Hello (probably imaginary) readers and spambots, I’m alive!
Abandoned blogs can look a little spooky, like houses left to go to ruin, don’t you think? I always wonder what terrible events have taken place to cause them to get into such states. Did the owners die? Did they go to prison? Don’t worry, there’s no sinister story behind the abandonment of this blog, I’ve simply been living in the Sixties.
Not literally of course and I haven’t gone doolally, I’ve been writing my third (attempt at a) novel, about a modern woman who time travels to 1964. With that and my paid work commitments too, there’s simply been no time for blogging. Or for keeping the house clean and all sorts of things which I avoid doing with the handy excuse, “I’m writing! I can’t stop now!”
Falling in love with a new form of writing
And that’s what I wanted to write about in this post, secure in the notion that I’m probably talking to myself, but you’ve popped by, maybe you’ll be interested in a first-hand account of what it feels like to fall in love with writing fiction? Like all the best love stories, it has been a bumpy road. I’ve gone from heart-pumping, appetite-suppressing sheer obsession, through to humiliation and pain that I’ve been making an utterly bloody fool of myself and now – I’m settling happily into comfortable habits with my beloved.
Here’s the story behind the writing of my latest book. The title might change (it is largely complete, but still a sprawling work in progress) at the moment it is called something like “Journeys Across The Universe”. But first –
Days of yore: failed attempts
Back in those heady days when I was blogging about Samantha Brick and recapping Doctor Who Series 7, I had recently jumped head-first into fiction writing. When I embarked excitedly on Novel #1, I likened it to going from riding a bike (my commercial copywriting experience being mostly producing c300 word snatches of content) to driving a Ferrari. Well, I was terribly naive back then (and I am still no expert) as I look back at my first book and see it more as a Fiat 500. Short, cute – only 80,000 words. I slaved over what seemed like an epic word count…and reading my magnum opus back now, it seems rather pathetic, even if there are some nice bits and pieces in it.
My approach to Novel #1 was incredibly professional and highly organised. I even had a spreadsheet, which I updated to chart my progress as I followed my plan. Not that the plan was followed so rigidly in the end. Over time, I discovered how fictional worlds can come alive by re-working them. Some aspects of the narrative I’d not even considered at the start became key as I pummelled and kneaded the story into its final shape.
And I felt as though I had learnt so much about writing by this point. Un-published, but experienced, with a professional approach. Ha!
Taking up crime
Then I embarked on Novel #2. As I had decided to enter the world of Crime, it was even more essential to plan ahead so I could get absolutely straight in my head who had dunnit and why.
I produced about 4 chapters and could tell this was going to be a longer manuscript than the first one. More of a difficulty was that, even though I liked the story I had in mind, I hadn’t fallen in love with it. It felt like a duty, not a pleasure and I kept putting it to one side, while waiting for the Muse to drop by and give me a shove.
By this time I had discovered a few things about my writing style.
- I will never be a clever wordsmith, so my focus has be on conveying the emotion
- I find writing in the first person most natural. After initially writing as an omniscient third person narrator, because I thought that was more ‘novelly’
- I’m not too bad at dialogue, but formatting it correctly is always a struggle
- I tend to write about women who are slightly mad…
Hey, I can time travel!
Earlier this year I had a gap between work assignments. Actually, I had a sizeable job coming up, so it was a terrible time for the Muse to suddenly descend on me. I was lying in bed, daydreaming. Having been “resting” I’d been lucky enough to have had a complete skive the day before. Now, I suppose I had better explain; two of my main hobbies are the Beatles and Doctor Who. Yes, call me a dull nerd, I can take it. On my skive day I’d watched two Beatles films (Help! and A Hard Day’s Night), plus a documentary about them going to America for the first time. Actually, my Beatles love had been waning a little at that point and overdosing on them that day reignited my interest in them. As I daydreamed I remembered the reply I’d posted some months before to a thread on a popular Doctor Who forum, posing the question,
“What would you do if you had a Tardis and could travel anywhere in time and space?”
My flip reply had been.
“Go to the set of A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, shove Pattie Boyd in a cupboard and meet George Harrison instead of her”.
This was a sophisticated starting point for my novel, I’m sure you will all agree. Now, I must point out that my heroine does not do this! Nearly…
But that morning, head swimming with Beatlemania, I really started to ponder what it would be like to be transported to the Sixties, how would it feel to meet these famous men, knowing about their history and destinies. Would I interfere, would I snatch cigarettes out of George’s hands? Warn John Lennon not to move to New York? Insist on nannying Brian Epstein on the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1967?
