The feel of a novel

Emotions Delawer

Copyright Delawer Omar. Used without permission because I don’t understand these things

People talk about genre. They talk of setting. They talk of plot and ask ‘so what’s it all about, then?’ They don’t ask what a novel feels like. Which is odd – or at least it seems so to me – as feel is the fundamental starting point of all fiction. And probably a lot of non-fiction too.

This is a hard thing to describe, but every novel, to me, has its own individual taste; its own colour, smell, texture. Maybe it’s best described as an emotional synthaesthesia; and maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. But when I’m setting out to write a new story the first thing that I develop is a feel, a smell. This is wrapped up in genre and setting but to me is deeper, more intrinsic. It’s like selecting the palette with which you’ll paint your characters.

When I started to develop Night Shift I began with the cold. Add onto that both claustrophobia and a hint of agoraphobia (not quite a contradiction) and paranoia and I had a framework upon which to build the actual plot. Of course setting went hand-in-hand with this: Antarctica makes some of this simple. But it’s possible to set a blazing-hot emotional volcano within a frozen landscape; and it’s entirely possible to build a frigid tundra with no sense of cold.

Similarly, Oneiromancer is a nighttime novel. Its palette is streetlit: umbers, browns, shades of amber. It’s ambiguity and shifting, untrustworthy flickers. It’s no accident that the few chapters set outside London form the Relief Section of open skies, sunlight and the taste of the coming harvest.

At the moment I’m working on three ideas, trying to build them up from nebulous concepts into something I can actually write. I don’t know what genres they will eventually fall into – though I have ideas – but what I have is a feeling for them all:

• The Breton One – paranoia, a sense of being lost, a hunt, ripe sunlight in rich countryside
• The Urban One – identity and the loss of the same; clear skies and cloudy hearts
• The Fenland One – a great, willow-fringed lake; a flatland where the land and the sky are indistinguishable. It’s also wading through knee-high stagnant water with vegetation leaning into you and choking and drowning you at the same time…

So what comes first? Story? Setting? Genre? Maybe all these are just aspects of the same thing. But for me the first stirrings of a novel will always – no matter how I actually go on to tell the story – be the feel of a piece. I’ll know this before I find a universe in which to nurture it.

False flag

the-next-false-flag

It’s surprisingly hard to find an image for ‘false flag’ that isn’t horribly conspiracy-theoryist. Please accept this as a non-endorsatory compromise

The Muse doesn’t deliver whole stories. She delivers fragments: pieces, threads, ingredients. These fragments are usually a result of living an active, out-looking life, open to new worlds and new ways of thinking. Stories come from rotating these ideas, rolling them into stranger forms and melding them in concert with other concepts. And one idea can lead to others, a thought-trail that snowballs into coherent narrative.

I didn’t even realise it myself, but recently I’ve been playing with the concept of a ‘false flag’ operation. I think it was something that rolled into my head via American politics (and isn’t that a novelworthy car-crash in itself right now) and has lingered in the back of my mind for months. I’m currently spinning the geneses of three novels in my brain but no idea which to develop: I’ve gone a far as to make initial notes for all. Into which do I add this false flag? All of them? The idea could work in any context (for the record: Victorian fens, contemporary Brittany and near-future ‘urban’).

This is where the subconscious comes into its own. I have so many idea-fragments turning in my mind that sheer momentum is creating links where I wasn’t aware of any. Not enough ideas for three novels, perhaps, but maybe one. The trick is to keep adding to the bank, keep pouring stock into the mixer until the soup begins to thicken, the lumps simultaneously agglomerate and become smooth, and you can separate out the bits not needed and put them in the fridge for future culinary experimentation.

At the moment I can’t see what kind of meal I’m trying to make. But the bases are there. And I took another leap forwards the other night, in bed, when the false flag gained a political context and a couple of twists arrived semi-fully-formed in my mind. Of course I found I’d forgotten the details when I woke the next morning but the taste remained, and remains.

The downside is that, if I use the false flag in one novel (the Breton one, if you’re curious) I can’t use it in the others.

Or can I?

To the subconsciousmobile!

Predatory shoals of vanity sharks

vanity shark

The good thing about submissioning is that you can do it even when the writing-muscles are weak. When you’re between projects it is not an imposition but a safety-valve; for someone like me, for whom time off is anathema, this is a godsend.

You might notice that I’ve not written much about actual creative writing recently. This is because I’m not doing any; not unless you count the web I spin in this blog, on Twitter, or the lies I tell to prospective agents*. The birth of the Lyrapillar has left me struggling to find rhythm and routine and I’ve decided, ultimately, to embrace it: to look for other avenues whilst I restock the over-fished pools of creativity. I have plenty of ideas wallowing in the recesses of my mind; I just need imagination-space to feed them, to tempt them forth. A blank page can merely scare them away.

So I am taking the pressure off. I am embracing the boredom of the submissions process. I have my synopsis and sample chapters. I have my template cover-letter; all I have to do is to modify it for the prospective submittee – and, before that, find my target. There ain’t that many.

Indeed, the hunt takes longer that the work. In previous years I’ve relied on the venerable Writers & Artists’ Yearbook. But after the best part of a decade’s failing to get anywhere with that, this time I’m relying on the internet. I’m trusting to social media to find me agents that take urban fantasy; and to resources like Writer Beware to keep me safe from predatory shoals of vanity sharks.

This, for me, feels like a holiday. I feel the guilt of not doing actual, real, value-added writing, but these little tasks keep the mind from drowning. We all need a top-up every now and again; a time to escape one’s own head and see what the real world actually looks like. That I can keep myself sane in the meantime is a bonus.

 

*My imaginary solicitor tells me that I must clarify: this is A Joke. Do not lie to agents; they may reply with Truth