A new beginning

Last Friday, I walked out of the office for the last time; walking away from a job my twenty-one-year-old self would have considered her dream (had she been able to see into the future, she would have rugby tackled me to the ground screaming). It felt strange, as if I were simply going on a longer than usual holiday, and I half-expected someone to email me on Monday morning asking me to filter a spreadsheet by my name and fill in column D. At no point, however – not even now, when I’ve spent the day reorganising the food storage container drawer – have I been in any doubt that leaving was the right thing to do.

It’s not that I hated my job; not at all. But it took me a while to realise that hating your job or getting a better one aren’t the only two reasons you’re allowed to leave.

Last year, as was well-documented by this blog, I wrote a novel after completing Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. The course was a turning point for me, as it made me think about myself as a ‘proper’ writer for the first time, but afterwards I became obsessed with finishing my novel as quickly as possible. I saw it as my get-out clause from the mundanity of a nine-to-five office job, and gave it my all: waking up at 6am to write before work, staying up late, turning down social invites. After three drafts, I was so utterly exhausted that I decided my novel was as good as it was ever going to be, and sent it off to agents. I got closer than I ever have to securing an agent, but nonetheless, my inbox filled with (polite, encouraging) rejections.

I still believe the novel was good, but it wasn’t good enough. That might be because it just wasn’t the right novel for that time, or because my exhaustion led me to be too hasty. Either way, I was pretty broken after those rejections. I’d worked so hard. I’d built up my hopes. I’d led myself to believe that this could be it, this might be the one, despite knowing that most writers face hundreds of rejections before they get that ‘yes’. It’s good to be optimistic, but I’d pinned everything on this novel getting published. Of course it was unlikely to end well.

I crashed and burned. I said I couldn’t do it anymore, that I was giving up writing. I became bitterly cynical about the literary world, avoiding Facebook and Twitter because I didn’t want to see people posting about their brilliant agents and their amazing cover designs and their awesome book launches. You don’t want this, I told myself. Doesn’t the struggle continue after you get an agent, after you get published? Do you really want to play that game? I confused the healthy belief that there’s more to life with completely turning away from my passion, and having been so focused on my writing for so long, I felt purposeless. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed because I didn’t see the point. Some of the symptoms of the severe anxiety I suffered at university began to resurface, and when I noticed this I knew something had to change.

So, I took a break. I didn’t write a word for six months. I filled my days with other things I enjoy – reading, singing, playing my piano, yoga, running, spending time with the friends I’d neglected – and started seeing a therapist, learning mindfulness to help with my anxiety. Eventually I felt the urge to write again, and began to chip away at a short story. I started to see my experience with my latest novel in a different way: I’d learnt so much on the course, made some wonderful new friends, and had got to the point where several agents wanted to read my whole novel. All of those things were achievements to be celebrated. If I wrote something else in future, applying everything I’d learnt on the course and with the advice and encouragement of my new friends, what else could I achieve?

I even came up with an idea for a new novel, though I restrained myself from rushing to start writing. Patience has never been one of my virtues.

The culmination of all of this was the realisation that I had to leave my job. For a long time I’d been waiting either for success with my writing, or for some amazing new career to fall into my lap. Neither of these things happened, and so I’d been waiting, waiting. But why not just take a leap of faith? I had enough savings to dedicate some time purely to writing, but had always been afraid: it seemed reckless, stupid, privileged. For once in my life, though, why not do something unexpected, something not involving a detailed plan? There was also the fact I’d gotten engaged and planned on moving to Cambridge, and therefore away from my job, anyway. Wasn’t the year before getting married the perfect time to be a little bit irresponsible?

The more I thought about this plan, the less crazy it seemed, and the more like the most sensical thing I could possibly do. Even my parents agreed, because they wanted to see me happy.  All that remained was to hand in my notice (I’d told enough people of my plan that it would have been embarrassing not to!). That part was scary, but everyone at work was not only completely understanding, but excited for me; they thought it was a great decision.

As I write this now – loving the fact I actually have time to write a blog post and am not cramming it resentfully into my one free evening – I’m inclined to agree.