What if I interfered accidentally? Could I really watch them making the film, Help!, fresh in my mind with its hideous Indian stereotypes, without comment? Would I, a 21st Century feminist, really want to get to know these men who I admire from afar, but who have been described by the women who loved them as “un-reconstructed chauvinists” at this time?
Lots of questions I didn’t have the answers to. Light bulb moment – let’s go there and see what happens.
Look, I’ve time travelled to 1964
There was no spreadsheet for Novel #3, just a comically ignored “planning” document. I could see this life so clearly and really couldn’t wait to write it. In fact, I know I started the first draft even before my first cup of tea had cooled enough to drink and that’s most unusual for a slow starter like me.
This approach was reckless, I had little idea where I was going, except to 1964. Just looking at my notes from the first day, I can see how far I have veered from the original idea, although thematically it’s still the same story. I was already picking up on certain events as key to the plot – namely India and the Maharishi and the break-up of the band as the Sixties become the Seventies. And right from Day 1, my mind was on the casual sexism of the times – unsurprisingly when I was writing with all the news about the celebrity abusers being everywhere.
The highest of legal highs
A reckless approach yes, but simply the most thrilling writing experience ever. I wrote about 100,000 words in only two weeks, before reluctantly putting it to one side when I turned to a paid assignment.
Only about a quarter of that compulsively written first draft remains in the current version, but still it was worth it – and anyway, it was almost beyond my control. A valve had been released when I finally followed the classic writer’s advice to “write what you know“.
Doctor Who had given me enough grounding on the nature and dangers of time travel. The hefty folder on my Kindle filled with Beatles biographies had given me insights into the lives they led – and the world of the Sixties. Plus, it’s my natural environment, I’ve always been into “old stuff”, before people talked about retro fashions and all that. I’ve got some of my mother’s books and records from the early Sixties and used to pore over them as if they were contemporary items. I’ve watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Billy Liar so many times…it was easy to plonk myself into the decade before I was born. Yes, you can read some hubris into this, it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
If you peek, you can see my Lucy just off to the left…
Lucy’s adventures in the Sixties: Draft #1
In this thrilling fortnight when the words poured out of me I basically wrote a rather pretentious Beatles fanfic. My heroine, Lucy (yes, it’s obvious, but it’s a nice name and does get worked into the plot) didn’t actually shove Pattie Boyd into a cupboard, but she might as well have done, as she experienced Beatlemania at first hand and screwed history up along the way. And then it pretty quickly got very deep and heavy man as Lucy and I grappled with our consciences, regretting our evil deeds and sought the help of the Maharishi to fix it all for us.
From Day 1 when I had decided to write a story about a woman who time travelled to meet the Beatles, I felt guilty. So guilty, because it was also clear from Day 1, that Lucy would have to change history. Otherwise you might as well be reading a Beatles biography with annoying commentary by an angsty observer from the future butting in. Putting aside the guilt I was feeling about messing around with the lives of real people, I had so much trepidation about writing about them at all. Always listen to your instincts, I’ve learnt, too late.
But this trepidation was a Good Thing, because I dillied and dallied about getting Lucy to meet her heroes which meant I started to write a proper book. Picking a placeholder place and date (the Kings Road, February 7th 1964 – the day the Beatles landed at JFK), I began to build a life for Lucy in the Sixties, independent of the Fab Four. Putting off writing about her fateful casting in the up-coming film, I spent time giving her a home (digs with a nasty landlady), a job (boring clerks role for a loathsome lothario), then a new home and glamorous new career as a model. It’s these elements which have remained as I’ve drafted and re-drafted.
Returning to Draft 1 after a break, I was horrified and sickened by what I’d done. Lucy had been “dating” poor, innocent George, stalking him effectively. Even though there was strictly no hanky panky this was a Very Bad Thing to do – and there’s no way this could ever get published. And while I was quite proud of the emotional drive of the story as she desperately tried to fix history with the help of the Maharishi, I was utterly depressed at all that wasted effort. The Muse was no help at this time, she had buggered off elsewhere, so Novel #3 was abandoned for a while, along with my dreams of being a novelist.
The love affair was over
But oh, I yearned for this lost love! Just as we pick over the pieces of broken relationships in our minds, I couldn’t let it go. What if I’d been more sensible, what if I’d taken a different approach? Light bulb. The 100,000 words saved on a file marked “old stuff”, I started again. And this turned out to be another Good Thing.
