Hmm 13, huh?
I gather Taylor Swift is thrilled. It’s her lucky number, apparently. She loved it when Times Square was full of 13s on New Year’s Eve. (Do we believe the whole her and Harry thing, by the way? I want to, but if this is what Taylor looks like when she’s madly in love, what does she look like when she’s at a business meeting? Still waiting to be convinced.)
Anyway, this is not about Tay-Ry, or Har-Lor, or whatever they are these days. This is about the new year – 2013 – which I approached with trepidation after what was not my most favourite year of all time (the rain, the recession, friends’ sad stories, my own troubles writing the new book, the rain …). Would things get worse? Would 13 live up to its reputation? But so far, a whole week in (nearly), this year is turning out to be Good.
First of all, the fireworks on the Thames. They were epic. Awesome. A wonderful reminder of the Olympics (2012 wasn’t all bad), and a great start. Then the first edit of the troublesome book. The idea for ‘You Don’t Know Me’ came to me out of the blue in January last year. What if a group of girls were on a reality TV show and they were asked to drop one of them for … reasons they didn’t fully understand. What if they actually did it? What if there was a huge public backlash, with the internet turning on them, the way the internet does these days? What would happen then?
I thought it would be easy to write. I pitched it to the people at Chicken House and they loved it. I was struggling with the idea I was supposed to be working on for them, so I switched to this. Reader, it took 8 months to get a first draft, and 8 months is a long time, when you expected it to be 3. Then the second draft. Still really, really hard. The characters and situations fought me all the way. Then, finally, I got it to the stage where it was almost ready to be sent to my editor Imogen, but not quite. I sent it anyway. Otherwise, it was never going to get finished, and deadlines were looming.
That was in December, less than a month ago. 2012 was tough. Aware of the tight deadlines, Imogen got to work on it straight away, sending it back to me in sections. I’d planned to take the children’s Christmas holidays off, so I could do things with them, but kindly emails from Imogen reminded me that we really needed to get moving, so I had to get into gear very quickly after that lovely New Year’s Eve.
And suddenly, without warning, things started to flow. Within a week, I was nearly half way through the edit, and the first half of the book was the hard part. Sections which had seemed nigh-on impossible came together with ease. Characters fleshed themselves out. Scenes and images that refused to fit before suddenly fell into place. I looked forward to writing, rather than dreading it. And I still fitted trips to The Hobbit and Windsor Castle. The children weren’t entirely neglected.
I learned a lot last year. I learned that writing professionally involves doing it when you can’t do it, struggling through when your brain is telling you you’re hopeless, that it’s not working, that you’re wasting your time. It involves writing anyway – somehow getting words onto the page. I’m proud of what I did last year, even though it took me so long, and my poor long-suffering husband had to put up with so many days of me telling him it wasn’t working. Reader, I wrote a book, in the face of a lack of confidence, and now I’m turning it into the story I always wanted to tell.
I learned in the last few days what many writers and dramatists already know – that your first draft can sometimes be a voyage of discovery. It’s a living, breathing process, an argument, an imperfect sketch, adapting as it goes, a map. It is not what I like to imagine writing to be, which is simply the telling of the story in my head, like a straightforward dictation.
I love the story that Sophie Kinsella tells, of one reader saying to her ‘How can you only write one book a year? Would it help speed things up if I typed for you as you went along?’ I laughed when I heard it, because I knew writing wasn’t like that – and yet I still felt it should be. Now I will be less demanding of my first draft: get it down, get it out there. Accept that it’s not perfect. By the time it’s done, it will tell you what kind of book it wants to be. Writing is re-writing. That’s how it goes.
The confidence thing is interesting. In order to write at all – in a market where over 100,000 books are published each year – you need huge, overweening belief in your own ability. And yet, in order to write well you need a certain humility, the ability to accept the right criticism, the willingness to work on your weak points. Finding the balance is like walking a tightrope and quite often we wobble and fall off.
Anyway, for the first week of 2013, I’m back on it. The edit’s going OK. The deadline looks reachable, just. (If I make it, look out for the new book in May.) The next book is neatly lined up behind, 10,000 words already in the bag, ready to go. The stock market has just gone over 6000, which means much of the irrational despair of the financial markets has been replaced by an equally irrational optimism, which I much prefer. Assad may soon fall in Syria, and it’s always nice to imagine that he won’t be replaced by local dictators, or gang warfare. Across India, people – men and women alike – are standing up for women’s rights. The rainfall turned out to be record-breaking, which means it may not be so bad this year. Some of those friends whose problems were so weighty last year already have good news to share.
New year, new start. Happy 2013! I hope, I sincerely hope, it’s good for us all.