman tank through. The fact that I donít really believe a shred of superstitious guff, for example. Or the fact that Iím now tapping away happily on my laptop, my pen consigned to the writing set on the desk I had when I was 3. Or the fact that Iíve never given more than a cursory glance (albeit several times) at the possibility of becoming a stationery magnate (just think, I could have been Theo Paphitis! But then I would have had to use money to attract women, because Iíd have no hair, which is a very good reason not to be a stationery magnate). Nonsense notwithstanding, every time I pick up a pen in anger itís as though something primordial happens that I canít control. Something with a weight of destiny to it. Something that if I were writing my TV script I would call das unheimlich heimlich. And look what Iíve done now Ė a three stage crescendo, with increasingly purple language. I must be a writer, Iíve produced my first pretentious nonsense.At 9 I wrote my first novel. Well, it was an 80-page story that had characters, narrative, dialogue, and even a subplot about a ski instructor. It was called Sledge Ride to Doom, and all that survives of it somewhere is a snippet of the audio book I made on a dodgy tape recorder. It actually had some great action scenes in it Ė like the bit where the 3 (that number again Ė perhaps destiny is telling me to be a Wiccan) heroes are tied to a sledge and pushed into an icy river. Even though the protagonist frees his hands they are tied too tight to undo the rope. So what does our enterprising fellow do? He grabs a fish with his hands and holds it against the rope so that when a pike comes along it takes a huge bite, grabbing a fish supper and cutting clean through the rope. Even James Bond would be proud of that one!
10 is a very good point for a break, so perhaps Iíd better leave the background for the moment and finish the synopsis.
The start of a new month. A month bringing many things that would have acted like a great long list of distractions in the days before I was dedicated to my trade. Like the Derby, and the end of the asparagus season, and the start of the Long Vacation, and weather that needs me to tone up my beach bod. Now I think of it only as the month that sees me submit my pitch and send my entry off for the Bridport Prize. No, really, I do! See how skilful Iím getting at dissembling.
Even though Iíve spent most of my writing time today rereading the short stories and correcting the dire grammar, the synopsis is still making headway. Now itís under 10 chapters from the end and Iím really getting quite excited. I know who did it of course, but I wonder if theyíre going to change their mind at the last minute. Perhaps do a little shopping on the internet instead. Or take up cross-stitch. Because thatís how my characters tend to behave. Whatever preconceptions I have they are the ones who tell me what theyíre up to, and never before the page they do it on. Which means that if thereís a wedding or a funeral I havenít even got time to put a suit on, so they must think Iím really rude. Who knows, maybe theyíll chastise me for it in an epilogue.
Split personalities Ė thatís something a thriller writer should know about. So let me prove that I do. Iím incredibly excited because the synopsis is now only 3 chapters form the end. So excited that I canít wait to get there, so to celebrate Iíve left it hanging to come and tell everyone how I canít wait for it to be finished; and by the time Iíve finished telling you the potatoes will be cooked and I will have to crisp-fry the pancetta in garlic and finishing will have to wait until tomorrow. Itís almost worthy of being a really crass authorial intrusion. Just as you get to an exciting bit. Because you havenít written it excitingly enough. So you have to burst in and tell everyone how exciting it is. Before you close the door and beat a hasty retreat safe in the knowledge that everyone will be excited. So excited in fact that you can write it in italics AND bold. And not a single beat of the flow has been interrupted by your intrusion. At all. Because you wrote it so badly there was no flow to interrupt!!! Ah! Bold italics! Italics and bold! A whisker away from underlining! O the heady freedoms that come bursting in with Flaming June! All hail Alma-Tadema!
Look how long itís been since wrote anything. That must be because Iíve been so busy perfecting my rewrites I havenít had time to add anything. And there we are Ė Iíve learned another writerly skill Ė perpetuating the image of activity.
Seriously, there are many reasons for the lack of a diary, but as I must also learn at least a little of the art of dissembling to be a writer, and a little of the art of creating a mythology, let me say that I have been working on weighty projects. Which sounds like I think the blog might be a frivolity. Which of course it isnít because when Iím a famous writer I can publish it and earn money.
O, italic fonts! So rarely called upon in an administratorís work, how Iíve missed you, how glad to feel your eager, forward-looking rhythms once again!
Admittedly much of the feverish activity hasnít been directly on the rewrites, but I have managed to hone a healthy three entries for the Bridport Prize, the UKís top short story comp, which canít appear here until after Iíve found out I havenít won Ė otherwise Iíll be disqualified and wonít win. Looking through the ďprevious winnersĒ section on the Prize website, the most frequent comment seems to be ďthis should help me to get an agent.Ē Which may or may not be true but has to be worth 15,000 words and a week and a half. The stories are all on the beloved themes of late twentieth (well, 1933 onwards) and early twenty first century Europe, identity, and home. Stories are the construction of a Chinese car plant in southern Spain, a psychologistís relationship with Goebbels, and a marriage between an elderly Frenchwoman living in England and a young Polish builder.
