The New, Nameless Novel

Cold Friday morning

So there I was, pootling around in my big desk notebook, (not, of course, procrastinating, no, not a bit), pretending to collect up the bits and pieces of thought about the nameless new novel because it wasn't just the right moment to dig back into my PhD commentary. And I came across this sentence at the bottom of a page: Pain of trying not to be in love with someone. True enough, I thought, absently. Don't think it was to do with the novel. Maybe a story? Can't remember what I meant. Has the milk come yet? I'd kill for... Read more →

Another bloggy week

Most writers start secretly. Then it evolves from a habit to a hobby and a few people know, then you take it seriously, learn your trade, learn (usually painfully) something about how the industry works, and more people know, and eventually - maybe, just maybe - the world knows. And one day you wake up and realise that this is what you do, and such is the nature of our society that is has therefore become what you are. My brain's gone a bit demob-happy, what with it being Friday and all, and the end of a funny mixed-bag of... Read more →

Nothing remotely trivial

I've just come across this, which is Margaret Atwood talking about historical fiction in general, and in particular about writing Alias Grace: Fiction is where individual memory and experience and collective memory and experience come together, in greater or lesser proportions. The closer the fiction is to us readers, the more we recognise and claim it as individual rather than collective. Margaret Laurence used to say that her English readers thought The Stone Angel was about old age, the Americans thought it was about some old woman they knew, and the Canadians thought it was about their grandmothers. Here, surely,... Read more →

Witnesses to the spark

I've blogged before about how a novel exists whole in my consciousness long before I write it down. In Bodies crying out I described how my nameless new novel landed in my lap last February and, more recently, in Are you listening? I was wondering aloud if you could think that this whole, complete entity of a story sets about making the writer it will need if it's to be written. But it's always been very clear to me, in the kind of physical, gut-level certainty that tells you, for instance, whether you're going to be able to balance on... Read more →

Lonely, obsessive, and slightly nuts. And that's a bad thing?

Autumn does seem to have arrived, doesn't it? And it's not just the weather and the plum jam-and-crumpets; across the aspiring writer world, the first thing that's asked once the sand's been shaken out of the beach towels, and the piles of post and pizza menus combed for those dishearteningly fat SAEs, is, 'Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? NaNoWriMo, for the unintiated, is National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that those who sign up spend November writing, furiously, towards the standard goal of a 50,000 word novel. The website makes no bones about the focus of the whole... Read more →

Are you listening?

We're all familiar with the red-jersey-in-the-crowd phenomenon, that once you start noticing something, the same thing seems to be everywhere. But this week I've had different things coalesce to the point where I'm thinking something entirely new. The fact that it links up with all sorts of things I've thought about for a while makes me think it might even be true (and explains all the links back to earlier posts!). First, Dorothy L. Sayers The Mind of the Maker: the fact of universal experience [is that] the work of art has real existence apart from its translation into material... Read more →

Wanting to dance

You could be forgiven for thinking that Autumn's arrived. It's not just the chill and breezy grey that's settled on South East London today. A friend has just posted an SOS about her plum jam which refuses to set, and I've just washed the crumpet butter off my fingers in order to write this. My daughter's announced that she'll need new school shoes when term starts, and my son's booking places at University Open Days in October, now he has his AS level results. I've always felt that September rivals April as the real New Year. Perhaps we should be... Read more →

You wait for hours -

- and then three come along at once. Well, more than three, actually. One of the things they don't tell you about the author's life (as opposed to the writing life) is that it's ninety-nine percent boredom and only one percent... anything at all. Sometimes when people ask me to talk to their reading group, or whatever, they say 'I know how busy you must be', and I suspect they have a vision of me in one long merry-go-round of readings and signings and festivals and power-lunches and so on. Well, maybe five books down the line I shall be,... Read more →

Not really writing -

- or so I thought, since I've been in France, researching the nameless new novel. But on the same day I read this, in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction - All three kinds of writing, it should be obvious at a glance, depend heavily on precision of detail... such detail ... that we cannot help believing that the story he tells us must be true. - I took these: and a day or two later, this: Read more →

In search of odd, crunchy details

I realised sadly a few weeks ago that I was going to have to go to France to research the new novel. This is, of course, the worst possible aspect of the writing life: that we can travel to beautiful or at least interesting places, and set off the whole lot, from the first cup of coffee at the airport, by way of hotel bills, entry tickets and photo printing costs, to the last steak-frites, against tax. I remember saying to my father that it seemed odd that Ian Fleming had suddenly upped and set a whole James Bond novel,... Read more →

Sharing despair with Neil Gaiman

Answering a cris de cœur - in a forum of mainly published writers - of 'I hate Book Two!', someone posted this, which came originally from Neil Gaiman. I hope he won't mind me borrowing it: as you can imagine from this piece, (which I gather was originally written for NaNoWriMo) he has one of the best writing blogs on the net, which is well worth dropping by. -------------------------------------- The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid... Read more →

Where did the week go?