It’s my second day of unemployment and so far I’ve spent my time (when not reorganising plastic tubs and putting things in boxes) making a plan for the coming months: I have several holidays booked, plus some freelance copywriting and editing work, and then of course there’s my plan to write a new novel. My first trip is a writing retreat in the Scottish Highlands, where I plan to throw myself headfirst into this new idea (after careful plotting, of course). This time, there’s no expectation to get published or be a success: I’m doing this for me.

I’m excited for what the coming months have in store; plenty of surprises, I hope. I’m also excited to restart this blog so I can keep my friends updated on my adventures and share my thoughts on my new writing journey. Initially I wanted to set up a new blog – a blank slate – but actually, I decided it’s best to keep on updating this one. I want people to see the journey that’s led to where I am now as well as my journey going forwards.

I hope that in the future, someone might read this and be inspired to take a leap of faith too.

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Goodbye for now

Firstly, I’m not writing this under the illusion there are thousands of people who are going to be weeping and tearing their clothes at the news I’m taking a break from blogging. I’m just writing this for the few people who I know do read and who might be wondering why I’ve stopped posting regularly.

Secondly, I’m not closing down this blog. I’ve been updating it regularly for about six years now – posting at least once a month – and I’m really proud of that. I may not have gained a huge following or gotten a book deal out of it, but that’s never what I wanted. I just wanted a place to write. June was the first month in years I didn’t write a post, which was horribly anxiety-inducing and made me realise that I’m just not able to keep up with posting the way I used to. A blog I’m choosing to write for fun should not be stressing me out. That’s what has prompted me to go on a temporary hiatus.

To be honest, writing a novel utterly exhausted me: physically from the 6am mornings, but emotionally too. I poured so much time and energy into it that my blog posts became less and less inspired – just another chore I had to do to keep up with my once-a-month quota. Because I wasn’t reading as much, or going to the theatre or exhibitions or art galleries, or generally living my life as much, I struggled to think of interesting things to write about here. Perhaps that lack of enthusiasm has showed in some of my recent posts.

So I’ve decided to take a break from it all: writing, blogging, Twitter, Facebook, the lot (sorry if I forget your birthday – I’ve become terribly reliant on Facebook for that). I want to give myself some headspace and regenerate my inspiration. Of course writing is a part of me and I can’t just stop doing it, so I’m sure I’ll carry on, but in more of a fun, relaxed way – jotting down paragraphs in my notebook, perhaps writing the occasional piece of flash fiction or a short story. Who knows, I might even attempt to write a poem, which I haven’t done since I was fifteen and wrote a poem called ‘I Hate You’ about a friend I fell out with in my emo kid notebook.

At the same time, though, I want to explore my creativity in other ways. First and foremost, reading, the best way to find inspiration. Dusting off my piano and learning to play a few pieces again. Going to some art classes. I’ll keep up my regular exercise, yoga and mindfulness practice (which I’ve gotten very into, as it helps massively with my anxiety). I also want to learn how to write code. But – and this is a key but – there will be no pressure for me to do any of these things or become good at them. I’m trying to get past the mindset that I need to be doing, achieving and progressing all the time, exhausting myself and getting frustrated when it doesn’t result in recognition or material gain. Instead I’ll see friends, travel, relax, and try to be creative for creativity’s sake along the way.

To put it simply, I just want to be for a while.

I’m sure I’ll be back in a few months, feeling refreshed and inspired and ready to put things out into the world again. When that time comes perhaps I’ll even reconceptualize this blog and do something different with it. See you then!

Emma’s 2017 adventures part four: Boston

A few weeks ago I went to Boston for work and then play. I preferred Boston to Denver in January, but this may have something to do with the fact Denver was minus seventeen degrees and Boston was thirty, or that in Boston I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in five years. Also, Boston’s speciality is clam chowder and cream pies, while Denver does great beer: all nice things, but one leaves you feeling much worse the next morning if you overindulge.

