There are many senses in which the writing life is an easy one. For example, one sits down a lot. The commute is short. No boss pops up like the shopkeeper in Mr Ben to ask why you’re checking Facebook when you know very well that the invoice for eight thousand and one paperclips should have gone out eighteen minutes ago.
There are other senses, however, in which the writing life is excruciatingly awful. I’m having one those awful moments precisely now, so, striking while the iron is toasty, here are some words on the curious rage burning in my veins, boiling my eyeballs and singeing off what little remains of my hair with little ‘zip!’ sounds.
The Good Ship Hocking foundered this afternoon on a Charybdis called ‘lack of planning’. The skipper ran aground while avoiding the swirling waters of a Scylla called ‘planning too much’.
My problem is a classic one. The kind of book I’m writing is a thriller, and the genre is characterised by tightly-woven plot threads. The action needs to be particularly kinetic — each element needs to lead inexorably to the next. Characters must be under considerable pressure (usually for their lives) and need to deal in extraordinary ways with extraordinary circumstances. But that’s not my problem.
My problem lies with the deep structure of the novel. Not all novels have this deep structure. Few thrillers do. This deep structure is the metaphorical language of the novel. It informs virtually all decisions about small-scale metaphor (the things you, as a writer, make connections with during the text; ‘the floor was blank as drumskin’, etc.) and large-scale metaphor (the locations of important events, for example; choice of weather).
In my limited experience — three (publishable) novels — the deep structure only really comes once you’re well into the novel. You need to live and breathe the work for a few weeks and arrive at an understanding of its identity. The deep structure appears without conscious awareness. Sometimes, it’s there before you know it is. You might write a third of the book using ostensibly random metaphors until, that glorious third in, the metaphors suddenly make sense. It’s as if part of you knew what the deep structure of the book was — but hadn’t yet told you.
Right now, I don’t feel I have a sense of the deep structure. What is this current book about? My third book, Flashback, felt like a book about grief, pain, mystery, and the re-living of historical events, about the senses in which memory can be an artificial present.
The current book? Dunno. Saskia Brandt is trapped in pre-revolutionary Russia. I have strong, almost hallucinatory ideas about particular scenes: In one, Saskia is wearing a ball dress and standing on the threshold of the amber room (this means something very important to her, but I can’t tell what yet); In another, she is masquerading as a cavalry captain in a Tbilisi square and wheeling her horse to clear the area of passersby before they are hurt by an explosion; In yet a third, she stands on the balcony of a ruined palace (probably here, which contains the amber room), and looks out at a man on a horse, wheeling it and pulling it into tricks just as Saskia had many years before in that crowded Tbilisi square. The novel will be, in some sense, about getting home, and mistaken identity, and revenge. But that’s about all I can tell.
Somehow, I need to produce a surface plot that weaves through these moments of deep structure (whatever form they may take). I haven’t managed so far. There is a sense in which you have to just write, of course. If you don’t have this instinct, you’ll probably not set pen to paper. But my instinct is warning me that the initial conditions have not been correctly set for this novel. There is more thinking to do before the somewhat reticent part of my brain comes up with the goods.
First attempt: Four thousand words about a member of the tsar’s secret police arriving for work. Pretty good, but unnecessary. Not what the story is about. *Sound of aircraft nose-diving*
Second attempt: Nearly six thousand words of Saskia participating in a bank robbery. Was going well until the Okhrana agent I introduced on the train journey north, with the spoils, turned into a clone of the mnemonist Shereshevksy. *Toilet flush sound*
So what is it? What’s the story, Saskia? Why are you standing on the threshold of the amber room, and what does it have to do with going home?
I’m off to Germany for a few days, during which I won’t be writing. I’m relying on my brain to come up with the answers.