big fat book of doom

running away from a scary tunnel which i would actually rather run through than write my book

Have spent every spare minute over the past few weeks thinking and sketching out a plot for a big, complicated novel I’ve been desperate to write. It covers two worlds and three timelines, and it combines all the things I love about ghost stories and haunted houses with everything weird in science fiction, and a dollop of domestic realism on top of that. Basically, imagine putting Shirley Jackson, Jeff Noon, Simon Ings, Christopher Priest, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Lewis Carroll and Siri Hustvedt in a blender and pouring the bloody mess into a broken jug… or something like that. Suffice to say it is big, and it is complicated, and messy and full of blood and broken bones.

I’ve got a rough plot, character notes, setting notes and so on. Today I finally solved the structural problems. I sorted the big logic issues and figured out how the timelines would run together. It works! At least, it potentially could work. It makes sense, at least to me.

But you know what? Now I’ve done all that, and there’s nothing left to do but start writing, I find myself staring glumly at the wall and wondering if it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe I should write some short stories instead. Or a different novel altogether, one I haven’t even got an idea for yet. Literally anything else.

I suspect, or perhaps I just hope, that this is THE FEAR sinking its gloomy, doomy claws into me. If not, then I guess I burn it all and start again.

how to write a novel in no easy steps

1: Start writing. An idea is not necessary at this stage.

2: Keep writing. Pay no attention to mundane matters such as plot, character, setting, structure, or story. Just keep writing words until you have around half a million of them.

3: Now take those half a million words and throw. them. away.

4: Stare into the void. Woah. Stare into your computer instead. Rescue an idea you find limping around in the aftermath of the word-apocalypse.  (This idea has survived purely by virtue of its fiendish ambition. Its most impressive quality is its refusal to die, despite having seemingly nothing to live for.)

5: Write until you figure out some kind of structure that can cage this ugly, tenacious bastard of an idea. Fail horribly, shamefully, and repeatedly. The writing will be enriched and nourished by your desperate tears.

6: Completely lose perspective. Employ diversionary tactics.

7: Keep writing the bits you’ve already written. It is important not to give up on the dream of writing something that makes actual sense.

8: Give up. Any ending will do. Who cares.

9: Finish it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

10: Send it to whichever person in your life you consider to be the most psychologically stable.

11: MOVE ON.

bookish winter things


Winter is cold and depressing (my favourite). I continue to fill my empty existence with reading and writing. My field notes from January:

My Black Static story “White Rabbit” has been well received, and even garnered a very nice mention in the Guardian! It’s good to see Black Static getting some recognition in the mainstream press for its support of new and established writers. And it’s good to see genre writing given serious consideration. And my family and friends are most impressed.

Des Lewis wrote a dreamcatching review of “White Rabbit” which I thought a sensitive and telepathic reading of the story. The whole point of writing is to make that connection with other humans, so this pleases me immensely.

Work continues on the novel. The 5.30am starts don’t get any easier. I may be reaching some sort of ending, if the panic attacks and attempts to run away are anything to go by.

On reading: this is a picture of all the books I read in January, arranged left to right in order of how great I think they are. The blue book on the far left is “A Spell to Conjure Violets” by Kate Mascarenhas, and it is really, truly wonderful. A strange, clever, moving story about parallel universes, paths taken and not taken, and how to account for our mistakes. The reader is drawn in through the completely believable characterisation and setting. Mascarenhas prints and binds the books herself, beautifully, and has paperbacks of this for sale now. You can contact her via twitter – she is @flynnker and she’ll be delighted to take your order

and then and then and then

When Haruki Murakami sat down to write The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he didn’t have a plan. When Stephen King wrote The Stand, he didn’t have a plan. When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she didn’t know what was going to happen or how it would end.

