Friday, 21 June 2013

Halcyon Days - by Imogen Robertson

I am today in an exceptionally good mood, not in itself a revelation worthy of a blog post perhaps, but the reason I’m in such fine form is bound up with being a writer so I’m going to share it anyway. On Tuesday evening I pressed ‘send’ and off went my latest novel to my agent and editor. It’s another in the Westerman and Crowther series, set in 1785 and provisionally titled ‘Theft of Life’.

Now I think it’s right to say that we writers are a paranoid, self-doubting bunch which means sending baby out into the world can be quite a traumatic thing, so why am I just lolling about grinning to myself? To explain, and though I’m sure most of you know this already, here’s a quick rundown of how writing a book goes. 

1. Initial ideas and the research. 
This bit is fun. You have a rough idea of the prefect novel in your head, are fascinated about the bits you already know and excited about finding out more. There is at least one scene you can vaguely see in your mind’s eye, and you know when you write it, it’s going to be the best thing ever committed to paper. You order a lot of really interesting books. 

2. Refining ideas, trying to fit them together and getting deep into the research. 
A bit less fun. It becomes clear you’ll never know enough to write the book properly. Some of your ideas make no sense, some are terrible and while there are some which you think could be brilliant, they seem to shimmer and flick in and out of existence just as you are trying to get them down on paper. The world becomes a mess of notes, broken spines, long hours in the library, index cards with ‘thing happens in a place’ written on them or just doodles of question marks getting larger and larger. Occasionally there are flashes of delight as something fascinating turns up in the research or when, while staring blankly out of the window, you suddenly realise something fundamental about one of your characters which changes everything. 
Neither of these things happen as often as you would like.

3. Time to start writing. 
It turns out you are a rubbish writer with the typing skills of a rabbit and your prose is as exciting as the instructions for changing the filter on a washing machine. Inevitably at this point some one asks you to go to a library and talk about how clever you are. You do so, meet some charming people and try and ignore the chorus of demons laughing at you from the corners of the room. 

4. Still writing. 
There are some bits which are not entirely bad. Unfortunately there aren’t very many of them and they don’t fit together. 

5. Still writing. 
You have twenty emails to reply to, you don’t answer the phone anymore and your loved ones have started asking a little plaintively when you might be done. You start leaving notes around the place saying things like ‘wash’, and ‘remember to leave the house.’ If your parents ring and ask how the novel is going you actually growl. 

6. Still writing, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel.  
Some of the plot makes sense. There are scenes written which make you a touch tearful and others where you feel rather excited. You make your partner read the sad bit and punch the air when a single tear glides down his cheek. 
You now completely change your mind about the ending. The light recedes. 

7. End days. 
You go through the manuscript for the twentieth time, finding the bits where you changed character names because for some reason everyone in the book has the same initials, or you wrote x because you were mid-flow and couldn’t stop to look up a street name. Swear a lot at your initial research notes. Find a bunch of other notes you made about plot and characters early on and realise though you know the hand writing is yours you recognise nothing in them.

8. Enough already.
You write a short self-abasing email to agent and editor apologising for being late, attach the document and press SEND. Go out and get drunk immediately. Ideally with other writers who will understand why you are slightly hysterical with relief and will buy you drinks.

That’s me. I’ve slept, cleaned the desk and got past the hangover, but my agent and editor still haven’t had time to read the MS yet, so I’ve not got to the ‘they hate it and don’t want to tell me’ stage. Life is good. My husband is taking me away for the weekend to try and remember why he married me in the first place.

Now, you might note that there’s still another big hurdle to come. In a couple of weeks time I’ll get my editor’s notes. Some of these might be quite major issues that will involve a fair bit of rewriting, others will be polite reminders of where I forgot to replace an ‘x’ after all, so why am I so happy when I know all that work is in the offing? Because it means I can still make the book better. Nothing is set in stone. Not even all the clichés I’ll inevitably find when I reread. I can come back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and make it (theoretically) the book I want it to be, and do so with the notes of an expert reader and friend by my side. Once I’ve done the edits and sent it back, the opportunity to substantially improve the book will be gone. It will have to go out into the world and be judged. There will be Amazon reviews. That is just scary, but right now I can sit back and bask. I can also start thinking about what book I might write next, so halcyon days indeed. 
By the way, my normal lag time between sending off a manuscript and talking excitedly about a new idea is an hour and a half. Slightly less if someone has already poured me a drink.

Imogen Robertson has written five, no six, SIX novels. The latest one to be published is The Paris Winter and is set during the Belle Époque.


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Very entertaining - and oh so familiar! I don't get the chance to be as dotty as I'd like to be with two dependent teens in the house constantly popping their heads into my room saying "Is there food?" (Yes, they're boys.) But when I start throwing things at them, they know to back off and tiptoe to the kitchen.

Jane Borodale said...

Congratulations! This made me laugh out loud. Enjoy the lovely lull, lie in the sun and eat Maltesers galore between beverages...

Joan Lennon said...

Congratulations on getting to Stage 8 and having Stage 1 already shimmering on the horizon!

Penny Dolan said...

Recognise 3, 4 & 5 only too well, Imogen! Congratulations on your happy day - well deserved - and on that will-be-wonderful sixth book!

Sue Purkiss said...

Congratulations - and I love that book cover!

K. Lyn Wurth said...

Thanks for your humorous take on the process...I love it.

Imogen said...

Thank you all! Just back from Southwold and am torn between writing up all the new ideas that have come bubbling up, and wanting never to go through this whole 'writing a novel' nonsense again. Will catch up on the History Girls posts instead.