Oh dear, oh dear, time does slip by during half term. What with having family to stay, and an editorial report to write, and a PhD chapter to finish, and vast quanties of reading for that and the new novel, and a big update for my website about A Secret Alchemy - temporary cover, extract, reading-group-questions, how-I-came-to-write-it and all - the poor blog's been going hungry. A truly superb production of Pygmalion at the Old Vic is one of my better excuses. I know the play pretty well, and it never fails to be good value, but here was a... Read more →

That's it, almost certainly

So that's it, almost certainly: I've crawled through the proofs of A Secret Alchemy, finding every last misplaced comma, although it's also gone to a professional proofreader; I've picked up a couple of little anomalies that somehow between us we've all managed to miss; I've seen for the first time how the changes I made at the copy-editing stage integrate when I read it straight through; I've to-ed and fro-ed quadruple-checking the days of the week for one strand, and in another I've realised I've married the Duke of Buckingham to the wrong Woodville sister. The last real job is... Read more →

William & Mary will have to wait

This morning I got up earlier than I consider altogether decent for a Saturday morning, in order to drive to Hampton Court to do some research. It was cold and grey, with dull light and a nasty east wind, and there was scarcely anyone about except for security people with their coats buttoned up to their chins and an air of bracing themselves for the day as much as the weather. I found my way through arches and past gates as instructed, collected my pass, and trudged past the backs of low buildings - storehouses, offices, goods yards and so... Read more →

Not exactly simple

The proofs of A Secret Alchemy have arrived but, come hell or high water, Thursday is PhD day so I haven't looked at them properly yet. It will be interesting to go through them, because it must be a couple of months since I've looked at the actual text, which is probably the longest gap since I started writing it. For the commentary on it that I'm writing for my PhD, I'm in the odd position of noticing things as a student of literature that I never noticed when I was writing it. But for proof checking I need a... Read more →

The working kitchen and the critic

Do you remember the story about the woman who was stunned to discover that she'd been talking prose all her life? I'm feeling a bit like that. This morning I knuckled down to my PhD, which today meant trying to collect together and make sense of as many taxonomies of historical fiction as I can find. How do you define hist fic, from Scott and the predecessors he denied, to now? What are the different kinds? Is it different if you have real historical characters in it, about whom the reader might have an opinion already? Is it different if... Read more →

Any day now

Life has been full of small, perhaps ordinary things which between them seem to have shifted my horizons slightly. First of all I dropped down to my new gym for the first time, and had a good session. It's really frightening just how unfit you can get when you're a writer. In a life where the most exercise that work gives you is going downstairs to put the kettle on, it can be really hard to persuade yourself that it's more important to go for a walk than it is to get another couple of hundred words down. But the... Read more →

Bodies crying out

My new novel arrived today. It fell in a lump into my mental lap, rather as I imagine telepathy would happen if it did, just as I was scooting round a particularly tricky little pair of mini-roundabouts by Brockley Station. (My fellow south east Londoners know exactly where I mean.) I was on my way to Goldsmiths to lead a seminar, and my students were very tolerant of how long it took me to wrench my mind away from the new novel towards John Donne and Allen Ginsburg. Of course it's not really a hand-me-down from the Muse, though I... Read more →

Filling the vacuum

So of course I can't stop thinking about the new novel. No, not A Secret Alchemy, the next one. Yes, I know, but nature abhors a vacuum, after all, and the vacuum of the book-shaped, struggle-shaped hole in my mind now is more than my nature can stand. Besides, it's fun, this stage. Undemanding, in a way: it's like having a big pot on the back burner, and tossing in anything that seems like a good idea. Other times, it feels more like lying on my tummy on the bank of a stream, holding a stick in the water, or... Read more →