FINISHING A NOVEL
FINISHING A NOVEL
“So when is it going to be finished?” A number of people, including my very patient publisher Richard Beswick, other authors and readers have been asking, writing, emailing, Tweeting and calling to ask me for the past couple of years. Many are kind enough to say they look forward to reading it. “So do I,” I answer, glumly, “because then it would be finished.”
My family and close friends know that this is a question which makes me, like many authors, quite irritable. Of course it’s nice to have a readership of any size, but you are almost as clueless as they about how long a book takes. Some can be done in months, some in a year, some take two, and some like this mine take years and years and years. If you are writing something that isn’t a series and isn’t a genre but bespoke, it all has to be done from scratch - even if, like me, you carry over one or two characters from past novels.
I am not alone in being so late with my new book that people like Ishiguro (who took ten years to write his new novel The Sleeping Giant) as a kindred spirit. In fact, I have had one or two comforting lunches with others whose deadline passed some years ago. We quote Douglas Adams to each other, with a resigned laugh: ““I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Of course the joke is that his cavalier spirit is the opposite to what we feel, and the dogged determination to keep plodding on and on. If you ever read a book in which the hero or heroine is traversing a trackless wasteland – think of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings – that’s us. Yet whenever you see a film about a writer they are rattling away at their keyboards, the pages are mounting up and the whole thing is done in a flash. I cannot begin to say how much we all loathe the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink.
It’s not as if I am not used to meeting deadlines. In my other life, as a journalist and critic, I can whip off 1000 words in 90 minutes and not even break into a sweat – well, not true, it’s a bit like being a cheetah going from 0 -90 mph – but I can do this stuff. If you are the kind of twisted individual who likes sitting exams, it’s a piece of cake. However, a novel of the kind I am writing is not journalism. It uses an entirely different part of my brain, and unfortunately getting it out takes a long time, even if you sit at your desk writing and writing every day from 9.30 to 6 pm, as between various chores, I do.
I have no deadline with this novel, as it’s not commissioned. Of course the money would be great, especially as the income from freelancing has been slashed by three-quarters, but I just could not do it with an advance. This is the trickiest novel I’ve written to date, and pulling it off has preoccupied me for about seven years.
It’s about a marriage in deep trouble, and about the role money plays in a relationship. If you think about this for two seconds, you may see how complex that is, but it’s also about the West Country and farming and food factories, and having an elderly parent die. It also has a murder mystery, like many of my novels. I learnt from Dickens how crime can provide a kind of energy to a large plot and now that story has become acceptable again in literary fiction (it certainly wasn’t when I began writing) that also takes time. For a contemporary novelist, time is the enemy. Things don’t stay still. Everything changes, mutatis mutandis. Where do you not only draw the line but find it in the first place?
I’m afraid that, outside the kind of excellent thrillers like CJ Sansom’s and Jane Thynne’s, I do not care for historical fiction. I am a Wolf Hall refusnik for many reasons, but most of all because I don’t see the point of books that have had historians do half the work of research. Fine if you are a child, but not, surely, for grown-ups unless there is something really novel, such as Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, being revealed and dramatised. To capture the present moment and render it through your imagination is far harder, believe me. Above all, a contemporary novel with some depth to it takes time, and time is constantly shifting as you write. One of the big themes of this new book is the recession – but is the recession in Britain ending or are we heading for a triple dip? Much will depend on the election in June, if politicians on both sides are to be believed.
Anyway – I am now on the last bit of this new novel. I still have lots of questions to resolve, not being the kind of novelist who plots everything out in deadly detail. The closest analogy to the way I write is in a marvellous children’s classic, George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblins; she has to follow a thread nobody else can see, wherever it takes her even if it leads into a mountain riddled with mine-shafts, which seems to come to a dead end in pitch darkness. I’ve had several dead ends, and each time had to dismantle them, stone after stone, to continue. I have no idea if what I’ve written is good or bad, only that I care about all my characters coming through their particular journey. But I hope it will be worth waiting for.
Does anybody between the age of 13 and 30 still go to the cinema? I ask because I have just received one of Lucy Cousins’s charming picture books about Maisy, (Maisy Goes to the Cinema) and have been going rather a lot recently due to a combination of good films (Twelve Years a Slave, Gravity and The Wolf of Wall St) and bad weather.
Yet each time, the experience has been both depressing and strangely deserted. I should perhaps explain that the most convenient cinemas for me to get to, living in Camden, are the Camden and Holloway Odeons, where a bit of judicious pre-planning means you can get a seat for around £8. I also object to paying over £10 just to sit in a large fake leather seat at some of the ritzier cinemas like the O2 or the Everyman, and for paying for Premier.
