Writing my novel, The Water Meadow Man (free chapters here for what they’re worth), took years and turned out to be an incredibly dispiriting experience. So, now I’m writing another one.
Last year I finished writing my novel. Since then it’s been a slow descent into invisibility, self-doubt, and intense planning of the next novel. All writers are fools in their own ways.
The novel, The Water Meadow Man is set in the late 1970s in an unnamed English county. It draws on my childhood in Winchester and its surrounding villages – hence the Water Meadows reference.
It is about the different forms that loss can take and where these forms can take people. My father died after a long illness when I was 14, he is buried in the church that I have rechristened St Eade the Virgin. The main character is working his way through his own losses. He meets people along the way who guide him, some up good paths, some down very dark ones. But all of them open his eyes to different aspects of life and of living.
His grief at his loss is contrasted with that of a group of, I’ll be plain here, bigots and their plan for a new political party: The British Democratic & Freedom Party. They want the Empire back. They want a mythical, fictional England that they see as Great Britain. Their grief is for their loss of position and importance in the world. It is guided by fear and by their own philosophies, which are never open to alternative vision, debate or doubt. There are many of these frameworks for hatred on the Far Right, all imagining different White and Pleasant Lands.
This party came from my first experience dealing as a 13 year-old when the National Front came to Winchester to support an inmate in Winchester Prison called Robert Relf (you can read more about this unpleasant character here). My friend and I decided to confront the NF. A laudable but physically stupid idea given that I weighed 8.5 stone (54kg) at then, and most of that was my curly hair.
Surprisingly or maybe not once you get to know my voice, The Water Meadow Man isn’t just a dark entry into the city of Crosschester and its child villages. The book also has some funny passages and lovely people. These include the wondrous and maybe even magical Phoenix Inn. A debate between two very strongly opinionated women in a pub, but I won’t spoil it for you.
There is also a beast that could be real or might be just dream-built.
The process of making the novel included: researching, drafting, adding in and slicing out. Digging into myself and my memories – and putting those memories to the test. Digging through of old notebooks and cringing. Doubting every phrase and allusion but writing them anyway.
Turns out that the entire process from the first letter to ‘d’ in The End was me just yelling symbols into a pit and watching as the pit was filled in. This is because, as any sane person without a literary agent or publishing deal (and even some people with these gatekeeping marketing arsenals) should know: no one really needs to read your book. In fact, and don’t be astonished by this: people, even people close to you, do not feel the same way about ‘The Novel’ as you do.
Yes, I did notice I switched to the third person for that. It’s a distancing trick, it eases the pain… to the Ego. All writers are made of large percentages of Ego. That’s a fact.
Before I offer some hints and tips to other first-time THE NOVEL makers, I’d also like to point out here that I’m halfway through writing my next THE NOVEL! This one has a murder, familial secrets, a priest, a birdwatcher and a Constable painting.
Some of the important things I learnt along the way are:
- It is impossible to edit your own stuff. Impossible. Never try it.
- You will see errors after you have published (or in my case, self-published) your heart’s work that were definitely not there when you edited the book yourself.
- Many people will offer advice and perform support. Never believe (most of) them.
On this final point, here is a selection of useful and supportive sentiments that I’ve been the target of during the process of writing my wonderful, pointless novel.
"At least you wrote a book. Not many people can say that".
This is just not true. Not at all. I know loads of people who have written novels. Hordes of us are splashing words around like innocent children on a golden beach unaware that an oilrig has exploded a few miles off shore a few hours previously.
Simply completing the process of writing a novel is nothing to write home about. Yes, I wrote that. See, you can just write anything you want. That’s how easy it is to actually finish writing a novel. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s a good novel nor that you’ve put anything into it of yourself. Nor that you’ve wondered or cared about what other people might get out of your scribbling.
Loads of people do it. Loads of people then look at their novel and put it in a box or disc and never look again. These are sensible people. Unlike me, they did not send it off to capital ‘A’ Agents or, even worse, publish it on Amazon. These people are sensible people who got it out of their system and can now concentrate on living elegant, unobsessed, intelligent lives free of literary pretension and heartache.
So, it’s a pointless, pointless comment.
"It doesn't matter if people read it. That's not what you wrote it for".
Oh absolute bollocks. Only people who have never written THE NOVEL!! say this. The rest of use poor saps know it’s nonsense. It is such complete nonsense that it transcends even performative bullshittery by your pals and family no matter how well meaning they feel they’re being. No one writes The Novel!¡, ramraiding their own imagination until it’s empty and spread all over a pile of pages like guts on a slab, without the intense desire for other people to read it. And love it. And believe it’s been well worth their time and money.
No one does that.
If someone does, well, they’re unhinged to the extent that they’ve spent months (in my case years) talking to themselves but using the voices of other people… who they invented.
Why would you write a book if you don’t want people to read it? You wouldn’t.
"I'll definitely read it, no question".
Only 2.43 people out of the 20 people who promise to read your book will start reading your book. Only 22.33% of those people will complete reading your book. These figures are rock solid and based in hard research that I’m not going to cite because this is the internet. The figure is true whether you’re talking about your dearest loved ones, people from your writing group, people on social media or people you finally feel you must accost in the streets and the supermarkets screaming, “READ MY THE NOVEL!!! YOU BASTARDS!”.
"Finishing writing the first one makes writing the second one easier".
Buuullllshit. OK, I grant you that you learn a lot of lessons about process: how to organise plot, how to timeline, how to differentiate voices, how to cut, cut, cut, how to cut some more. But actually writing THE NEXT NOVEL still requires isolation, self-hatred, self-criticism and a lengthy period during which you discover you don’t even know the language you’re writing in any more.
Finally… The Book Publishing Industry
The Book Publishing Industry needs you to be kind to it. It gets drowned under novel submissions every year and that’s hard work, really hard work. You can tell this because if you ever get the chance to speak with anybody in The Book Publishing Industry this will be the first thing they’ll tell you. And they’ll do it in an accent so clipped that it’s almost a dialect.
“You won’t believe how much shit I have to read every day before I find a pearl, and even that needs a lot of polishing. It’s exhausting, it really is. As for the authors, oh my gosh! Mental! Needy! The Book Publishing Industry would be so much better without them!” They will tell you as you wait at an airport for a flight to Frankfurt.
So, whatever you do, never burden The Book Publishing Industry with your submission.
Especially not during ski season…
Anyway here’s a clip of The Next Novel
After you read that…
Buy The Water Meadow Man from Amazon Kindle Edition, Amazon Paperback & Apple Books… even if it’s just for a laugh.
You (lovely) bastards!