Instead of boring you with typical tourist things you could read about on TripAdvisor, I’ll share my favourite five things about Boston.

The seafood

I’m not that into seafood, because anything with pincers, tentacles or suckers should not go in my mouth, but when in Boston… The must-try dish is the clam ‘chowdah’, which is how a Bostonian would pronounce it. I tried it in a place called Legal Seafood – a chain, but apparently a good one – and it was creamy and salty and warming and oh so good. The crab cakes were excellent too, and I’m sure the lobster is something else, although I didn’t try it because pincers.

Cannoli

I know you can get cannoli, a delicious roll of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta, in many places, for example Italy, which I’m willing to bet does better Italian food than places that aren’t Italy. Boston’s cannoli is famous, though, and the place to try some is either Modern Pastry or Mike’s, both in Little Italy. There’s a heated debate between which establishment does it better (my friend insisted on Modern), but I didn’t really care so long as I got to stuff cannoli in my face. Which I did, and my face was happy.

Outdoor reading spaces

I’m no longer so obsessed with doing every tourist activity in a place at the expense of actually relaxing. In Boston I spent hours reading in the sunshine, as there are so many green spaces: the Public Gardens where there are swan boats and a decent busker on every corner, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which was created after a highway was rebuilt underground to reduce congestion and create a greener city. On a side note, the book I was reading was Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, about a demagogue who becomes US president and introduces a brutal totalitarian regime… hmm.

Art

I’m always momentarily shocked when I go to an art gallery or museum in another country and have to pay to get in. London has spoiled me. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in is worth the entrance fee, though, because I spent a good five hours there. They had an impressive range of exhibitions from Matisse’s relationship with objects to Botticelli and faith to Henryk Ross’ photos of the Lodz Ghetto. The exhibitions were really well-curated and easy to follow and understand: unpretentious without feeling dumbed-down.

History

As a Londoner used to seeing centuries-old buildings every day, I appreciated Boston’s sense of history. Walking the Freedom Trail reveals cobbled streets and colonial-era buildings, like the 250-year-old house of Paul Revere (AKA guy who rode a horse really quickly during the American Revolution) and the Old North Church. Next to the latter building there’s also a Historic Printing Office where you can see how the Declaration of Independence was printed; we got a demonstration from a man who seemed to love his job more than anyone I’ve ever met. I know very little about the American Revolution, so found this aspect of Boston fascinating.

The May Queen by Helen Irene Young

Helen Irene Young’s The May Queen is a gently profound novel which explores secrets, love and family ties against the backdrop of a Gloucestershire village and London during the Blitz. It isn’t your typical Second World War romance novel, though; it’s a more literary novel showing the coming-of-age of its narrator, May Thomas. If you’re not expecting the dramatic twists and turns and heightened emotions that often feature in Second World War romances, and prepare yourself for a more gently-paced, reflective novel which ultimately delivers more value, I think you’ll find this one to savour.

Although The May Queen opens immediately to a scene of conflict and tension – May’s sister Sophie has brought shame on the family by getting pregnant out of wedlock – the world Young introduces us to seems idyllic and innocent. May’s life in the country village of Fairford revolves around trips to the Big House to visit her father who’s the gardener, making her costume for the village fair, and cycling around on her bicycle delivering goods from the village shop. As her name suggests, May feels an affinity with nature – she’s awarded the accolade of The May Queen at the fair – and her love of being in the water recurs as a motif throughout the novel.

After Sophie disappears to have her daughter, Honor, May becomes attracted to the son of the occupants of the Big House, Christopher, despite the class difference between them. When May’s parents catch on to her closeness with Christopher, they fear she is going the same way as her sister; this leads May to have suspicions about who Honor’s father might be – but she still can’t quite bring herself to avoid the charming Christopher. The first half of the novel is slow, but there are quiet secrets bubbling under the surface, a sense that something isn’t quite right. Before these secrets can rise to the surface, though, we’re thrown into the midst of another conflict: the Second World War breaks out and May moves to London to become a Wren.

