Keeping the story alive

Feeling the pull of Christmas, and seeing 2022 on the horizon, I’m looking at my work-in-progress, and it seems to be asking how we got here. It’s a patient and wise creature. It knows I haven’t said anything about it to anyone, bar its name to a very select few, perhaps out of superstition, but also, I think, to keep the energy it holds close to me, to nurture it, and show it I am taking it seriously. It’s not fodder for polite, or impolite, conversation, and certainly not to be talked about on Twitter.

The glimmers of this story coalesced in February 2019, while I was working on final edits for The Complex, where all I knew was that it was going to be told over several locations that I had dreamt and sketched on a map, it had a title, and most intriguingly, a revealing phrase about the protagonist. I was in a particularly manic phase of my life, because my day job was busy, The Complex wasn’t finished, and to self-soothe, I was watching way more films than was good for me. Ridiculously, I was also trying to learn German. My mind was leaping around like a loon, but I kept redrawing the map, came up with some character names and a couple of grand metaphors, and thought about character motivations. This was all between doing other life things. No draft words were written. These were just ideas I kept coming back to, with some occasional sentences in my notebook.

As an aside, I find free writing to be an essential creative writing tool, where you write without censoring yourself for twenty minutes or so. Another is writing conversations with characters in an imaginary theatre space, both as characters and the actors playing them. You can get them to rehearse with each other, improvise, and so on. Great for when you’re stuck.

Right, back to the story of the new story. For me, this is where it gets interesting. In my head, I had been telling myself that all through the second half of 2019, with The Complex being published, I was in marketing mode, spending way too much time on Twitter, asking for endorsement quotes, organising a book launch, looking for opportunities to talk in public, and all that necessary stuff. Looking back at my notebook from the time, in fact I continued to work on the new story all through the autumn, adding layers to the characters, changing their names, lightly researching the things they were into, drawing and redrawing the map, cutting out photos from magazines, and continuing to build up the world. I suppose I thought I wasn’t working on it because, looking back, there was no tangible progress, no words in a draft, but I’m way too hard on myself. Novels take the time they need, and life had to come first.

Then in February 2020 I started a new job, and the world went a bit mad.

I kept writing in my notebooks. I wrote a short story, Signal, which was published by Nightjar Press. Work was incredibly challenging, both kids were home from school, the line between work and home disappeared, and the news was full of the pandemic, Trump and Brexit. I watched a lot, a LOT, of films. It began to feel like I had writer’s block again, but I kept writing in my notebooks, and the make believe world slowly solidified.

When the cafes opened again in August 2020, I began a first draft. I was up to twenty thousand words when the second lockdown hit. I got it up to twenty-five thousand by Christmas, but the third lockdown, the big one of January 2021, totally messed me up. I retreated to my notebooks once more. (I seem to need a cafe to write a draft. It’s the only place I am guaranteed no interruptions. And home is now where I do software work.) For seven more months I wrote in my notebooks. Finally, in July 2021, I went back to the beginning of the draft, and in my little Caffe Nero, every morning before work, I edited it into some sort of shape.

What am I trying to say? It’s over two-and-a-half years since I started this next novel. It’s becoming real at last. I’m praying there are no more lockdowns, but perhaps I’m too far along now, with too much momentum, for another lockdown to block me. My notebooks helped me keep the story alive through the chaos. They are also the custodians of the facts of the story’s writing, its history, because I really can’t trust my memory.

I’d like to have a completed draft by my birthday, in March, which would be three years from inception. That appeals to my sense of neatness. And if it isn’t already abundantly clear, I write in my notebook every day. That’s what makes me a writer. It’s nothing to do with word counts or being published. It’s showing up in a notebook and keeping the creative flame alive.