Write What You Like No.1: When Authors Go Mad
I’ve just put a title to Chapter 81. ‘Nuns At War’.
This is my seventh draft of The Epic. It didn’t start out as that.
I must be insane.
What happened was.
Back in oh, probably the nineties, I wrote a short story called ‘Tales of Britannica Castle’. It became a favourite of the more – let’s say ‘loyal’ – of my readers. They pressed me to write another, so I wrote a sequel. The pair of stories turned up in a collection. I forgot about them.
But I never quite forgot about them. It felt like what had started as an homage to ‘Gormenghast’ had turned into part of a much bigger subject, and I swore I would one day tackle it as a novel, hereafter known as the Dark Ages Epic.
Years passed. Eventually I took a run at it. Then another. I couldn’t stick the ending. I knew exactly what I wanted it to be, but here’s the thing.
My agent says I’m good at endings. Readers like my endings, but I have to haul everyone there. With a novel like ‘Hot Water’ (which no reader has yet guessed the ending of, hurrah) it’s OK because it’s the investment of a couple of hundred pages and lots of fun things happen along the way.
With the Dark Ages Epic, I would have to keep up reader interest for a more considerable distance. Not that it’s all about the ending – the chapters are meant to read like panels in an unfolding tapestry.
Cut to the present day. Seven drafts. Six hundred pages. It’s not even multi-generational or set in multiple locations. It’s set in one location with one group of people. I think it’s like looking down the wrong end of a telescope that only focusses at the end.
Beware the author in late flow.
Some of the best works appear close to the sunset of literary careers, and some of the maddest projects, although they tend not to get readers because it’s not what readers like. They want romance and a bit of suffering with not too many laughs. They’ll accept originality if it’s familiar.
I tried to think of other books that had taken my approach, and only ones I could come up with were all failures. I knew what I wanted to do; to write an epic that was neither pastiche nor fantasy. I showed the last draft to my New York agent and he was genuinely mystified. The guy knows what sells, and when to distance himself from the Hindenburg.
At this point I start to think that dropping dead right now would be a good career move. I’ve vowed that if I’m still around, I won’t start a new Bryant & May until the Dark Ages Epic is off my desk. So I’m giving it one last push before casting it out there and seeing if anyone is mad enough to publish it.
By that time I won’t care if they do or not. I’ll have written it, so it exists. Anything else will be a luxury. This is not how you’re supposed to write a novel. You’re meant to research the market, lock your demographic and create something that’s a slight twist on a million other books. Those of you who know me realise that this is complete anathema. I’ve always chosen the harder, less rewarding route because this way it doesn’t bore me.
If anyone’s still interested, I may run a sidebar on the development of this project.