The contrast between the two halves of the novel is effective. While the first half is quiet, gentle and picturesque, the London section is noisy, frantic and dangerous. May trades in her bicycle for a motorcycle, roaring around the streets of London to deliver dispatches with bombs falling around her. I didn’t know much about the Wrens so enjoyed learning more about how women served during the war (which was very inspiring). As the bombs fall May loses people close to her, but Young recreates the Blitz spirit: May picks herself up and gets on with life, revealing a quiet inner strength. She attracts the attention of a sailor, John, but never feels able to fully commit to the relationship – John’s character seems distant, but it feels like an intentional projection of May’s feelings towards him – and the memory of her relationship with Christopher never leaves her. May eventually returns to Fairford and Sophie’s secret resurfaces at the end of the novel, which has an ambiguous ending with a note of hope I appreciated. Real life doesn’t have neat resolutions, after all.

In its exploration of a misunderstanding which disrupts an outwardly idyllic world and reverberates through the years that follow, The May Queen reminded me a little of McEwan’s Atonement, especially with its gently reflective literary tone. I loved Young’s voice, which captures May’s dialect not just in her dialogue but in the way she thinks and observes the world around her. Young also uses some particularly beautiful and unusual turns of phrase which I had to re-read. I enjoyed the fact the novel takes a different approach to the war, using it as a backdrop for May’s emotional journey rather than the focal point. This is an elegant debut and I’m looking forward to seeing more from the author!

The May Queen is published by Crooked Cat Books – support the indies! More information here: http://www.crookedcatbooks.com/product/the-may-queen/ 

Emma’s 2017 adventures, part three: Cyprus

I’m making good progress towards my new year’s resolution to visit four new countries in 2017. I’ve just visited my third: Cyprus. And it’s only April!

I hadn’t planned on going to Cyprus, but the opportunity arose and, unless I’m totally broke, I’ll never say no to visiting a new country. Cyprus hadn’t been on my hit list either, because to be honest I’d always associated it with the kind of beach-and-clubbing holiday I would actually find less enjoyable than being at work. I’m glad I went, though, because Cyprus has so much more to offer than just Ayia Napa.

My friend and I had decided that this was going to be one of those holidays without a packed itinerary; in fact, we had a strong anti-itinerary agenda. We didn’t even want to plan what time we woke up each morning: a day without an alarm set on my phone is the ultimate luxury for me. When the weather wasn’t great on our first day in Cyprus, we didn’t stress out, but took the opportunity to hang out on the balcony of our house with a guitar and write songs about vegetables. Yes, that’s right. I won’t tell you why we did this but needless to say genius happened.

The next day was gloriously sunny, so we headed out to see the sights. We were staying in Limassol, which isn’t one of the beach resort areas, but it’s easy to drive anywhere on the island within a couple of hours. Lovelier than the beaches, in my opinion, are the Troodos mountains in the centre of the island, which we explored on our first ‘proper’ day. We drove up into the mountains – just enjoying cruising past the beautiful, Game-of-Thronesy views as I called them – until we stopped at the start of the Caledonia falls walking trail. Strolling through the dappled light of a forest and clambering over rocks beside tumbling waters was the perfect antidote to the London commuter life I’d been desperate to escape for weeks.

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The Caledonia Falls

There are also dozens of beautiful monasteries nestled in the mountains, though you’re not allowed to go inside many of them; we walked around the grounds of one, until our explorations were cut short by a miniature disaster: a mosquito-bite-gone-wrong, an eyelid so swollen children cowered in the supermarket as we desperately searched for antihistamines, and an impromptu trip to the hospital. I won’t treat you to a picture of that one. It was an adventure, to say the least, though not the kind we were expecting!

We’d had a good dose of nature, so the next day was culture’s turn. A short drive from Limassol is the Kourian archaeological site, well worth the visit if you’re in the area. During the Roman period Kourion was an important coastal city in Cyprus; it was destroyed by several devastating earthquakes, rebuilt in the 5th century, but then raided by Arabs in the 7th century and completely obliterated. It was interesting to see the ruins of a house destroyed by the earthquakes, where the bones of a family plus their horse were found, and where you can still see the horse’s stone trough torn in two by the force of the quake. You can also see the remains of a palace, the Agora, a theatre, the gladiators’ barracks and baths. Once we were ruined out (I’m going to say it: most ruins look the same after a while) we had lunch on the beach nearby: halloumi, iced coffee, views of the Mediterranean and a side helping of smugness.