This time (powered by the memories of the timeline the first Lucy had screwed up) I started a very different type of story. This Lucy wasn’t a fan of the Beatles at all. She certainly wasn’t going to get her claws into George – in fact, yes, let’s make her a lesbian. Cool, sorted. Except not, the Beatles kept on dominating the story. This Lucy wormed her way into their lives again, causing the same trouble but in different ways, a great friend to them. Less offensive to the real history (and Pattie was no longer in a cupboard), but still – oh my god, Jenny – get a grip.
Oi, Jenny and Lucy, sod off! Leave us alone!
I keep trying not to write about the Beatles
So I tried again…already there were a number of themes and events which were pretty much “fixed points in time” for me and felt very important. Using these hooks and always with the idea that I just had to keep away from the bloody Beatles, I tried different stories about the girl who landed in 1964 at the height of Beatlemania. The secondary characters I’d developed in order to delay writing about the Beatles became more important. The lecherous Larry Pomfrey, the girls Lucy worked with, Carrie, the artist who she has a fling with. I began to write versions of Lucy’s story with them as the stars – and still she managed to mess up the decade’s cultural history, specifically Beatle history, because (a) she was into the Beatles in all her lives, even when she was initially lukewarm about them (b) I’m obviously into the Beatles (c) this was the Sixties and they were everywhere.
Never mind, this was another Good Thing and it really became The Thing – that Lucy was destined to be bounced around the Sixties until she found her way back home. And how she did that (eventually – I was slow to work this out) became the plot driver, whole bloody point.
Cut, paste, move, delete
I’ve got lots of different versions of the book from this time. I tried to-ing and fro-ing between the different realities, neatening up mirror events as I went. She managed to needily hang around George Harrison for far too long, before that part of her life was finally binned off. I’d been hanging onto that, not because of Lucy being my author avatar, but because some of my favourite chapters were from this narrative – such as the time she had a really appallingly horrific LSD trip (time travelling under the influence of the dreaded Lysergic) – so bad that the Beatles never touched the stuff again. Oh and some lovely comic dialogue which sounded just like the adorable mop tops we all know. Ah…maybe it will get used in a special edition one day.
After endless snipping and sorting, I was just going round in circles, always too close to Beatlemania, getting no closer to addressing the really important issues in the book – who is Lucy and why is she still stuck in this decade, other than I enjoy writing about it?
There was another light bulb moment when it occurred to me that I’d done little with the life of the girl my Lucy had Quantum Leapt into. Who was this girl? Another flurry of manic typing, another story within the story and at that point I really thought I’d tied everything up. I had an ending which made me cry, it was about Lucy – not the Beatles and I felt pretty good about it all.
Another long break to do paid work and another disappointed return to the book – at this point it was about 140,000 words long (plus the deleted chapters from the marriage to George which I’d never been able to re-work).
Finding our way home from the Sixties
I hacked at it savagely, creating a whole new structure and narrative for Lucy along the way. And (finally) I worked out what Lucy needed to work out in order to find her way home, she needed a little help from her friends (honestly, I don’t do that many puns in the book).
That’s where I’m at now. It’s not about the Beatles anymore, although they are still in it – depicted with great affection, as you would imagine with me being a fan, but much more sparingly and only in alt-realities.
I’ve enjoyed reading it back, but I realise I’m a terrible judge – not least because I enjoy the newest sections most – because they’re fresher, not necessarily better. Although I hope they’re better. Some of it is funny, I hope. It’s quite moving too with a spiritual core, I cried yesterday when I got to the end. And I do feel as though I’ve been living in the Sixties. I even wrote some poetry for it. Pure doggerel, written by a character who isn’t much of a poet. Very convenient, as that is my limit.
Now the great challenge is going back to riding a bike again as I work on Synopses for Agents with their miniscule word limits . This is so hard after having the space to write (gulp) the 170,000+ words which exist in the current draft. I’m doing a terrible job of summarising why Lucy’s stories should be seen by the wider world.
I do so want to get it published. I want an Editor to say, trim this bit, leave that bit, what did you mean with this bit? Instead of my endless second guessing.
It’s nice story, it’s about finding yourself, living the dream in your real life, not just in dreams of travelling to more exciting places…so if any publishers are reading, please help my dream come true and publish Lucy’s story.