New Beginnings (1)

The start of a new book is an odd time: exhilarating, unreal and, as yet, minus external pressure from publishers and banks. It’s how you dream writing might be. The first novel I wrote was fairly spontaneous - when I was supposed to be writing something else. (It’s surprising how fruitful the projects I’m not committed to writing about can be.)

Of course this meant I had no idea if it would ever see light. My agent’s face fell when I told her I was trying fiction. ‘I do wish my non-fiction authors would stay with what they know,’ she muttered. ‘They so often write such dreadful novels.’

But now, as I embark on a third novel, and my seventh book, I’m in the slightly bizarre situation where my first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, is just out in paperback and is Orange new writers book of the month, my second, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton comes out next week and I’m doing various talks about that, and yet it is the ideas and characters for the third that are shouting for attention.

Once upon a time

I think there are very different ways of beginning a novel. It’s always interestingand surprising—to discover which authors follow which path.

There are those who plan out a book, more or less chapter by chapter, at the start (among them, those who do this for their publishers, in the hope of an advance, then write something quite different and hope the publishers will either have forgotten, or embrace the brilliance of this alternative idea two years down the road).

There are those who carefully jot the history and idiosyncrasies of each character on a card or in a file; the most extreme even know minor facts about the characters, which they don’t intend to use: the newspaper he reads, her old school, his interest in German literature, the party she voted for.

There are those confident or innocent souls who have a single idea and just start writing, some bringing a wide interpretation to the experimental novel. Those who have a strong beginning and often an end, but let the story and its characters find the path between the two; and then there are those who have a predicament, a setting or an event in mind, and have to think how to tell the story around this.

I’m probably a beginning and end sort of a writer.

The sensible keep a timeline

My first novel was a learning experience and like most lessons, its exposure of one’s failings ill-received. Unlike school—I was a great truanter—there’s no escape. I found myself trying to impose a timeline retrospectively on a non-linear story of many years. It was hell.

Wayward characters

The outline of my characters was pretty clear in my head but, still, they evolved as I wrote and not always as I wished. Those I wished to be decent but flawed, became prigs. Those who were to be lightly damaged, were barking mad. Others fell in love with the wrong person or failed to with the right one. I am wary of saying that characters make their own relationships with each other and the circumstances of the story, just as they would in life—it sounds pretentious—but it is one of the startling and thrilling things about writing fiction.

My current book is set on one day—that day, and its effect on individuals and on society ,was my central idea—and with flashbacks, so I’m determined to have a proper, hourly, timeline. I need a structure. I have fewer characters and have made many more early decisions (I was about to say enquiries) about each one.

But I’m almost swamped with ideas and sudden calibrations come to me as I drive along, or walk down a street or catch a drift of conversation. I wake in the night with The Great Idea, scribble it down in the dark and wonder in the morning why its glorious 2.00 am clarity has been so dulled in the intervening hours and what the scrawls might ever have said.

II’s hard to capture the energy and turn ideas from a dizzy cloud of ideas into sentences or structure.

Onward and upward

A friend once suggested that places were characters in my books. If so, in this book, I’m seeking a missing character. It is set in France, London (good; I’ve lived in both places) and New York (a little less easy, because although I know it, I don’t yet have a sense of it in the early C20). Then there’s Gloucester - not far from my current home.

But I need a place in the north, one I can portray in depth, or I risk all my books being area-ist. And I don’t know (the shame —and my father a Yorkshireman!) anywhere much north of Birmingham.

Another thing – several things.

The old idiom ‘write about you know’ is true, obviously, in as much that you can’t write about what you don’t know.

But of course we all know about the core themes that drive novels: love, hope, jealousy, loss, compromise and reconciliation.

Still, I invariably find that what I don’t know and am writing about could fill a—my—book. Why these ideas seem so inconveniently pressing is a mystery. For this one book (deadline summer 2012) I’m currently researching organ music, trout tickling, cycling clubs, synaesthesia, coffin making and the staffing of early department stores.

“World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural.”


— Louis MacNeice

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