Back in February last year, Science Fiction author Una McCormack tagged me in a blog chain for writers about our current projects. Here’s her post, so do head over there to find out more about her and her new Star Trek novel which will be published this month. Yes that’s right. Star Trek!
In accepting her tag I had four questions to answer: What am I working on? How does my work differ from others in its genre? (I’m not going to answer that one, by the way) Why do I write what I do? and How does my writing process work?
I didn’t want to reply immediately because I wasn’t ready to talk about the novel I’ve been working on. In fact I’ve discovered in the last three years that in fact being asked about a book I’m writing, especially if it’s tough going, makes me pretty grumpy and defensive.
Effectively, in 2014 I was silenced by this book. I wrote just 9 blog posts in 2014 and only one of them was about writing or editing, the one from January: The Order of Things. Even that was a post about not actually being able to write because, well, life. When I posted that blog I thought I was close to finished. In fact I didn’t finish until nine months later. So many times I thought I was ready to submit it, but then I’d fall into a pothole of confidence and set off again on ‘just one last edit’. So I guess this is the part where I talk about how my writing “process” works:
I spent 2014 wrestling with my own editing process. The more I edited, the further I seemed to be getting from the end. And then suddenly, in autumn, it finally came together. A bit like this:
With hindsight I think a lot of this was to do with the fact that I had no experience at what stage a first draft was good enough to show to an agent or editor. I wanted it to be clear exactly what I was trying to do with the book and for the writing to shine, at least in parts. With your first book you are always told to polish your novel as much as you can before you send it to agents. But with a second one? When is it good enough to share?
Times are still tricky in publishing. Just as getting an agent doesn’t mean the novel she took you on for will get published, so getting that first book published doesn’t automatically mean your publisher will want your second (unless you are contracted for it). And the novel I had chosen to write was pretty ambitious. I felt a huge pressure to get it right.
Funnily enough, by the time I thought it was good to go and finally sent my agent my manuscript in October, I was so drained by the effort of getting to that place that I was starting to wonder if anyone would ever actually love this book that had caused me so much heartache…
But they did (joy!), and because they did I now feel positive and confident about it again myself. Oh the roller-coastering of it all. Now I am really looking forward to (my editor) Helen’s edits this month. I’m convinced that she will be able to illuminate things I can work on that will turn this book into what I want it to be for readers.
Meanwhile, in the last two months I’ve been having a writing break, I needed to read, spend some time with my neglected family and get my writing groove back again. I’m starting 2015 feeling refreshed and raring to go.
So what is it I’m are working on?
Firstly, it’s my second novel, Everything Love Is, which is now scheduled for publication in 2016. I’m delighted that it’s no longer just me that’s working on it, but me the team at Bloomsbury too. It’s set in France, on the Canal du Midi, and is the story of a woman who is falling in love with a man with dementia, and the decision she has to make – to cut her losses, or to stay knowing that there is no ‘happy ending’ for them. A kind of existential love story.
I’m also starting the first draft of my next novel. My plan is to use the very early mornings for this, before the rest of the family get up for breakfast, as I find that’s when my brain is at its least polluted and most uninhibited. I’ll save the editing work for later in the day when I’m more analytical.
I also plan to try and squeeze in at least one short story in January/February. It’s a form I’ve neglected lately and I do get a lot out of writing short stories, both creatively and from a satisfaction point of view. And I’ve promised my daughters I will write them a children’s book we’ve been talking about, which is a great fun thing to pick up on difficult days.
It looks as though in January I won’t have much day job work on, which is just as well really, given all the above.
Why do I write what I do?
I always seem to struggle to describe my novels in terms that don’t make them sound bleak. The Night Rainbow, I would tell people, is about a little girl whose pregnant mother is too depressed, following the deaths of her husband and a previous baby, to look after her. How gloomy does that sound?!
And Everything Love Is, well it’s about a man who discovers he has early onset dementia just as he meets the love of his life. It doesn’t sound like an uplifting read, put like that (but I promise it will be).
And if I told you about the new book I’m working on (which I won’t, sorry!), the elevator pitch would be similarly jolly.
But the thing is that none of these books are dismal books. For me the common thread in the novels I choose to write is the resilience of the human spirit. The challenges that I throw at my characters are not burning buildings, but burning hearts. I am convinced of our extraordinary capacity for strength of character and hope in the face of struggles and that’s what I want to write about. Those are the stories I want to tell.
I’m also allowed to tag one or two other writers to write a similar blog post. I am going to tag Alison Wells, a writer who leaps across genres with great skill and tenacity, who writes some of the most beautiful prose, both in her novels and short fiction, and who I hope will soon be snapped up by an agent and a publisher. No hurry, Alison, obviously!