The thorny bog and the human whole
Never mind what you're burning to write

A Twist of Gold

Forgive me for how long it's been since my last post, but it's been a funny few days. Not, you understand, in a life-changing sort of way; in fact, my outside self is bored to tears because I've been doing almost nothing but work. My inside self, however, is feeling a bit shaky because I'm rapidly coming to the end of my life with this novel. A few weeks ago I was talking about the strangeness of the novel having become finite, though not finished, and since then I've been working my way through from the beginning, sorting out tweaks and fiddles and the snagging list and being left with a smoother-running, glossier novel in one monster file instead of separate chapter ones, and a new and much shorter snagging list. Once I've done with that, there's only the print out, read and final tweak to go, and then it's off to my agent. Until now, not a single soul has read a word of it, but the public life of this novel will have begun.

I might not feel so shaky were it not for the fact that, because of the way I work, I haven't, until the last couple of weeks, actually read any of the novel that I've written. Once a chapter's scrawled and then knocked roughly into shape in the typing up, I move on. So it's over a year since I scrawled Chapter One. And because writing is slower than reading, even the recent chapters, which I would say I remember pretty well, seem quite different when I approach them along the path that a reader will follow with everything that's just happened fresh in my mind. I've long known why it suits me to write longhand and always forwards, but I don't think I'd quite realised the value of this second stage of the process until I was working on Chapter Six, and had to dig out the penultimate chapter to check something. It's the dénoument, and I found myself caught and reading on. Which wouldn't have mattered - indeed, would have been confidence-boosting - except that when I got back to Six, I realised I shouldn't have let myself do it. Because of what I'd read, my sense of what the reader knows, and doesn't, in Six was all confused. And because I was now extra-aware of what I knew was about to happen I couldn't judge whether the clues and the fuses were buried to the right depth or not. I'm sure it'll all come out in the wash, but it has shown me that it's best for me, as much as possible, to work in the direction in which the reader will read.

But I mind saying goodbye: I really, really mind. Maybe it's because this novel's been relatively straightforward and quick to write, or maybe it's because in between working on it there's been so much else going on, what with the PhD and the Darwin bicentenary and not to mention non-writing stuff, but I'm not at all sure I'm ready to see it go. Normally, although finishing a novel leaves a huge novel-shaped space in my life so that I have to fight the urge to fill it up as quickly as possible with another vast, all-but-unmanageable project, I'm also bored to tears with it: with the fiddling-to-and-fro and with the endless insecurity that I could always make it better. Above all, by the end of a novel I'm usually bored and frustrated by the way that once you've started a novel you're locked into the voices, the places, period, the themes and ideas, the people, the structure... and so have nowhere to put all the other voices, places, ages, ideas which arrive in your head.

Of course, having gone to a lot of trouble to embroil my poor characters in guilt, betrayal, treason and heart-break, not to mention sex, laughter, trouble with wigs and success with needlework tools, I'm glad to find that I, at least, still care what happens to them. And it's not as bad a case as that of my friend R N Morris. Roger's third crime novel about Porfiry Petrovitch, late of Crime and Punishment, is about to be published, even as he writes his way towards the end of his fourth novel, which will be the last of them: he's lived with Porfiry for seven or eight years, at a guess, and through many adventures. I've only lived with Juliana and Simon for about two. But it was Roger's description of how he feels which made me realise I'm feeling something of the same.

It's a kind of grief one that one feels always at the end of a novel: a small but surprisingly powerful mourning for the end of an important relationship, which is qualitatively the same, though quantitatively much bigger, than how it feels to finish reading a book which has absorbed you totally. But what's surprised me about this is that I don't feel the mourning of acceptance, I feel a much earlier stage of grief: disbelief. I can't actually believe it's over, and a small part of me won't have it. It can't be over. It mustn't be.

Being a well-trained novelist, I was trying to think of a concrete analogy for how I feel, and I realised that with most novels I feel like a parent whose child has stayed at home well into their twenties, a perpetual student always eating more food and making more noise than there's really space for. I love them dearly, and I'll miss them and worry about them, but it's time high time they moved out. But with this one it's as if my seventeen-year-old has upped and said she's off to university in Australia next week, and she'll see me on Skype. When the time-difference works. But... She may be ready, she may be different from her siblings: after all, she had a different upbringing from them. But I'm not at all sure that I'm ready.

Thinking about the books-as-babies analogy I went to dig out a very early blog post, Practical Parenting, from September 2007, and had one of those 'where did the years go?' moments that I associate with New Year's Eve, or coming across a photograph of my human children as toddlers. It was a shock. "The current novel - still nameless" which in September 2007 was off to university with my editor, is A Secret Alchemy, which has been (very) gainfully employed for over a year including reaching the bestseller lists. "The dutiful school-child" of my PhD is done, submitted, viva'ed and passed, and in June I shall get to wear a very silly hat to prove it. And, most amazing of all, "the new novel which hasn't even had its birth registered" is... this one.

It even has a name now, at least until an editor disagrees: A Twist of Gold