Late Drafts

A few months back, I was run­ning a sem­in­ar on lan­guage devel­op­ment. The sem­in­ar exam­ines phon­o­logy, syn­tax, semantics — all the object­ive bric-a-brac that we cog­nit­ive psy­cho­lo­gists like to talk about when we talk about lan­guage. Midway through the intro­duct­ory ses­sion, I stopped to ask if there were ques­tions. A mature stu­dent asked, ‘I don’t see how all these things relate to lan­guage itself. You know, as a cre­at­ive, breath­ing thing that people use to express what they are about.’

Silence on my part. I looked over their heads, out the win­dow.

I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘that’s prob­ably a really stu­pid ques­tion.’

Some of the stu­dents laughed.

No, it’s the most import­ant ques­tion you could ask in psy­cho­logy. There isn’t any answer that I can think of.’ I paused again. ‘No, psy­cho­logy isn’t good enough to answer that yet. It prob­ably nev­er will be.’

What you have, in psy­cho­logy and in fic­tion, is an object­ive lin­guist­ic frame­work that attempts to describe the mind. It omits the sub­ject­ive. That is, it has noth­ing to say on what it is like to be in pos­ses­sion of a mind. There are those who believe that an object­ive frame­work is suf­fi­cient for a sci­ence of the mind like psy­cho­logy, but I’m not one of them. And I think this prob­lem applies to fic­tion. How do we, using an object­ive, lin­guist­ic frame­work, provide a sense of what it is like to be our char­ac­ters?

Imagine this. Imagine that.

How do you brush your teeth in a Swiss gar­ret in 1907? How much does a piece of cheese cost in a Zurich mar­ket? How anti-semit­ic are cer­tain groups?

But what is it like to be a char­ac­ter? The nov­el is an object­ive record, and the read­er con­jures some­thing sub­ject­ive from this. What will they con­jure?

These are my thoughts as I fin­ish The Amber Rooms, join the dots, spend some time being someone else until it’s all over.

★ Making a Proper Job of It

When I wrote Déjà Vu, I wasn’t sure if it was any good. Certainly, it was 120,000 of sus­tained nar­rat­ive and kept me enter­tained, but I couldn’t be sure about the effect on oth­er people. Turns out they liked it.

The nov­el I wrote after Déjà Vu was a very dif­fer­ent one: a com­ing-of-age com­edy based on my exper­i­ences of being an ice-cream man, which I did to help pay for my uni­ver­sity stud­ies. I laughed a great deal when I wrote it. I thought it was good. I sent it to agents and pub­lish­ers, and instead of the form rejec­tions I’d received for Déjà Vu, I got hand-writ­ten replies. More than half those agents and pub­lish­ers enjoyed read­ing it. However, because of the demands of mod­ern pub­lish­ing, full lists, and so on, they could not pro­ceed with it.

I wasn’t quite ready to give up. Since 2005, I’ve returned to the manu­script, tweaked the gags, added col­our, and gen­er­ally improved it. I wrote a film script of the story in 2009.

When I first got togeth­er with my agent, I sent him the manu­script for Proper Job (along with Déjà Vu and Flashback). I knew that most of the people in the industry who had read the book enjoyed it, so I was more con­fid­ent in Proper Job find­ing a pub­lish­er than my two sci­ence fic­tion nov­els.

A year passed, dur­ing which Déjà Vu almost, but not quite, got picked up. I asked my agent how he was get­ting on with Proper Job. He told me he had nev­er received it. This puzzled me because I’d been care­ful in nam­ing it in the body of the email. Anyway, my heart sank. If I’m hon­est with myself, this is one of the reas­ons I thought my agent and I should part ways.

Over the years, whenev­er I came back to the nov­el, it sucked me in. It made me laugh. No mean feat when I’ve read some of the gags more than twenty times. Plus, the mar­ket­ing part of my brain — you know, the bit that nev­er kicks in until I’m months into a pro­ject and real­ise its poten­tial read­er­ship is, like, five — that mar­ket­ing part told me this is the kind of book that any­body might pick up. It won’t eli­cit pre­ju­dice in quite the same way as a sci­ence fic­tion work. It’s a boy-meets-girl com­edy set in Cornwall dur­ing the eclipse of 1999, that’s all.

Now, of course, I’m in a pos­i­tion to say the hell with it and pub­lish the thing myself on the Kindle.

On Monday of this week, I went to The Grand, a well-pre­served Victorian hotel over­look­ing the Leas in Folkestone. I spent every morn­ing, after­noon and even­ing work­ing on a final draft. Next week, I’ll send the thing off to my favour­ite freel­ance edit­or, Clare Christian, and get her take.

I’ve just real­ised that one of the major changes I’ve made in this latest drive is to intro­duce an ele­ment of faith — not reli­gion, exactly, but faith — in the main char­ac­ter. I won­der if this is my uncon­scious mind telling me to have faith in the story. If so, it needn’t have bothered. I’ve always had faith in it.