There has been a strategic alteration since my last update. As rewriting tends to approximate to eternal prevarication if one allows it to do so, I have decided that, as I know the chapter structure well, I will simply submit the first three chapters and synopsis when they're ready, and leave rewriting for when the manuscript is requested, when I have a proper deadline to meet.
The synopsis of the book is now 60 of 71 chapters through, after which there will be a week of revision, and I will be ready to go. Then thereís the really difficult bit. No, not the endless waiting, but writing the pitch letter, which seems to be a combination of an even shorter version of the synopsis, a demonstration of market awareness (who on earth will read about a manic depressive interior designer, you damn fool!), and relevant biog (Ah! Youíve been a manic depressive interior designer yourself! Maybe at least itís an accurate book no-one will read, then!). The relevant bit is very tricky. Especially when you like talking about yourself at the worst of times. And when there is so much that really is relevant Ė and anyway, if I write loads about ME, perhaps they wonít notice that Iím so far unpublished (Iím not sure they count websites, school magazines, a couple of poetry prizes and an article about where to get cheap dumplings in Riga).
Now that I have found my voice again I am in a good spell. It must be good, because Iíve rediscovered the joys of italics. Iím always suspicious when things go well, which is exactly the attitude that stops me achieving what Iím capable. And now I sound like an American self-help book. Which is great, because they sell well.
Anyway last night I rattled off three chapters, leaving little but the bare bones of the plot from the original. With a bit of luck the first chapter now actually makes sense, which kind of helps. And chapter 2 no longer marks a sudden change of point of view. They actually flow into each other. In fact, chapter 2 now runs into chapter 3 as well. Which is a decision driven entirely by the mechanics of the publishing industry. Most agents seem to want the first 3 chapters plus synopsis. And I like chapter 4 best of all the opening chapters, largely because it not only introduces the second protagonist but also develops hers and the leadís back story. All of that would be lost to any potential agents Ė unless I made it chapter 3.
I could put it down to a number of factors Ė the momentous political events of the past week in Northern Ireland, the geometric progression of a paper proliferation that is currently taking place on my desk at work, the distraction of short stories Ė but the simple fact is that this week I have had a full-blown, give me the max strength Sennacot case of block. My first chapter is, well, rubbish, and I need a new way in for the story. Iíve fiddled and tinkered all week and come up with nothing but a sheaf of retellings of the same stories in different (yet ever so subtly not different at all) voices.
And yet, praise be for straight-talking critics. All through my undergraduate years Iíd foist stories onto Adam, who would read them dutifully and always bring them back the next day with exactly the same comment, ďyou canít write dialogue for toffee.Ē
Iím still convinced it was the most useful thing anyone has ever said about my writing, and every time I open a quote mark I imagine him reading the line and donít put it down on paper until I can see his lips remaining sealed as he does so. Now shoot from the hip criticism has struck again Ė with Claudia casually remarking that the whole story has a reek of the infinite about it (which is about as far from a compliment as Ian Paisley telling you youíre a good Catholic), that the characters are abstract, and their choices ungrounded.
After Iíd put the vodka and paracetamol to the side for long enough to think, I realised that this is actually the comment I had needed all along, and now I am so far out of the pickle that I can barely even smell the vinegar. The serious point of it all is this. If you canít take criticism pick another dream Ė anything I get from my friends is nothing compared to what Iíll get at a writing group or (if I get anything at all beside one line rejection slips) the pros.
The other serious point is this. Writers are always warned against getting their friends to read their material because they will always be afraid to be critical, and will simply nod their heads and tell you how nice it all is. So if you find a friend who is prepared to be critical, hang onto them, they are one of two things Ė a precious, life-enhancing asset to be nurtured and rewarded; or someone who actually hates you, to be dealt with appropriately once your thrillerly mind has matured enough to devise the perfect murder.
Today is election day, which is appropriate for the way Iím feeling about rewriting at the moment. Itís important to get feedback on a first draft. Of course the feedback you get from one person will differ from that you get from another. And none of it will have anything to do with your opinion. So you have a choice. Ignore all of it Ė great, have a voice of your own. Just like some of our most famous politicians. Like Pol Pot. Ignore some of it OK, but which? Youíll almost certainly have different opinions of your different guinea pigs. Some of them you chose because you like them a lot, some of them you chose because theyíre like your target audience, some of them you let have a look because they wouldnít leave you alone until you did. My feedbackers couldnít be more different, and nor could their feedback. They did have one thing in common, though, which was that they were left scratching their heads at the end. Thatís partly because in the antepenultimate chapter there were four mistakes with character names Ė something that never helps. Itís also partly because I took ten pages to say what should have taken 30. I was trying to follow an adage about wrapping things up quickly. So I gained a valuable lesson from my feedback Ė I learned when itís OK to break a rule. Like a proper author.
