Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Each week I write about writing, which might sound like a self-referential spiral whirlpooling up its own backside, but is actually less pretentious than if I used some other medium to talk about writing – for example, interpretive dance. Mainly this blog is an opportunity for me to disgorge my anxieties/frustrations about writing in a hopefully edifying way. But of course you already know that.
I’m doing events related to The Honours every weekend this summer – do check the old ‘skedge’ if you’d like to hear me read and blather. I’m starting to enjoy readings now. It turns out, if you do a thing repeatedly, you get better at it. Who’d have thought?
Please click here and buy The Honours. It’s my debut novel, it’s available in stunningly-designed paperback, ebook or audiobook form. I think the physical version is legitimately one of the most striking paperbacks of 2015. You can support me and make a huge contribution to my career simply by getting yourself a copy now. Thanks to everyone who has already done so. It’s in its 3rd printing already, which is bananas.
In other news, the novel-writing process took a fairly dramatic turn yesterday when, as I was walking along The Avenues in Norwich, I thought: holy shit, if I change this bit, the story would actually make sense and not be horrific abomination dragging itself along the floor begging through ruined teeth for someone to end its misery.
It’s actually a fairly major change, but – assuming I do the work – it resolves a central problem in the novel that was making me reluctant to continuing writing, because the more of the story I revealed, the more it was clear that the story was fucking abysmal. Now, the story could be – by stark contrast – pretty good. Exciting, even.
I’ve spent over a year fucking around with this opening, vacillating between going back to fiddle with it and pressing on, knowing I can come back later. It’s a tough dilemma for novel writers, and not one for which I have a comprehensive policy to hand down to you. If you stop and ponder and tinker and adjust, you may end up undermining your confidence. It’s hard to know exactly which way forward is the best, especially since you haven’t dropped the characters into scenes where you get to test their mettle.
What might seem like a fun, engaging, fluid setup might have completely gone to shit 5 chapters later. It might feature too many characters. You might find that two people who seem distinct in their opening scenes are fulfilling the same narrative function later on. This isn’t always unnavigable – The Honours has at least two mentor characters, which strict structural calculus dictates is inefficient, but I was like, fuck it. I like them both and I think they add more than they detract, bagginess notwithstanding.
On the other hand, press on and decisions made in the initial scenes have increasingly profound consequences. Your ship may only be drifting off course by 1? every minute, but continue without correcting and in an hour and a half you’ll be heading east instead of north. I’m no shipologist, but that seems like it could profoundly affect where you end up.
I know I’ve written on this subject before, but I think, as I’ve worked on this second novel, my feelings have become a bit more nuanced. Because it’s not as easy as just: PRESS ON YOU ARSEHOLE. IGNORE YOUR INSTINCTS. WORK! WORK!
If you try to force yourself onwards, ever upwards, misgivings be damned, your very enthusiasm for the project – and for being a writer at all – will start to evaporate like piss on a hotplate. You might need to sit down with a big sheet of paper and a pencil, or index cards, or just a patient friend, and actually explain the story to yourself, so all these problematic elements come into sharper focus. Then, undoubtedly, your subconscious will get to work, your wandering mind will actually do what it’s good at, and the answer will some day soon pop, unbidden, into your brain.
At some point during my writing of The Honours, I posted a desperate call out on Facebook basically saying: ‘Can I please phone someone and talk at them about my book?’ And a very generous and patient friend immediately threw himself on that landmine, and for the next 45 minutes I sort of rambled at him about my plot problems and why I was stuck.
And nothing got resolved in that phone call at all. I was the equivalent of the friend-of-a-friend on their third bottle of red wine who corners you and starts offering a lengthy exegesis of their life mistakes and traumas thus far. However… very soon after I hit upon a way to thread the needle of my incompetence and write a coherent story.
Quite a few reviews have said that I’m an expert plotter or a brilliant thriller writer or I have a wonderful natural aptitude for structure and pace. Let me be absolutely clear: this is complete bollocks.
I have no innate competence in the field of plot and structure whatsoever. I have a negative capacity. I am bloody dreadful. I cannot outline more than a few chapters in, after which the story disappears into a grey haze like those early Playstation third-person 3D platformers, where trees and hillsides would pop into existence only as you approached them. I do not know what I am doing.
What I do have, however – and what remains perhaps the only usable object in my toolbox – is crushing self-doubt coupled with a desire not to put out work that is complete shit. If a story element feels wrong, I am prepared to try again until it feels right. I draft and draft and draft. I have some rudimentary intimation of what a decent plot structure looks like, but that is always a post hoc determination – if I hit upon it in my work, I can be like ‘aha, there it is’. I’m not sophisticated enough to picture the arc I need, then hang story elements over it.
Basically I am a little robot repeatedly mashing its face against walls until I find the door.
I am not convinced this is an efficient or psychologically-healthy way to work! But again and again I hear authors working on their second or third novels being like ‘Oh, I went down so many blind alleys with my first book. This time I’m going to properly plan it out before I begin.’
I am not convinced that a novelist can skip the work of fucking up without somehow maiming the essential weird foetal story they are trying to bring to term. I don’t mean to sound too precious or mystical but I have read novels by avowed diehard outliners and there is something stunted and shallow about them.
I think the first few abortive runs are important incubators of style and voice. They give you freedom to find the novel’s voice, and to run characters into walls without fear, because you kind of know, deep down, that the world is collapsing around your ears and all these people are doomed.
Without those errors, those flubbed arcs, those horrible, undermotivated 50,000 word segments where nobody has any reason to be doing any of this shit and you’re just hustling them through scenes to meet the demands of the plot, you’re in danger of producing something very clean, with no nobbly bits or grooves or textures, a perfect symmetrical crystalline story with zero humanity.
And some authors go through their entire careers extruding these hyper-competent, unbreakable artifacts that please readers and that break down or trouble them not at all.
I think you can do better than that. I suspect very strongly you want to do better than that. That you want the weird bits, the resonant, original stuff, alongside the robust and satisfying plot arcs and these ancient, archetypal structures that we human beings have consoled ourselves with since the dawn of language. I bet you want your story to have classic, mythic power and to feel like something no one has ever read before.
Big ambitions. But why not shoot for them? And if you’re going to shoot for them, then I’m afraid some cod-zennish patience is going to be in order. Work. Research. Push into doomed drafts while stowing gear for your exit strategy. Make mind-maps, plot-plans, and find sympathetic ears to explain the basic story to. All of this is building creative muscle, fictive karma. It is pushing you towards your limit break.
But remember: a map doesn’t make the distances between locations shorter. It simply suggests optimal paths. You still have to do the walking yourself. And you need to make decisions about the terrain you encounter down on the ground – obstacles the map won’t necessarily reflect.
Hold the course. The hardest thing to accept is that multiple stars must come into alignment before you can really write the story your novel wants to be. It fucking sucks, I know. It doesn’t mean you’re losing it or you’re failing, though. It’s just a reflection that novel writing – if you’re doing it right, if you’re holding yourself to the standard of wow-ness your readers deserve – is extremely complex and challenging. Fortunately, unlike – for example – heart surgery, the consequences of failure are merely disappointing rather than fatal.
So do it. And if we run into each other, by all means tell me about the novel you’re working on*. It might help you sort out the kinks in your own head and get it finished.
*Unless I’m like, taking a shit in a public stall or bleeding out from a sternum wound or something. Or in the middle of a gig. Don’t interrupt my show to loudly map out a plotting problem in your third act.