After lunch we hit the road again and headed somewhere that I hoped would be close to heaven for me: St Nicholas Monastery of the Cats, a monastery surrounded by hundreds of cats, supposedly brought over from Egypt to rid the island of snakes. I’m not sure if my readers know the full extent of my feelings towards cats, but let’s just say I shout ‘cat!’ and point like a five-year-old every time I see one – which in Cyprus was a lot. I only saw about twelve, and they all refused to be fussed over or take selfies with me, which was disappointing. It’s a tranquil monastery, but I’d say that unless you like cats as much as the loser pictured below, you’d probably prefer to spend your time elsewhere.

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CATS CATS CATS

Our final tourist stop that day was Kolossi Castle, a small castle on the outskirts of Limassol containing odd, uncontextualized art installations which blew my mind with their profundity. It has an interesting history – built by the Hospitallers as a Crusader stronghold – and is a pleasant forty-five minute stop. We loved the herb gardens surrounding the castle; rosemary bushes gave the air a sweet fragrance which made just sitting in the sunshine with our eyes closed breathing a deeply therapeutic thing. We finished off the day chilling out on the beach with books and a guitar, though we decided not to blow the minds of the general public with our extreme jealously-invoking talent for composing vegetable-related ditties.

We loved the Troodos mountains so much that we went back the next day for an even longer walk. If you really love nature and inadequate toilet facilities, you could spend several days camping there (can you tell I’m not a camping fan?). This time we tackled the Artemis nature trail, a 2.5 hour circular walk around the top of Mount Olympus, through black pine forests and across rocky precipices that made me feel, just briefly, as if I were on some epic Lord of the Rings-style quest. Who would’ve thought it, there was snow too – you can even go skiing in Cyprus. The walk was breathtakingly beautiful, although our main memory of it is getting terribly lost and me getting heatstroke. It took my friend bursting out of the trees and running into the road, flailing her arms to stop a passing car, for us to discover that we were actually a fifteen-minute walk from where we’d parked our car… nailed it. Definitely do the walk, but definitely don’t get lost.

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The Artemis trail in the Troodos mountains

After our traumatic fight-for-survival in the wilderness we felt we deserved a treat, and so instead of cooking we went for dinner in Limassol Marina that evening. The Marina, with its yachts moored in the glassy water and its luxury flats, bars and restaurants – including a KFC that almost managed to look posh – is a world of its own, and a cool, lively place to spend an evening drinking cocktails and eating fancy seafood. It was the ideal way for us to see off our last full day in Cyprus, and to relax after a holiday that featured several unexpected adventures!

It was a fleeting visit to Cyprus, and I certainly could have stayed longer had I not had a wedding to get back to England for. There was plenty we didn’t get around to doing – more ruins to ramble, more cats to harass, more beaches to lounge on, more mezze to eat – and Troodos alone could have kept me happy for several days. And of course, since I’ll be 30 in the not-too-distant future, I’d better squeeze in that Ayia Napa clubbing package holiday before I’m totally past it.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Never have I emerged from a play feeling physically battered, but that’s how I felt after seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter theatre on Saturday (battered in a good way, if that’s possible). Admittedly I was feeling more tender than usual due to having just been on a 5.5 hour wine tasting course where there was no spittoon, but in a way that helped me to relate to the play’s characters, who knock back an astounding number of drinks over the course of the action.

