Last night I sent an email to my editor, to which was attached the revised manuscript of my novel. The last six weeks have passed in a blur. I’ve been hunkered down dealing with a structural report that required rewriting large portions of the book, while beyond the insulating walls of my workspace the world was growing ever crazier, or so it seemed. I had to apply strict limits on my engagement with news media, despite the urge to tune in frequently and find out what bizarre thing had happened now. (The answer usually was, something even less believable than what happened yesterday, or an hour ago.) Truth really has become stranger than fiction: the current wild ride of US politics; the dog’s breakfast of Britain’s departure from the EU; the failure of some world leaders to act effectively when the looming disaster of climate change is staring them right in the face. Not to mention a global pandemic. People behaving badly. People eager to believe and promote blatant falsehoods. People turning irrational when asked to obey lawful instructions. Weird. Terrifying. And yet we can’t look away. Like it or not, this is the world we live in.
I wanted to know and I didn’t want to know. The workspace with its clearly defined project, its tight deadline and its isolation from the outside world became something akin to the cave of a hibernating creature in winter, except that instead of sleeping I was immersed in the world of the book, wrestling with the dilemmas of my characters, dealing with the logistical and continuity problems of a major rewrite, and keeping to a timetable that governed my waking hours. I was not in pandemic lockdown. But I was largely absent from the outside world, with my faithful writing companion, the old dog, pretty much my sole source of social interaction.
Of course, social media is always only a click away when you’re writing. And social media means wall to wall coverage of world events, ranging from the professional and well-informed to the wildest of incoherent rantings. Yes, I did check from time to time. How could I not? The news was like a compelling horror story that a person doesn’t really want to read, but keeps on reading anyway to find out just how horrific it can get.
I don’t often read the horror genre for entertainment. Such terrible things happen in real life that I have no wish to delve into fiction for more. Based on the same argument, I almost never write horror. All my work demonstrates my belief that justice, wisdom, courage, compassion and empathy still exist in our flawed society and can win out over cruelty and oppression. Whether it’s as small as one person performing an act of kindness and understanding, or as big as Greta Thunberg’s wake-up call to the world on climate change, every positive act counts.
When writing this novel earlier in 2020 I couldn’t shut out the chaos of the real world, and it had an odd effect on my ability to craft the story well. I just didn’t want to put my characters through too much suffering on their way to the story’s resolution. But, as we all know, setting the stakes high creates tension, and pace and tension are key to a compelling narrative. With the previous book I had no trouble doing that; the characters went through hell, both physically and psychologically. This time around, in a troubled world full of suffering people, I found myself wanting to treat the characters more kindly. No surprise, then, that the editors raised this point in their structural report, suggesting a story tweak that would place a vulnerable character in greater jeopardy and another under even more dire emotional pressure as a result. I made changes; I’ve learned enough over my years as a writer to recognise when the editor is right. And I’ve worked with editors long enough to be able to reach a satisfactory compromise.
So, the novel is off my hands, at least until copy edit time in a few more weeks. And I have a breather of sorts, during which I can ponder what lessons I’ve learned this time around. 2020 was an exceptional year. Being in a virtual hibernation cave meant I had more time to write. Awareness of the world outside the cave often got in the way of doing so. Google reminded me of all the places I’d visited over the last few months – rather than New Zealand and Ireland as planned, there were trips to the local park, to the shopping centre, to visit family in another suburb. I know how lucky I’ve been to have even that amount of freedom. I know how lucky I am to have got the novel finished. I made no New Year resolutions for 2020. But in the back of my mind, always, is the knowledge that, as writers, we share the job of making sense of that chaotic world out there and showing its truths to our readers in all their beauty and ugliness, their terror and wonder. We do it in many different ways, using many different genres. Whether we’re deep in the bear cave or out there engaging with real live people, our job is important. Keep going, friends. Carry your light forward.
I’d love to hear your observations on writing in 2020. Did you do better than usual? Not quite so well? Has the year of trouble changed the way you write, or what you write?
Photo credit: Photo 24405516 ©Sergey Uryadnikov | Dreamstime.com