There’s a thread on Amazon Forums at the moment about why people wrote the stories/books they did, and I put some pretentious bollocks on there about how ideas come to me. Then I was reading it back and curling my toes a little bit.
I probably mentioned this on a different thread, but writing has always been a bit of a guilty secret for me. I’m from a working class background in a working class city, I have working class friends and I am, at core, a working class bloke. Yes, I went to university, and then I went back twice and did further degrees. Yes, I work in IT and have progressed over the last eighteen years to a fairly senior position. I own my own house (well, it’s mortgaged, but you know what I mean), I have a fairly decent car and I’ve been paying for my daughter to go to a nursery for the past three years. But despite all these seemingly middle class things, I still see myself as working class, with left wing values and opinions about the inequalities of our society. Declaring myself as ‘a writer’ just doesn’t sit well with me, because it seems pretentious. I know a few people who have declared themselves writers, musicians, artists, and yet they don’t have anything to back it up – they have no work of any merit to show, no success in their field. And I hate that, because it reeks of just wanting to be different from the people around them who go to work every day and struggle to get by in the real world. It’s usually delivered with a tone that says ‘that makes me better than you’ and it’s ultimately little more than egoism and self-aggrandisement.
Everything I’ve read on promoting your writing states that the first thing to do is to push it via your social network. I haven’t done that. I can’t bring myself to do that. In order to post something on a Facebook group I created a second profile without any of my friends attached to it in order to do so. I don’t want to publicise to them I’m doing a bit of writing. I think in total I’ve told two of them, and then only because they knew about the academic writing I’d done in the past. If some of them knew I’m sure they wouldn’t care. Some would think I was a bit of a knob. So I’m keeping the two halves of my life separate for now. If they collide at some point, fair enough, but it won’t be because I engineered that.
I have always wanted to be a writer. At times I’ve wanted to be other things as well, but the writing has always endured. At school I was good at maths, art, history and music. But I was never as good at any of those things as I was with English. Reading, criticism, creative writing – it was by far my best subject. I played violin for a long time in my youth and was quite good at it. I worked my way up to leader of a youth orchestra and toured Europe twice in that capacity. Nobody understood why I didn’t take that more seriously. I went to university and just kind of stopped playing. I think everyone thought I’d follow classical music as a profession but I never ever had any intention to. I wanted to write.
I wrote my first novel at fifteen. Written on a manual typewriter between 1989 and 1990, it was a horror novel influenced very much by Clive Barker (who was also from Liverpool, which made the influence even stronger). I got to about eighty pages before realising it was shit. So I started writing bad poetry instead about the first Iraq war. Oh dear. My second novel I finished, I wrote it when I was twenty. I sent it to some publishers who told me the style wasn’t bad, but there was nothing else there. They were right. There was no plot, literally no plot, and bad characterisation. I wrote the next one in my mid-twenties and the same thing happened. Reading it back, it was nothing but random impressions from my life with no continuity whatsoever. What did happen with that novel, however, is that about thirty or forty paragraphs I’d written were salvaged and became the basis for my short story collection ‘Oblivious’. That collection was ten years in the writing, on and off, and it wasn’t until I had a burst of creativity in 2008 when I wrote a whole batch of new ones that weren’t dependent on those old paragraphs, and went back and rewrote the older pieces, that suddenly I had something that seemed good enough to do something with. This time, I approached agents instead of publishers and the comments were different – yes, yes, all very good, but there is no market for short stories from an unknown. Which was a result – I mean yes, I was no closer to being published than before, but now it was because I wasn’t marketable rather than because I wasn’t any good. Which I had to look at as an improvement…
So at the moment I’m writing what I’ll promote as my first novel. But it isn’t. It’s my fourth. I’ve been trying to do it for three years and I’ve ditched it and started again four times now. It still has the same title, but the content is vastly different now from when it started. What I’ve struggled with is, unsurprisingly, continuity. I have a minimalist style in some respects – undoubtedly because of my influences: Bukowski, Brautigan, Carver – they all have minimalist styles. So I’d write a chapter and I’d have said what I wanted to say in three or four pages and by page twelve I’d be halfway through the narrative idea I had. Which was just rubbish. This time, however, I’ve been approaching it differently and so far it seems to be working.
First of all, I’ve ditched the idea of a linear narrative completely. It starts at the end, then it switches backwards, then back again, then forwards a bit. Then back years with a sudden leap forwards again. It means I can write in segments (more like with the short stories) but within a narrative framework. I’ve also taken to building the text iteratively. I wrote chapter one – it was four pages long. Then I wrote chapter two – another four pages. And then I went back and rewrote chapter one with some more descriptive sections and inserted some backstory. That doubled it, but it still makes sense when I read it back. I’m doing the same for chapter two and it’s working. The ideas are still alive (they’ve usually started to die by now) and I have something which is more textured than ever before. I’m excited by it as it seems I’ve found a way to make it work. Ideas are falling into place that fit what I’m intending to write further in. The narrative is evolving and extending outwards as I go (which is the opposite of what’s happened before where it’s contracted and I’ve run out of ideas). It might still end up being short – a novella rather than a novel – but even at one hundred pages it will still be a marked improvement from what I’ve managed before. All I need to do now is to finish it and get over the hurdle of letting people know I did it…