The play takes place in the early hours of the morning in the home of George and Martha, a history professor and his wife, the daughter of the president of the college. They’ve just returned from a faculty party and have invited a younger couple, Nick and Honey, a professor in the biology department and his ‘mousey’ wife, to continue the party at theirs. Nick and Honey are sucked into George and Martha’s toxic relationship; as more drinks are consumed the couples grow increasingly disordered, the arguments escalate and both marriages unravel. The entire play takes place in the living room, a drab, pistachio-coloured incubator for bitterness, resentment and disappointment. Yes, it’s a heavy play, but the dialogue is so full of wit and energy that it’s never a drag.

I loved this production. What astounded me most is how the characters’ conversations flow so naturally – exactly the way you’d imagine an increasingly drunken conversation at a party would unfold – in a way that reveals everything you need to know about the characters, their relationships and their pasts, without being clunky. For this writer, it was a masterclass in dialogue. It builds towards the climax – the revelation about George and Martha’s absent son, who always hovers awkwardly on the edge of conversation – with a sense of inevitability. Remember those times you’ve stayed later than you should have done at a party, long after the fun has departed, watching a friend (or yourself) getting drunker, knowing humiliation is coming but doing nothing to stop it? That.

Imelda Staunton plays Martha, and it would be easy to say she steals the show, swerving between vivaciousness and charm, Medusa-like seductiveness, banshee-screeching and child-like vulnerability – but she was perfectly matched by Conleth Hill as George. He is a cantankerous old history professor on steroids: from the get-go he eviscerates Nick, who threatens him as a representation of science and progress as opposed to George’s fusty old world of history. Martha, on the other hand, he treats with ironic scorn, knowing exactly how to get under her skin. Just when you feel he’s being too cruel, she retaliates with an attack so brutal he’s again reduced to a tweedy, ineffectual object of pity. Their toxicity infects Nick and Honey, who begin as an immaculately dressed golden couple glowing with youth and end looking as if they’ve gone through several rounds in a boxing ring. The actors playing Nick and Honey play it fairly safe, but perhaps that’s what makes them the perfect foil for George and Martha.

Nick and Honey aren’t merely victims: their marriage has its own fatal flaws which are brought out of the woodwork by their night with Martha and George, and in a twisted way I felt as if the older couple were doing them a favour by sparing them years of simmering resentment. As the younger couple stagger home and dawn light streams in through the window, you get the sense that Martha and George have thrashed their way towards a stark truth, where delusions have been shattered and a bitter cycle has finally been broken. It’s not exactly a hopeful ending, but it is resolution.

There’s not much to dislike about this production. It’s an astonishingly well-written play starring four strong actors, staged in a simple way which allows these elements to come to the forefront: what could have gone wrong? The play is running until the end of May and you should see it, though I wouldn’t recommend trying thirteen glasses of wine beforehand if you don’t want to come out feeling emotionally in shreds!

Writing update: owning it, and second draft torture

I get embarrassed talking about writing. When people ask me how my novel’s going, I assume they’re just being polite, blush and mumble and change the subject, or I downplay things: ‘Yeah, it’s coming along OK, but it might not go anywhere so I’m trying to just enjoy writing for its own sake…’ I’m afraid people will think I’m arrogant and pretentious, or just a bore (‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? You haven’t mentioned that before!’). Most of all, I’m afraid of setting myself up for an embarrassing failure. I’ve been talking about writing for years. If I don’t get published people will think I must be really bad and, even worse, pitiably deluded about my ability to string a sentence together.

Recently, a friend pointed out that I’m constantly putting myself down in conversation. It’s not just the writing; I’m afraid of admitting that I might be half-decent at anything. Rather than charming people with my modesty, this constant self-denigration is actually more irritating than just owning what I do. What’s more, it can come across as insincere – because I do believe I’m a good writer, regardless of whether I get published or not. Most of my writer friends aren’t published yet, and I don’t consider them ‘not real writers’ because of that: it’s their self-belief and their dedication to the craft that make them writers, not a six-figure book deal. In fact, one could argue that dedicating oneself to something when there’s no immediate payoff – just early mornings, lonely evenings, sleepless nights wrangling with your plot, but above all the sense of fulfillment that comes with expressing your creativity – is the purest, noblest form of writing.

Payoff would be nice too, of course. 