Part of this is probably sheer meanness, considering that I am usually paying for at least one other person, but part is also the unpleasant nature of a cinema visit in itself. It starts with the lobby, which now feels as if it’s trying to sell you Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream (why has no British ice-cream maker go in here?) rather than cinema. I have no objections to cinemas getting more out of their customers; the Screen ones do it rather stylishly. But what is all the nonsense you get about “trained mixologists” bringing drinks to your seat, or meals? If I wanted that, I’d stay at home, thanks, or go to see a film at one of my friends with a private screen and projector.
Worse are the ads telling you, when you’ve paid for your seat, to imagine what it’d be like if going to the cinema dies out due to piracy. Haven’t these people noticed, we’re the ones paying for our seats? I have constant battles with one member of my family about piracy, which I do indeed see as a threat to all creative enterprise, but this just makes my hackles rise even before I’ve sat in an uncomfortable chair surrounded by stale air, texting people and old popcorn.
I’ve been in love with cinema visits ever since I was small, and at its best a good cinema visit makes me feel like a child again. The excitement of seeing something in an audience, and sharing their laughter or fear is a big part of it; it’s part of what I love about the theatre, the concert hall or opera, too. No matter how big our TV screens get, or how smart the retractable private screen, it’s different in a big audience, when you are sharing strong emotions in a kind of dream-like state. (I’m afraid in my case, I tend to empathise far too much and too quickly with the characters, and do the annoyingly childish thing of shutting my eyes and stuffing my fingers in my ears at gruesome bits.) I like the whole business of tickets, finding a seat, waiting for lights to go down – and even the ads both for products and forthcoming films, providing these don’t go on too long. As with books, my taste is fairly broad – I like the Friday night blockbuster and the art-house film, providing both intelligently and entertainingly made. I see it as the great new art form, as opera was in the 19th century, but one which is often let down by poor script-writing or direction by committee; that doesn’t make me stop loving it when it’s at all good.
However, the whole Odeon experience is just so dismal that I can see why teenagers prefer to pirate films. It’s alarmingly easy to do (rather like most petty theft) and once done, they can loll about in their bedrooms watching it as they would once have watched a DVD, either in company or alone.
Cinemas really need to stop lecturing us about the evils of piracy, and instead focus on what is positive about the cinema. They also need to make them nicer places to be. Why not make all seats Premier sized, when half the auditorium tends to be empty anyway? It wouldn’t be much but it’d be a start.
WRITING FOR FREE
WRITING FOR FREE
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," said Dr Johnson, but we are all expected to be blockheads now. Even writing a blog is a form of blockheadedness, but far too many newspapers and magazines also expect us to contribute something for the sheer joy of seeing our names in print. This week, a distinguished novelist I know refused to write a foreword to a Cambridge Professor’s new book, in return for…no money. When he refused, he was abused as “priggish and ungracious.” So, Cambridge Professor, next time you want your drains clearing, do try that line won’t you?
To anyone who has got up at 5 am in order to work on a book before their day job, being published may seem like an enormous privilege – like being able to work from home. Because most published authors were once in this position ourselves, we have felt we needed to be humble and grateful. We are humble and grateful, even after a couple of decades of producing books, essays and short stories. But the reason why my own new novel is so slow (sorry Little,Brown) in being finished is precisely because I need to earn money too. The newspapers which once paid me the equivalent to the minimum wage no longer do so. Most weeks, I make the princely sum of £100 a week. I make almost as much selling my review copies (which I once used to pass on to local schools) as I do writing about them, and that is still, as any mathematician will tell you, not enough to live on. I’m still doing the same amount of work – and reading for review is work, believe me, not leisure – but somehow I have, as bankers put it, to monetise what I do. Only there is no money, unless you happen to be a banker.
Being asked to write for no money therefore puts writers in a very, very bad mood. A vast industry depends on us producing, and can’t exist without us continuing to do, so yet we are as farmers before Wall-Mart. We ought to be downing tools and refusing to do anything unless our pay is raised, but poor saps that we are, we can’t help being addicted to what we do. Some rare authors are able to produce a book a year – and a minute proportion of these produce a book that also sells. I take my hat off to them, but most of us are unable to do so for a whole host of reasons which include health, children, living on a road with pneumatic drills and not being able to turn the heating on in winter. That lovely feeling of typing with chilblains is slightly preferable to typing with RSI, but not exactly conducive to reams of good prose.
Thus, we end up practically paying to appear at literary festivals where the audience has forked out around £10 a head to hear us talk. We pop up on the TV or radio, which once paid us, again to be paid nothing because the BBC has spent so much on its snazzy state-of-the-art building and the newscasters who don’t somehow pay tax like the rest of us, that there’s no money for anyone else.
Sam Johnson again: “The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” Well, it doesn’t feel like it from here.