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How and why I wrote my first novel

A hotel novel?

I used my experience of growing up in self-catering holiday flatlets to write my first novel, The Water’s Edgewhich was set in a ramshackle hotel. The Water’s Edge was a real hotel near the East Cliff in Boscombe, Bournemouth. I never went into the hotel; instead I watched while Bournemouth Council slowly knocked it down over two years, and imagined what it would have been like inside. You can see some pictures of the actual hotel on Flickr.

The book is loosely based on my life as a child in the 1980s and the hotels I knew, when almost all my friends lived in hotels, although only one event in the book actually happened as I’ve recounted it. I did a lot of research into Bournemouth in the 1940s for the book, as some of the story is told as flashbacks into the lives of Maggie and Grace, who ran the hotel during the second world war.

Writing across the page

Because a couple of people have asked, here’s the story of how I came to write The Water’s Edge. It all started when I was an undergraduate. At first I thought I was only a poet, but then this happened: aged 19, I was down by the lake at the University of East Anglia, UEA in Norwich, where I was studying Drama. I was in my first year. It was dark and rainy and I started writing across the page because I couldn’t see what I was doing. Yes, it sounds strange looking back, but I had forgotten to add the ‘poetic’ line breaks. When I got back to my room, I figured I had been writing prose.

A mock exam

The Water’s Edge started out as a monologue I wrote for a mock exam at UEA when I was a second-year undergraduate. One of the prompts on the exam paper was ‘Returning’ and I had no idea what to write. I sat on a swing on Dereham Road in Norwich, near where I lived, and suddenly imagined Persephone spiralling up out of the ground like a goddess-shaped drill. It wasn’t until after the novel was published that I discovered that Persephone and Demeter’s special day was on my birthday, at the same time as the autumn equinox.

In the exam, I played Persephone just back from Hades at her Welcome Home party. I had the words inside a copy of Just Seventeen magazine. It was 1993. John Major had been in power for a year, we were mid-recession, I didn’t even have an email address, let alone an internet connection, no money, a job washing up in the Co-op café in Norwich, I had no idea how I would get a job when I graduated or what I would do.

Freewriting and disorganisation

In the midst of all this, I sat on the floor of my room on Dereham road, bits of paper scattered around me, and decided to turn my play into a modern version of the Persephone story – again I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I decided to do it anyway, knowing it was imperfect, and missing elements of I didn’t know what. I wrote loads, often by hand, in scruffy handwriting only I could understand. Poetic descriptions of Demeter dancing, for instance, the smell of autumn, bonfires, that kind of thing. I now know this as ‘freewriting’ but didn’t at the time – it felt compulsive.

Now I also know that this was perfect training, that I was putting in the practice and ‘turning up’, inexpertly, imperfectly, chaotically, utterly lacking in confidence one minute and trying to create a new lesbian feminist language the next. The training I was doing took time, but it was also the best kind of training I could have done. It has led to a confidence in drafting: getting words down on the page so I can craft them later. The younger me didn’t know it, but I was learning about habit.

Two-hours a week on my old beige Mac

To cut a long story short, next I became a Drama teacher. Picture me, back in the mid-90s, in our rented flat in Woolwich, on an old beige Apple Mac with two hours off teaching on a Friday afternoon. I found sequencing extremely difficult, almost impossible, because I’m not neuro-typically inclined – I didn’t even know what sequencing was back then.

I had no confidence in my writing or even what it meant to be published, but for some reason I was obsessed with doing it. I loved it. Everything I wrote was in this grand project called ‘The Novel’. Of course, it wasn’t – I didn’t even start setting the story in a Hotel until a couple of years before I finished it, which is hard to believe when you read it.

Reading Your Best Year Yet

Fast forward to 1999 and I needed a major hip operation. It wasn’t fun, but the recovery period of three months did give me some time to think. We had bought our own flat in South Tottenham and had created an office in the box room. I got hold of a copy of Jinny Ditzler’s Your Best Year Yet,  worked through all the exercises on goal-setting and made it my top goal to get my book ‘Returning’ published.

I knew I needed to give my novel structure, I just didn’t know how. I still didn’t know how my dyslexia and other neurodivergence was affecting me. I figured that to discover how to structure my novel, I would apply for the MA in Creative Writing at my alma mater, UEA, after all, i) it was famous, ii) it was where I started the thing, and iii) I knew my way around.

Doing the MA certainly did give me a structure. The best kind of structure it gave me was structured writing time. It turned out that writing a novel is about putting in the time regularly. The MA taught me almost nothing about storytelling, the narrative arc, classic narrative structures and how to use them. I figured that out slowly and learnt much more about it when I began teaching Creative Writing myself.

Getting Published

While I was at UEA, I won the Curtis Brown bursary, without which I wouldn’t have been able to carry on with my studies – it paid for a laptop and my fees. It also meant that Curtis Brown saw my manuscript and eventually sold my first two novels for me.

The Water’s Edge was published in 2003, before I got to grips narrative sequencing or the narrative arc. I was suspicious of any ‘formula’ that showed you how to do it. At the time, I wanted to write like Jeannette Winterson (particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Sexing the Cherry, or her short story ‘The Poetics of Sex’, part of which I read out during my first MA class). In the end the following gave the book a structure:

  • The Persephone myth (and the seasons).
  • Setting the book in a hotel (again based on the seasons).
  • The characters’ family trees, which I planned in detail.
  • My agent told me to ‘turn it into a love story’ which was also a kind of structure. After she said that I added about 30,000 words.

But I was still looking for the elusive definition of ‘story’ – actually, I needed to understand sequencing. I thought I had a ‘problem’ with story. I didn’t. I was still learning. It’s just I took the roundabout route.

Taking the roundabout route

Taking the roundabout route has its advantages. It’s more personal for a start. When you teach yourself something, either because you deliberately set out to learn a skill, or because you got into a habit – I was doing both of these – then it’s more hard won. I internalised what I was learning. It meant I learnt to teach these skills and techniques to other writers, and it meant I eventually worked out what narrative structure and storytelling meant to me, at a deep level.

When you’re stuck on something – like I was with narrative structure and story – it’s often better to stand on your head and look at the whole thing in a different way. It turns out that the answer, for me, came from asking myself questions and from teaching narrative structure.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

Oct 2017

P.S. Here’s what happened next, and how I wrote my second novel.

 

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