Peering at the horizon
Published, unpublished and taking your proof to bed

Bedroom eyes

The perennial question came up: “I'm 30,000 words in, and it stinks. I've a nasty feeling the central idea is no good and the writing's rubbish. Should I keep going? I've got a completely different idea, which is much more promising and likely to work.” I've ruminated before about writerly adultery, and the third-of-the-way-in mark seems to be the writerly equivalent of the seven year itch. When you're cohabiting with a novel, sharing the washing up, mortgage, tricky family stuff and leak in the roof, the Other Idea is so very delightful. It smiles at you in the candlelight of the restaurant, laughs back at you over its shoulder as it skips away along the beach, has a clever body and a beautiful mind, and oh, those bedroom eyes... But it's not the one who's there when you come home, when you go to sleep, when you wake up. It's not the one who's still there when you're ill, who still needs you when it's tired and grumpy, who is words of your word, flesh of your flesh. And most of the time, most of us, know it.

Lots of people (including me) often liken books to babies. But if our relationship to a book must ultimately be that of a parent, while we're writing it it seems to me that it's more like a marriage. “Where did you first meet?” the audience asks, and the answer may be that you saw The One across the carriage, on a train you wouldn't have been on but for the faulty signals at Letchworth. Or a friend had given you the history book she said you'd love, and there was The One in all its glory. “Was it love at first sight?” Yes – you were obsessed, dreaming of The One day and night, could think of nothing else until you'd tracked The One down and got its address. No – it sort of crept up on you that the quiet one in the corner of the office was The One.

The courtship, it seems to me, is when you're getting to know something that just might be The One and it's getting to know you. It's all that dreaming, wandering through museums, sharing the books and food you love, finding out whether the conversation goes round in circles, or leads off in new directions. And then one day, when it seems likely that most of those directions are places you'd want to go together, you realise that this really is The One, for the long haul. And you get engaged.

Now things get a bit more formal. Never mind bridesmaids' dresses and booking the wedding capsule on the London Eye, this is about a joint mortgage and finding jobs in the same city: research, some solid planning, plots and schemes about process, condensing the mist of feelings and ideas into trackable streams of water. This is where you work out what you really want, how it really ticks, whether you really can make it work till... death do you part.

If so, then writing Chapter One is like taking your wedding vows. Less scary, of course, because no one except you and the novel can hear yourselves promise to have and to hold, for richer or poorer... unless you have an agent or publisher as witness. There are hazards, of course. Once, a New Idea of mine didn't have the decency to wait until the honeymoon was over, but actually popped its head round the door on the day that the WIP and I set off from the church. And we all know couples where The One was clearly The Wrong One, even if it took a messy three-way struggle to tell you.

I don't want to scare us all: what we write is never set in stone, and sometimes you can only discover that a project is the wrong one by, at the very least, cohabiting with it for a while. But when you actually start spinning all those ideas, feelings and experiences into a thick, single story-rope, then you've reached the moment of no turning back, the moment when instead of being two entities flirting or courting, you become one. Of course, you may ultimately find out that, sadly, you gave it every chance and it's never going to work. So be it. But being divorced is not the same as never having been married.

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