Sunday, 13 December 2015

Cats and Dogs

I’ve recently fallen out of love.

But it’s OK – I’ve found a new one. Or rather, I have returned to an old flame, one I abandoned a couple of years ago despite its never having done me any harm. I had thought there was no chance of rekindling the relationship; thought I had ‘moved on’. But I was wrong, and it took me back, generously, without question or recrimination, letting us pick up where we left off.

No, I haven’t mixed up ABBA and True Confessions. I’m talking genre. And dogs and cats.

I’m a cat person. I’m also a dog person. Some people say you can’t be both.


Since 2010, when my first novel was published, I’ve mostly written novels. Mainly YA. I haven’t thought much about this – at least, I have given the novels themselves a great deal of thought, but I haven’t really questioned the fact that the novel is what I do, and YA is where I do it.

My first publications, starting in 2006, were short stories, mainly historical, all for adults. I loved writing them. The discipline needed to achieve that sense of a world in a grain of sand was excellent training. I also liked entering them for competitions, and sometimes winning. But for years I was so busy writing novels that I wasn’t getting any short story ideas. There wasn’t any space for them. 

Being so small, the short story needs space.

This time last year I’d a novel coming out (Still Falling), and, though I didn’t know it, was about to be commissioned to write another one. (I blogged about it here in May) I was editing another YA novel, Street Song, and, because I’ve always earned about two pence per book, I was doing as many school visits and workshops as I could to pay the bills.  I was busy, busy, busy. I certainly hadn’t time to stop and think.

And when Street Song went on submission, I sat down at once to write another contemporary YA novel. (I blogged about that here too, in July.  Maybe ABBA is a kind of True Confessions after all.) Even though I wasn’t 100% in love with it. I did it because that’s what I thought I did.

And then I stopped. About 10,000 words in. It wasn’t making me happy and I wasn’t sure how sane it was: to spend another year, at least, writing another novel on spec? When publishers weren’t fighting each other for the one I’d just spent eighteen months on?

But that’s not why I stopped. I stopped because, on 12th October, I visited Dunham Massey in Cheshire. Like many other big houses, it was used as Red Cross auxiliary hospital in the First World War, and the National Trust had done a fantastic job of reconstructing the ward. As soon as I walked in a short story came to me, all in a rush, as hadn’t happened for years. I sat in the tearoom and scribbled down the idea. I knew it would work. All I had to do was write it.

And then I had another idea. And another. 

It was as if short stories were saying to me, We haven’t had a look-in for years because your head was crowded with big fat novels. Gallumphing great Labradors taking up all your headspace.  We’re small cats, and we’re too proud to push in where there’s no room for us. But we’ve been waiting, and as you seem to have left the catflap open, well, we don’t mind if we do…

And in they came. And now that the catflap is open, in they keep coming, washing their faces on the hearthrug and making themselves comfortable. I’ve set myself a goal, because I need goals, I’m that kind of writer: six stories in six months. That gives me time to think, research, plan, write, leave aside and edit. It’s exactly what I do for novels except on a smaller scale.

I don’t know what I’ll do after the six months is up. Perhaps Street Song will have sold by then. Perhaps I’ll be asked to write a sequel to Name Upon Name. Perhaps one of the short stories will spark an idea for a novel. (Actually, that might already have happened…) Or perhaps the short story cats will keep sidling through the cat flap. There’s always a welcome if they do.


Joan Lennon said...

Love the short story cat image - happy writing!

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thanks, Joan! I didn't set out to make it about cats and dogs -- the image snuck in, just like the short story ideas did. I think that's one of the things I love best about them.