The Emotional Marathon of Writing a Novel

I thought it might be a good idea in this post to talk a little about the writing process for Pharmakeia. It took a little longer than anticipated but then I was teaching full-time for most of that period. I also ended up meeting a version of that untoward antagonist, Jean-Baptiste, in my own life ( a case of life imitating art, perhcance!). However, metaphorically speaking,  I bravely stepped out of the car wreckage – that was the result of that particular encounter – (wasn’t it Churchill who said when you’re in hell you just keep going..) and stoically carried on to publication. But more about that car crash when the memoir eventually gets published..

In a previous post, I mentioned that the short story, ‘Bright Fire of Morning’ (published in The Mechanics Institute Review 8) was the springboard for my novel ‘Pharmakeia’. I seem to remember reading somewhere that amongst writers this is quite common – for a short story to propel one into writing a novel. For those of you who haven’t read ‘Bright Fire of Morning’ (which is a reference to Lucifer – that angel who was ‘hurled headlong from the ethereal sky’ Milton), the story deals with a sex hook-up with rather sinister, supernatural undertones. Suffice it to say, there is also a grandmother in BFoM, as there is in Pharmakeia, and, as in Pharmakeia, she also appears right at the end.


          I paused for a moment. His eyes were more than blood-shot this time. They’d begun to bleed and in the corner of the hallway an older man, a hologram of red and purple light, gave a knowing smile.

          ‘Get off me!’ I struck a blow to his head and down he went. Then summoning all my strength and with sheer bloody-mindedness, I pushed down hard on the handle that refused to budge, hell-bent on opening that door.

           And there she stood, bathed in white light, a picnic basket replacing her stick, looking right as rain.

I often reflect on both endings, not only because of the similarities, but also because my only remaining grandmother, died on Christmas Day a few years ago. Again, without meaning to sound trite, it feels like another case of life imitating art. It also makes me reflect on the difference between the male characters and the female characters I have portrayed in both ‘Bright Fire of Morning’ and ‘Pharmakeia’. One could argue that in both pieces, it is the female characters who are the most endearing.  In ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Christopher Booker, makes use of Jungian archetypes to outline what he believes are the universal and essential characters in any given narrative. I sometimes wonder whether Jean-Baptiste, Daimon Mount-Stuart and Christiano would fall into Booker’s category of the ‘Dark Masculine’. Of course they do! In the same way that Gran, Candy, and to a certain extent Caroline in ‘Homo Jihad’ could be considered to fall into the category of the ‘Light Female’. But, returning to the idea of the ‘Dark Masculine’ does their author,(moi!) and indeed a sizeable portion of the population, tend to fall for a bit of a bad boy? Perhaps…


But back to the matter in hand – the writing process. It took me roughly a year to write the first draft of ‘Pharmakeia’. Some people call this stage a ‘word vomit’. Indeed I think it was William Faulkner who said,’ Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.’   I agree. I think many artists, whether writers, actors or painters, often have a strong Inner Critic that tends to get in the way. And the way to manage your Inner Critic? Tell it ‘Not now. I’m working!’

However, for me, the ‘word vomit first draft’ thing is going perhaps a bit too far. I am still aware of the style I am writing in at this stage of the writing process but also focussed on getting to the end. I must say though, I wasn’t quite sure how things would end for Mahvand in Pharmakeia. And perhaps this ‘not knowing’ allowed for better storytelling. I often remember one piece of advice from a brilliant tutor on the Birkbeck MA in Creative Writing course I did a few years back: It’s better if you feel slightly out of your depth when writing fiction. I guess you could say not knowing how things might end is feeling a little out of your depth/comfort zone! And if truth be told, part of how things end in Pharmakeia, are down to certain insights I had whilst parking my bum on my meditation cushion each morning during that period! And – as Dorothy Parker says, ‘art is applying the ass to the seat.’

I do think though, if you are writing a novel, you need something that will continue to inspire for at least a few years. After all, it’s an emotional marathon! I was interested in exploring the theme of temptation whilst writing ‘Pharmakeia’ and there was more than enough mileage/emotional charge there to keep writing! I certainly never got bored whilst writing it – perhaps a little guilty but never bored. (I remember, when describing some of the blasphemous pieces of conceptual art in Pharmakeia, that I had crossed a line) But where would avant-garde theatre or literature be if artists were constantly afraid of crossing that line.

In terms of how to structure a novel, I know there are some writers out there who plan meticulously. They have an outline for every chapter and plot things out on graphs. This approach has never worked for me. I tend to have a basic idea and go for it. Although, I must say, that I do have a rough idea for the trajectory of my novels. And there are certain scenes which I call ‘set pieces’ which, by hook or by crook, will form the backbone of the novel. So, for example, in Pharmakeia, I knew from the outset that I wanted a big, fuck-off club scene. Hence the chapter, ‘Kaos’, with it’s cray-cray, carnivalesque atmosphere. I also knew that towards the end of the narrative there would be a scene detailing Mahvand’s opening night for his debut exhibition. The latter scene required a trip to White Cube gallery and a meeting with Sophie, Head of Archives, which was most informative! I think this approach to writing fiction is best summed up in E L Doctorow’s assertion that, ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.’ I think I prefer this more intuitive way of writing fiction for several reasons. To begin with, I tend to operate in a more intuitive way out in the Big Bad World. But I also like surprising myself – allowing the creative process to create the magic. Of course, I know it’s me at the end of the day – but this emphasis on ‘allowing’, I feel is key. This approach, for me, feels as if it prepares the ground for a state of ‘creative free-flow’. I’m focused yet relaxed and I certainly don’t notice time passing. Before you know it you’ve channelled all sorts..

After the first draft was completed I began the editing process. Whole chapters, which slowed the pace of the narrative, or just didn’t add much to the overall picture, were got rid of. This was the stage where I paid even more attention to the language and style I was writing in. The prose may come across as effortless but I can tell you I wrote and rewrote many passages several time. After the first major edit I sent my manuscript off to The Literary Consultancy in London. Sally O-J, Sarah Walters personal editor, wrote a full-length report, which when I first read it, took some time to digest! However, it was extrememly useful getting an outside eye. Thus began another major edit – this time focussing on the balance between the humour and the dark stuff! Sally got the whole hybrid genre thing but she was right in pointing out that I needed to readdress the balance of light and dark/ humour and supernatural shenanigans at key moments of the narrative. I also made efforts to make Mahvand’s character slightly darker earlier on. This last major edit took about 6 months. I then got the text proofread and responded to recommendations made concerning spelling, punctuation, grammar and any narrative inconsistencies. Then the text was formatted beautifully by Kristen Harrison at The Curved House publishing company. So yes – a lot of work! But worth it – although slightly worrying. I read somewhere recently that each novel becomes part and parcel of your entwined is one…

And if you haven’t purchased a copy – why not? They are available of course from Amazon bookshops such as Foyles and Gay’s The Word in London.

I finish with a few more quotes about writing:

‘A writer without interest or sympathy for the foibles of his fellow man is not conceivable as a writer.’ (Joseph Conrad)

‘Writing is its own reward.’ Henry Miller

‘The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.’  (Anon|)

‘Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the backyard and shot it.’ (Truman Capote)





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