The final option, of course, is to adopt everyoneís feedback. And then I could have a career as a politician.
The exigencies of life are, of course, an authorís enemies until he or she has enough success behind him or her to be full time, which of course doesnít happen until youíve got something published, which is unlikely to happen until youíre full time. Chief among such exigencies, of course, is work, which is currently very busy. Not that I would write at work, but the author needs to preserve his energies for the time when he can write. And mine were thoroughly spent today taking conference bookings and other important administrative work. Like having a lovely picnic in the sun with my fellow administrators.
Still, being an author is a journey of self-discovery as much as advance cheques, and Iíve already gained an important piece of authorly self-knowledge. I like using italics. Theyíre great. Especially when youíre feeling too lazy to think of a clever way of saying something. Iíve also discovered that listening to the same CD for the purposes of authorial integrity can verge on the mind-bending if youíre writing a long book. But itís a great way of making sure you keep up the pace.
Hereís what I mean. One of the most important things I found writing the first draft was that you have to keep your mood even. Which isnít easy when youíre cramming in a paragraph here and there, sometimes in the elations of midnight or an early morning frenzy, sometimes when youíve just chugged down something vile from the freezer so you can use cooking time to write. The best way of doing it is to keep at least something constant Ė something thatís the most powerful stimulus other than the gigantic authorly brain pumping out the ideas. Like music. So I spent the whole of January, February, and March listening to Skunk Anansieís Stoosh and Rammsteinís Mutter. And in April, to take my mind away from the book and let it bubble away subconsciously I listened to nothing but Coldplayís A Rush of Blood to the Head. Now I feel a bit like an experimented on rat. Which is what I wrote about in my last short story. Life imitating art. Fabulously authorial! Crack open the absinthe!
Part of why I need to rewrite is because it took me several chapters to get into my stride first time around, and find my voice. So even though Chapter 1 is what needs the biggest rewrite (catch it quick on the website here before it goes forever) common sense dictates I start rewriting in the middle so that Iím into my stride by the time I get to Chapter 1. Maybe Iíll write some dummy chapters. Side stories in the same voice that will get me warmed up.
Maybe I should stop thinking about it and do it. It all depends on the exigencies of life. Like picnics.
There are many ways in which I could try to link the beginning of this column with the 10th anniversary of Tony Blairís premiership, but that was the easiest so letís move on. There are many ways of telling how I came to want to be a writer, but this isnít one of them. Instead, itís the story of the road to publication.
I could have started when I had the first inkling of an idea for my first novel. Certainly it would have been very reasonable to have begun with the germ of the idea for this novel Ė the one that gets published on the last page of the column. But Iím a writer, and writers get to use that great device Ė the flashback! With exclamation marks! I can even use whizzy tricks to signpost, in diary entries, things that didnít happen today! Like italics.
Or new paragraphs.
But where I am actually starting is where I have always thought the writerly bit would start. The bit that separates the people whoíve got a book in them (or, by that stage, out of them) from the ones who get their books published. Today is the first day of rewrites. After which there will be many more, but to show the whole world how green I really am I can give a schedule of how many more, and it will be incontrovertibly there to prove just how wrong I was. Which is the great thing about diaries. So here goes Ė and tomorrow I can use the super technique of flashback to take you back in time and tell you a bit about the novel in question. And in a few months more maybe I can use more flashbacks to take you back and show that this schedule is all part of the fiction. Part of the great freedom that we have to make things up when weíre a writer.
May Ė June 2007 produce a second draft, with extra chapters on certain characters and certain themes that I can tell you about in flashbacks
July 2007 produce a synopsis, CV, and pitch letter
August Ė December 2007 Ė pitch for an agent, hopefully getting one Ė otherwise itís back to more rewrites
January Ė June 2008 my lovely agent pitches for a publisher
June 2009 book tour!!
August 2007 Ė June 2009 work on the book I really want to write, which isnít likely to get published until Iíve got my foot in the door. Hey, Iím an author already, see. Iíve written loads of trash, but Iíve got something really deep on the simmer. Something that might win an award. But probably not any readers. Itís called ďThe Man Who Painted Agnieszkaís ShoesĒ, and the plotís already on my website. Also write the second instalment of the thriller series Ė look! The plot for thatís on my website too Ė thatís another author thing Ė Iíve not had anything published (well, poems, travel tips, and some really bad comic sketches, but not literature) and already Iíve got a series.
So now Iím a proper writer and I can go to bed. And think up things to put in the notebook on my bedside table. Goodnight!
PUBLISH AND BE DANNED