And when I sit down to write my book, I don’t know exactly where it’s heading, either.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing myself with these literary greats, not in terms of talent. But it does give me comfort and succour to know that I’m not the only writer who starts simply with an idea, an image, a sentence, and that’s it. To me, writing is partly a process of discovering the story. I cannot – and I have tried – write a story that I have already plotted out in detail. It’s dull, it bores me, it makes every word die on the page.


there’s a name for this

there must be a name for this feeling you get in the middle of a novel when actually you HATE your novel and you want to throw it out of the window and start over and your friends have to talk you down and talk you up and you read blogs that say WHATEVER YOU DO DON’T STOP WRITING DON’T GIVE UP PUSH THROUGH IT and you think what the hell do you know about it and you go to your own blog and you write one long run on sentence with lots of shouty bits and there is a little part of you that is thinking just get on with writing it and you can throw it away later if you really want to and so you keep going even though the voice is flat and there is no action and it’s so boring and you don’t know what you were thinking all those weeks and months when you thought and planned and plotted and worked it out and thought this is going to be great but you didn’t know you would hit this WALL and that is what it is A WALL and if you want to get through a wall you can climb over it or you can tunnel under it or you can get a load of weapons and blast your way through it but except for the weapons option it probably won’t be any fun and it’s only later you will look back and say I’m glad I didn’t just stop there because it made me feel good to get past that wall and on the other side of the wall there is a lot of great stuff that I honestly wasn’t expecting

from the bottom of a very deep hole

It’s highly possible that by the time I get to the end of the first draft of this novel, all that I’ll have to show for it is the first draft of a novel. My home will be ripped apart by feral mice (they’ll become feral after eating the thyroid medication I’ve carelessly left lying around the place). Moths will turn all my clothes into lace. My phone and electricity will be cut off (obviously) and I will have to work by candlelight, except the mice will have eaten all the candles, which will turn out to be a good thing, as when the landlord turns up to evict me from this place, a huge waxy dead mouse will be wedged under the door, making it impossible to open or close. My friends will stop leaving me plaintive, slightly desperate messages about needing to ‘catch up soon!’ and ‘what do you mean you’re not coming to my wedding? You’re the bride!’

I will emerge from the writing of this first draft like something undead crawling out of its own grave. I will trudge around the streets, pressing my unedited manuscript into people’s hands, telling them they’re my favourite beta reader and asking them for spare change so I can buy stamps and send my work of genius out into the world where it is sure to cause a bidding war between the major publishing companies.  I will react to suggestions that I self-publish by setting my hair on fire.

One day I will go to sleep in a hollowed-out tree trunk, and when I wake up, some squirrels will be ripping up my manuscript and using it for bedding. Not even red squirrels, but those ordinary grey fuckers. I’ll fight them for the papers, incurring several painful bites and scratches, and ending up with nothing but a few scraps of soiled squirrel bedding and an incipient case of septicaemia which will quickly prove fatal. My remains will be found on a hillside, perhaps months later, bloated and green from the rain, a single piece of paper crumpled in my dead hand. The police officers who find me will attempt to prise the paper from my fist, but it will be nothing but mould and pulp. “Fucking writers,” they will say. “That’s the third one we’ve had this month.”

something is squeaking

Something is squeaking in my room, and no no NO it is not my small bewhiskered friend Alphonse, he of the beret and the Gauloise and the stinky cheese. (I upset him by stuffing all the mouse holes with wire wool and peppermint-soaked cotton, and haven’t seen him since.) Maybe there is always something squeaking in my room at half past three in the morning. I wouldn’t really know because as a rule I am asleep at that time, with earplugs squeezed in my lugholes on account of all the outside noises I still haven’t gotten used to.

