Warning: May contain self-indulgent material on the creative process. For anoraks only.
This week I passed the 70, 000-word mark on my new novel, Proper Job. It’s funny how people will widen their eyes when I mention that figure. To a non-novelist, it probably sounds like ‘a billion pounds’ does to me: a large, brain-stretching number that can’t be properly imagined. It’s just ‘a lot of money’. So I’ve written ‘a lot of words’ so far.
70,000 words is about 20,000 short of average novel length (I would guess). Stephen King regularly passes through the 100, 000 barrier, but Terry Pratchett often limbos his novel beneath it. Some novelists call time at around 50, 000 words. 40, 000? Well, that’s novella territory.
When I was a kid of fifteen or so, I read a great deal of Stephen King. (I still think he is a great writer, with wonderful command of tone and suspense; but it’s difficult to read him nowadays.) In the preface to one of his books, he said a few words about the craft of writing. I was surprised to read that King did not plan the novel before he wrote it. If you’ve read his extraordinary The Stand, then get this: he started that 200, 000-word sucker with a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter and a note on his pinboard reading ‘Randall Flagg is a dark man’. His magnum opus unravelled from there. This fifteen-year-old Cornish kid, me, thought, ‘Oh, so that’s how you write fiction’. I then proceeded to write a novel myself.
It was unspeakably awful. Really bad. Each sentence straining under literary pretension and finally snapping because it lacked the strength of characterisation and literary drive. But my habit was set. I write without a plan.
When I start a novel, I have a little something in mind. It’s like a dim star on the horizon; something to walk towards. Deep down, the knowledge that I have about story structure — keep ‘em turning the pages, make ‘em empathise with the characters, remember this is entertainment — bubbles away and suggests the ghosts of future narratives, but they can switch abruptly, like a river diverted at source. What I want, at all times, is to be in the place of the reader. I need to feel what it’s like to read the novel first time, and I can only do this while I’m writing it.
Last night, I wondered what star draws me through the current book. Proper Job is the story of a ice-cream seller who needs to make money over his last summer before university. At root, the novel is about a character who copes — just about — with life but is constantly reminded of how bizarre it is. Everybody else seems to know what’s going on while he does not. It’s no stretch to call this autobiographical. Since I was very young, my parents observed that I had a ‘warped sense of humour’ (i.e. quite different from theirs) and that I lacked ‘common sense’. Selling ice-cream involved a number of skills I simply didn’t possess at the time: at 17, I could barely drive; had a dodgy sense of direction; didn’t really have enough life experience to deal with sarky customers; and found it difficult to engage with a job that, obviously, was not going to be my life’s work. Goodness no. I was destined for greater things (don’t you know) and I read philosophy (as well as Stephen King) on rainy days in the van, and edited manuscripts in the gaps between serving customers.
That’s my star for this novel: a point of view. It’s a comedy because how else can that worldview be written? The narrative, of course, and the characters, are essential elements of the book, but I’ve put them on like clothes during the course of writing; the skeleton underneath has been that slightly naive, disconnected ‘Is this life? Crikey’ feeling.
The first draft is nearly finished, and then I’ll give it up to an editor by the beginning of June. My reasoning behind this is simple. Déjà Vu was rejected by virtually every publisher in the UK (I sent it to all of them) in its unedited form; once edited, with the help of Aliya Whiteley, people have only good things to say about it. Well, some people don’t, but most do. Once that’s done, my next job will be start on the sequel to Déjà Vu, provisionally entitled Saboteur.