So 2012 has drawn to a close, a new year is upon us and London’s seemingly endless broodiness gave way to brilliant sunshine today. Out in our local park this morning, strewn with spent fireworks and empty Champagne bottles, unusually large crowds of people roamed around, blinking in the unfamiliar sunshine after a late night of reveling. Up until this point, the city has been pelted with almost nonstop rains, flattened under gusting winds that take down rotting fences and do obscene things to umbrellas. We’ve been blanketed in afternoons of a perpetual twilight gloom, and winds howl through the chinks of our sturdy Sixties-build flat. Home for Christmas this year, Richard and I have burned many candles against the darkness and have tried to do something that goes against our innermost natures: namely, to relax and do nothing without feeling guilty.
I’ve succeeded for the most part, having caught up on my sleep, eaten a lot of food, finished two so-so novels (The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James) and plowed halfway through a third (Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen). My limbs are languid and my brain is just a little bit mushy.
Despite all this recuperative loafing, I did have a firm goal to attempt at least one task over the long break: to jump-start my fiction writing.
Normally I never suffer from writer’s block with my novels, but when I do, it’s absolute. After penning my first two novels in an almost unbroken streak of furious activity (5000 words a day on average, taking about three months to write a first draft), I stalled halfway through my third for nearly four years. This hiatus was not actually writer’s block per se, though; it was more that with no publication in sight for the first two at that time, it seemed pointless to carry on churning out books into the void. But once I’d published Experimental Heart, it felt right to dust off Number 3 and finish it off. It proved rather difficult to overcome the inertia of four long years of activity, but as I described in a previous post, a writer’s holiday in Whitstable got things moving again. Currently I’m finalizing it for publication, though I am not sure yet exactly what the plan is there – which is another story for another time.
My current writer’s block is of a different quality entirely. Since I wrote those two and half novels so effortlessly, my life has become a lot more complicated — I’ve got LabLit.com to tend, rebellions to foment, various blogs to feed and rather a lot of speaking and writing engagements to discharge. As a consequence, I have less time to write overall. So it’s important then when I do manage to cobble together a few hours here and there, I make good use of the time. Unfortunately, Novel 4 — which is based on an interesting, real-life premise and seemed so promising in outline form — ground to a halt in the middle of chapter five sometime early last year. And try as I might, I have not been able to make headway since.
It is a very peculiar feeling as a writer, liking the idea of one’s novel, but not actually liking what’s emerging onto the page. Writing fiction, for me, has always been like falling in love, or being swept as a reader into a book you don’t ever want to end. The characters come to life and drag you under, and writing in this state is a joy, not a chore. Novel 4, alas, was just not doing it for me. I was not sure whether it was the novel itself, or whether it was the right novel at the wrong time. Eventually, Richard persuaded me to set it aside and try something else. And since he, and several other of the test readers of Novel 3, thought it ripe for a sequel, I decided to try just that. Within about an hour of plotting and thinking, the sequel was off like a rocket, taking on a life of its own after only a few pages.
So it wasn’t me; it was the book. I suspect it was too dark, too close to some real-life events in my past that still sit uncomfortably with me, and that’s not where I want my imagination to dwell heavily right now. Maybe one day in the future I’ll feel more enthusiastic about entering those waters, so I’ll keep the mothballed manuscript waiting. In the meantime, it’s back to a familiar universe where the characters are old friends, and there’s space to invent a few new ones too. And there’s unfinished business that needs to be sorted out, and someone up to no good who has disappeared off the map and needs to reappear, and — well, I don’t want to give anything away!
To celebrate, we hired a car and drove down, appropriately enough, to Whitstable, my place of literary mojo, and then eventually up to the Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey. Sheppey, a very strange and isolated part of Kent, plays a pivotal role in Novel 3 and its sequel, so it was good to immerse myself in its murky atmosphere as I prepare to dive back down.
I wish you all a very Happy New Year, and leave you with a few photos from Elmley to set the scene…