How to start a new novel

I finished writing The River Days of Rosie Crow a pretty long time ago now. Before that gem of a Christmas present knocked at my door of agent representation back in December, I was spending my time – A LOT of time – sending that novel off to agents and publishers and sometimes hearing back, but more often not.

But was I writing anything new? I was writing plenty of poems, flash fiction and creative non-fiction, but I wasn’t starting a new novel, although I knew that I really just needed to be getting on with the next book. But I couldn’t. I was reluctant to use that word ‘blocked’ as I’ve never bought into that idea of writer’s block: you just have to put your bum on the seat, get your head down and get on with it; that once you begin, the ideas will come. After all, I’ve always been a ‘pantster’ writer rather than a planner (ie I make minimal plans ahead of writing a new book – I get a spark of an idea or theme to get me going then I fly by the seat of my pants – bizarre analogy, but commonplace amongst writers!).

But it turned out the ideas weren’t coming. I was frustrated to say the least. The idea that I had previously managed to complete four length novels previously seemed preposterous; implausible; impossible. Deep down though, I knew exactly why I couldn’t write.

One Friday afternoon back in March when I had my mum’s dog for the week while she was away, I walked through the driving rain to a dog friendly café with my diary, ordered some tea and a flapjack and got my journal out. This is an excerpt of what I wrote:

‘So what do I write? I’m actually feeling astonished right now by the fact I’ve been able to complete four full length novels and a memoir. That feels extraordinary and…out of reach. How on earth did I achieve that? I need to catch a spark, a scent, a sense. So far it’s not coming. And what do I do? Sit around and wait for inspiration to strike? Or do I pull out a chair, drag out any old idea from a drawer in my mind and see where it takes me? But what idea? I seem to have a thousand of them and, at the same time, none.

I know that part of it is feeling crippled by responsibility as a writer to do something creative around THE defining issue of our time: the climate emergency. Even sitting here and writing this and not allowing myself to look away is making me feel uncomfortable.’

Believe it or not, something about writing those words that day in the café released something for me and I caught that ‘scent’ that I’d been seeking for so many months. The following day, I grabbed any piece of paper I could find and scribbled a few brief notes. Then I stared at it for a long time, stuck it into my notebook and opened a brand new Scrivener file (writing software I have written my past two books on.)

Towards the end of April, I spent a few days in London for ‘The Big One’, a gathering of almost 100,000 people from 200 different organisations to call upon the British government to take urgent action on the Climate Emergency. On the first day, I listened to a number of incredible writers with Writers Rebel (the writing arm of Extinction Rebellion and of which I have created a Norwich offshoot), including acclaimed authors Ben Okri (above) and Zadie Smith (below), a dream come true.

The last writer to speak was Tom Bullough, four-time novelist. He spoke of ten things, as writers, we must remember and one of his points ran as follows:

‘Writers communicate. That’s what we do. We pay attention, we perceive as honestly as we can and we find ways to communicate that perception. This means that to be a writer today is to hold the climate and ecological emergency at the heart of your work. I have offended people in the past by saying things like this, and I really don’t like doing it. With luck it won’t be the case here. If the emergency is not at the heart of your work then you’re not writing honestly, and if you’re not writing honestly then you are not a writer.’

These are strong words and many writers will not subscribe to this and will present different visions for their writing, and I am not judging anyone for this. But for me, this is what needs to happen. This is the only thing that can happen. I want to continue writing historical fiction because I love this genre, so this is my challenge: to write historical fiction whilst ‘holding the climate and ecological emergency at the heart of my work.’

This may just be the most challenging thing I’ve ever written, but I take heart from the words of writer Rebecca Solnit:

‘You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future.  We need a litany, a rosary, a mantra, a war chant of our victories.  The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we carry into the night that is the future.’

The work has begun.

Thank you for reading this blog post. Compliment it with reading about Norwich Writers Rebel campaign #WordsInTheWild & the poem I wrote last year for Refugee Week.

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