Maybe it’s my brain that’s squeaking. This book I’m writing has been kicking my arse lately, and insisting on getting me up in the middle of the absolute night if I want to achieve plenty wordage, which I do. Writing books is hard. It’s so hard it amazes me that anyone has ever actually managed to do it. It’s so supremely difficult that I can see now why some people will do anything but anything to avoid writing books, no matter how much they insist that’s what they really really want more than anything. I know plenty of ‘writers’ who don’t write. Edinburgh is seething with them. There’s a whole literature ‘scene’ in Edinburgh that pretty much seems like one big long excuse for not actually writing very much. (I put ‘scene’ in scarequotes because I wouldn’t want you to confuse it with an actual scene that’s like, you know, happening and groovy.)

You’d think there would be some kind of balance, a happy medium between poncing around on the ‘scene’ being a ‘writer’, and being awake at three-thirty in the morning fighting with your story-brain so hard that you are seriously considering attempting to persuade a mouse to write that tricky third act of your novel.

But that is not the squeak of a mouse. Perhaps it is the moon that is squeaking. Perhaps this is how the moon sounds: sharp and squeaky like a broken chair. A broken chair… Oh.

Oh, I see.

what i know

What I learned about writing this week is that you can research and plot and plan and outline and do all the preparation in the world, but when you actually start writing – that’s when you start to work out what your story is all about.

I’ve got my novel broken down scene by scene – a piece of work which took ages to do – but now I’m just looking at it and thinking, nope. That is not going to fly. That is not how this thing goes.

It’s just crazy how much you don’t know until you sit down and write. This novel is my major project for my MA and I’ve done everything ‘right’ – done everything I’ve been told to do – for what may be the first and only time in my life. But it’s come out all wrong. Because it’s only in the writing that the story reveals itself to you.

the next big thing

The fantastically talented Priya Sharma tagged me in this blog-chain, and I now have to subject you to my thoughts about my own brilliance or otherwise in the form of a handy Q & A.

What is the working title of your next book/short story/project?
The Midnight Orchestra.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I was reading Oliver Sacks’ book, Musicophilia, and realised that I have had what he would call musical hallucinations since childhood. It inspired me to write a couple of short stories about musicians and people in complicated relationships with music. Then I decided it would be cool to write a novel that was a kind of musical detective story.
What genre does your book fall under?
Musical detective story not working for you?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
One of the characters could be played by Tilda Swinton. I also have roles for three or more handsome moustachioed fellows. Must be able to brood and look troubled.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Yeah… Good question.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I doubt that I’d self-publish. It might be a good way of going about things at some point, but for a beginning writer, it’s hard to build a career without representation and a publishing deal.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I ain’t finished it yet. Give me a chance! Jeez, Louise.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
No idea. Let me finish writing it, then you can read it and tell me which of your favourite authors I ripped off.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Oliver Sacks.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The first edition will have a secret compartment inside, filled with jam.

Now for the tagging. I’ve picked on Henry Szabranski and Gio Clairval – two members of my secret BRILLIANT writing group. There were others I wanted to tag but who were already taken. If you’re reading this and wishing I would have tagged you, let me know. I’ll do it! Anything for you!

never say never

How do you know when it’s time to stop writing something? Is it when the very thought of it fills you with a sense of paralysing ennui? When you can’t imagine ever being interested in the characters? When the plot makes no real sense? When, after writing several drafts, you still have nothing more than one or two images that seem powerful to you – and no story, no emotion, no thrills?

Or should you never give up? Should you always finish what you started? Should you power on through, ignoring those feelings, ignoring the problems, just fighting to get to the end of it?

A lot of writers say you must ALWAYS finish what you start. I am not so sure. With this current project, I feel that when I started it, I had a particular idea in mind, and that idea has failed on a number of levels. It just wasn’t a good enough idea to sustain a whole novel. Plus, it was too directly autobiographical – writing it well means writing about myself in a way that no longer feels relevant or important to me. And at the same time I can’t get enough distance to see what I might change or how I could make it work better.

I have learned a hell of a lot from trying to write this story. But now I think it is time to put it away. Maybe next year, or the year after, I will dig it out again. Maybe then I will be able to see exactly where I went wrong and how I can put it right. But for now… it’s Sayonara baby.