Monday, 4 June 2012

Notes: Dream Books

Nearly a month since my last Starling City update. Anyone involved in academia will understand why: it's been the marking season, when all our undergraduates produce end-of-year work at the same time, and lecturers can't think of anything else. I finished my marking yesterday. Ahead is the season of meetings, when all the admin connected with that marking has to be got through, but, while that's not the most exciting thing in the world, it doesn't take over your brain in quite the same way. Already I'm thinking of the summer, when I hope to spend quite a lot of time in the National Library of Wales, working on a critical book. Maybe I'll write some poetry, too.

The less time I have to write, the more I fantasize about writing. And it tends to be dream books, rather than projects that are actually under way. In the last few days, I have dreamed up two novels, a collection of poems and a collection of linked short stories. Maybe one or more of them will actually be written some day. Most of the books I have written started off as daydreams - I remember, for example, going over Mandeville in my head for years before I actually sat down to write it. I kept repeating to myself the following unpromising opening:
My name is Sir John Mandeville.
The world is a T in an O.
(The reference being to the shape of the world as depicted in medieval maps.) I knew this sounded terrible, and that the implied form of a ballad would be wrong for the book, but it continued to nag at me anyway. It was a sort of writer's block in itself, an unshakable pattern in my head that prevented me from seeing the possibility of any other form or opening for the book. In the same way, some of the other dream books I carry round with me have fixed patterns or preconceptions associated with them that I can't shake and that are the main reason that I can't actually write them. Sometimes a dream book becomes a project at the moment I rid myself of one of those preconceptions.

Starling City, on the other hand, didn't really have one of those dream existences; I started it because I had a bit of time to fill before teaching started and my other projects were either finished (a book of poems) or hadn't worked out (a novel), and it seemed a practical thing to try. Unlike most of my other projects, successful or otherwise, it didn't start from a Big Idea. It isn't the kind of book you can describe to someone who hasn't read it and still sound impressive: 'Well, it's set in a fictional version of Brighton in the early 80s, and I think his friend dies.' The only Big Idea was doing it in blog form. The fact that it sounds so ordinary makes it hard for me to continue to believe in it - it doesn't sound like something that will win the Booker or allow me to retire on the proceeds, the kind of fantasy outcomes that have sustained my other writing over the years. But then maybe I've been too much in thrall to the Big Idea and the fantasy outcome. Perhaps I should just write and hope that the writing comes through on its own. The blog form, by getting rid of the normal obstacles that prevent writers getting through to their readers, makes it seem less necessary to shout and wave your arms.

At one point during the marking, I did start a new posting. I was trying to get Rob and Daniel to a party, largely so I could introduce some other characters, because it has been bothering me that the novel so far is mostly two people talking to each other. They got as far as the Adorno Arms on campus, which proved to be deserted. And then I couldn't think how to get them any further, nor did I want to continue the conversation. Even if I could get them to a party, what would happen? I had no idea, and in my stressed state I knew there wasn't much point racking my brains. Now, however, my mind is clearer, and the answer seems obvious. I've remembered the small episode from my life which was the main reason I wanted to write about Rob in the first place. I've been holding it back, as I tend to, waiting for the right moment to introduce it, and even managed to forget all about it for a while. Tomorrow I'll get back to the novel (minus the non-event of the Adorno Arms, I think) and get things moving at last. This novel needs some love interest.


  1. I'm enjoying the novel - good characterizations and compelling conversations - and love reading about your writing process!

    Many thanks!

  2. Thanks, Kate. It's proving difficult to get back into writing mode after my layoff. Maybe I'll get some done today.

  3. Funny, I was just thinking, having read the last part, that this needs a love interest. Get back to it! I have more time to read it now, so I will start bullying you, and you know I mean that!

  4. Need to clear some space in my brain. I usually find that after a period when I've been too busy to write, I can't get back to it as soon as I planned. Now I'm back at work with another extra busy week ahead, so I won't resume this week. But this is the last busy week before the summer break, so I should be able to think again soon.