It’s Lent, and this year I’ve decided I’ll try to banish the feelings of embarrassment, shame, self-doubt and fear of failure that constantly attempt to ambush my life (a nebulous resolution, I know). In that spirit, I’m going to tell you about my writing, proudly. So, here’s my latest novel update.

I’m almost at the end of my second draft, although that little almost feels like the last stage of a triathlon I forgot to train for. It feels like I’ll be writing this bloody novel until my teeth start falling out, and have been writing it since the day I learnt my first word (it’s been just over a year, but oh, how I’ve aged…). I write more frequently than ever, and yet it’s still never finished. I’ve never, ever found the writing process this torturous – and I suspect it’s precisely because I’m finding it so torturous now that this novel is the best I’ve ever written. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is the way it will be again and again and again if I continue to write. It will never get easier; the journey will just be different each time.

Now I know why the previous novels I wrote weren’t good enough. This was my writing process:

  1. Have a vague idea. Think myself very clever.
  2. Plunge headfirst into writing and churn out a few chapters in a frenzy. Read them back and think myself even more clever.
  3. Realise I need a plot and half-heartedly concoct something that I think sounds vaguely plausible.
  4. Write more chapters. Edit each one immediately after finishing until I eventually reach the end. Piece the chapters together and, ta-da, it’s a novel!
  5. Read through novel as a whole. I’ve already edited it, so think the writing is awesome. Tinker with it a bit. There, it’s perfect now!
  6. Put the novel in a drawer. Read it back a year later. Cringe at the disjointed chapters, the inconsistent characters, the lack of a coherent vision or overall narrative structure. Think I’m not very clever at all and will never be a real writer.
  7. Mope for a bit, and then pick myself up and move on.

Picking myself up and moving on was the most important part. For each of those crappy novels, I’m sure I learnt something, even if it was what not to do. For my current novel, largely informed by what I learnt on the Faber course, my process has been very different:

  • Have an idea. Start writing. When I feel it’s actually going to work, take a breather.
  • Write out a detailed plot, divided into a rough number of chapters, with a clear narrative arc, as well as brief profiles of the main characters. (This is not to say I stuck rigidly to this plot; it changed dramatically as I wrote, and had epiphanies while in the shower, so I was constantly editing and updating my plot document.)
  • Write my first draft. Write write write. Keep going. Never look back, however tempting. Churn out reams of crappy prose until I reach the ending.
  • Put it in a drawer. Don’t do any writing; live my life, see friends, cook proper meals, go to the gym… or mostly just end up sleeping. (I left my draft about a month, although some people leave it six months; I can see the value in giving yourself a proper psychological distance, but I’m too impatient!)
  • Self-publish a single copy, so I can read it as if it’s a published novel. (I found this stage painful; I was on a high when I finished the draft, a feeling that was crushed upon reading the crappy words that had seemed ‘raw’ at the time. The draft was pretty terrible, but I could see its potential.)
  • Write out the plot, chapter-by-chapter, in a grid. (In this grid I included the major characters in each scene and the time of year, to make sure characters received equal attention and the seasons changed appropriate… there was an awful lot of ‘pathetic fallacy’ rainfall in my first draft.) Overhaul the grid, making it more coherent and logical.
  • Go through the manuscript and cut, paste and delete to match the new grid. (In this process I cut out about 20,000 words.)
  • This is the stage I’m on now: rewrite. It’s taken months longer than expected, because this isn’t just tinkering: characters have had personality transplants (by which I mean, they now have personalities), new scenes have been written, darlings have been killed. I keep coming across the words INSERT SCENE HERE or MAKE THIS BETTER just when I think I’ve nearly finished another chapter. This can be disheartening when I feel like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone up a hill, but what keeps me going is that it will end – even if it takes three, four or five drafts.

A year and a half into this novel, I’ve come to accept that writing isn’t always a passionate, cathartic rush of images and ideas flowing effortlessly from my soul and my fingertips. Most of the time it’s a long, hard endurance test, and I’m determined to keep on running until I pass out. On top of my completed novel, I hope.