Tuesday 25 June 2019

Finding the horse - by Chris Vick

I was inspired to write this blog by Tracy Darnton’s excellent ABBA blog on the mid point crisis, (or, to use her word: ‘horror.’) It resonated and reassured in a; ‘not just me then?’ kind of way.

I’m going to talk about a similar but different kind of crisis; the one you get when you’ve finished a book, when you’ve done the edits and you’re free of those characters, that setting, that story, that has lived in your head and which your head has lived in, for months, possibly years.

Now you are free to write something new, and it can be whatever you want. Wonderful, right?  All those ‘other’ ideas that have been knocking at the door, those characters who demand to be listened to, that image you can’t stop seeing. It’s their turn to dance and sing. Even better, you get to be Simon Cowell /Darcy Bussell/ Caesar; deciding which ideas get through the to the next round, which ones get killed off and which live. A filtering of possibilities, till you get to the ‘one,’ the New Book I’m Going to Write. Ta-dah!

Only it’s a strange kind of freedom, one that can lead to paralysis, not from a dearth of ideas but from too many.  And even if you take one up, are you sure it’s the right one? How many different directions can it go in? Which characters might be important?  What, really, is the damn book even about?

I wrote my first book, Kook, on the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People, nurtured and supported, first by wonderful mentors and fellow writers, then an agent and then a publisher. It did okay, better in other countries than this one.  So the subject of the second was an easy decision: more of the same. Not a sequel, but same setting, similar themes, same voice.  It was expected of me and it’s what I delivered.

            In hindsight, I’m not at all sure that was the right thing to do. To be frank, there were times I had to drag myself to the desk, to make sure I produced words; to be sure I met the deadline. And that was a new and uncomfortable situation for me to be in.

Like Kook, Storms, was published in a few countries, but it didn’t do so well.
So when I got to write my next, (Girl.Boy.Sea, published 8th August), I really, really had to go back to the drawing board. I had no contract for it. I didn’t want to write in the same vein. The market was changing its tastes daily, and in any case, it’s a fool who chases the market, right?

So I discussed the matter with my agent over various emails and phone calls. She didn’t push me in any one direction, but mysteriously advised: ‘I think the mythic is where your writing is headed.’ We talked through various ideas and options, and eventually I said; ‘Well, I have an idea I really like, but here’s the thing… it’s not MG or YA, it’s not fantasy but it does have magic in it, it’s not magic realism. It’s contemporary but it contains tales from 1001, Arabian Nights, It’s kind of… odd.’
            ‘But you want to write it?’
            ‘Yes. It’s the least-likely in all my ideas, but it’s the one I like the most.’
‘Then do it.’
So I tried it out; I had a go. And (I really should have known this in advance), found out what sort of book it was only by writing it; by getting lost in it and seeing what happened. And I loved writing it, and I wrote the story I wanted, even though I believed it had little chance of publication, even though it didn’t ‘fit’ any easy definition, genre or market niche. 

Not for the first time I was inspired by my fellow writers, especially those from the MA, who simply followed their passions and heart. Tracey, who wrote a thriller, with a focus on memory and the workings of mind and brain, Mel Darbon who wrote a love story about characters with Down’s Syndrome, Lucy Van Smit, who wrote a dark Nordic thriller about obsessive love. Did these books sell themselves on these premises?  As the old adage goes, a book needs to be good and original.  And the gate-keepers see plenty of manuscripts that are good but not original, or original but not every good.  But the books these writers wrote are both. I suspect because the writers followed their true passions, regardless of trend or fashion.

So that’s what I did, I followed my heart and in the process of getting lost, found the book. Cheesy, but true.

Rainer Maria Rilke said, in Letters to a Young Poet,  over a century ago; ‘Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody…There is only one way. Go into yourself.’ The first half of that isn’t quite true in my view.  I need the help of editors, writing groups and agents. But the central point is true.

But what’s this got to do with horses?

I’ll finish with a tale told, to me and others, by writer and tutor Steve Voake on the MA. I think it illustrates how we find the true subject and heart of our books in second and third drafts. It echoes, in a way, Tracey’s point about simply putting one word in front of another.  We find out by doing, not prevaricating.

There’s an artist making a statue out of clay. The artist spends quite some time scraping and shaping, adding more here, taking some away there, then adding more bits till he’s left with a mountainous lump of lumps, ten foot high and just as wide. He stands back and looks at it a long time. 
'What is it?’  his assistant asks.
'It's not what it is, it's what it's going be. Everything I did so far was about working that out.'
'And what will it be?' says the assistant. 
'A horse.'
'But it doesn't look like a horse, how will you make it look like a horse?'
'That’s simple now. I just take away everything that isn't the horse.'

 Chris Vick is the author of Kook and Storms (HarperCollins) and Girl.Boy.Sea published in hardback by Zephyr/Head of Zeus on 8th August.



Penny Dolan said...

Chris, how I recognise the difficulties of that "next book" choice!

Great to see you here on ABBA, and look forward to your next post - which can, of course, be about a different kind of horse. Thanks for that anecdote.

Susan Price said...

Chris, sounds like you've got a good agent!
In nearly fifty years of writing I've learned that, as soon as writing becomes a huge struggle, where you have to force yourself to put down the next word -- that's a sign that something is badly wrong. I've learned to stop and go and do something as different from writing as I can manage -- a walk, the gym, the cinema, a few days away, gardening -- doesn't matter what so long as you stop thinking about 'The Book.' Sooner than you'd think the knowledge of what's wrong and what you should do jumps into your head.

Chris Vick said...

I know, Susan, right? - not-thinking about the problem becomes the way to think about the problem. A zen approach...or something.

Penny, glad it resonates :)

Unknown said...

Lovely piece Chris, I've been reading Rilke's letter to a young poet too! V interesting about the struggle to write Storms and super happy you loved writing Girl, Boy, Sea and taking it way with me tomorrow to graduation in Brighton x Lucy van Smit

Anne Booth said...

Good luck with this next book - it does sound beguiling. I will look out for your first two too.