CAROLE JOHNSTONE

British Fantasy Award Winner; 3x British Fantasy Award Nominee

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Commitment-phobe

I didn’t think I was. If anything, I’ve always been the one chasing the commitment-phobe up the street. A metaphor…mostly. And then I started writing novels.

I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. I used to write murder mysteries featuring an alcoholic Scottish detective that I’d save up for family holidays where I was guaranteed a captive audience (shades of chasing folk up the street). In the early 2000s, I started selling my short stories to magazines like Black Static and Interzone, to anthologies edited by the likes of Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, John Joseph Adams, Simon Clark. I started to get rejected—a lot. I started to improve. I started to write stories that weren’t just pastiches of other writers I loved, but ones that were identifiable as mine. I found, as they say in all the How To memoirs, my voice.

I wrote short stories, pretty much exclusively, throughout that decade. And then, slowly, they started getting longer. Long shorts, as they like to call them, then novelettes (7501-17,499 words if you’re interested), then novellas. And then I started struggling to stop at the obligatory 40,000-word border between novella and novel. Happily, this was around about the time that I realised I was never ever going to make a fulltime career out of writing short stories. Not if I wanted to go on feeding and clothing myself. No problem, I thought. I’ve always wanted to be a novelist anyway. Didn’t I write all those awful vampire/tortured Lord of the Flies but with girls novels as a teenager? I was already moving away from genre fiction anyway, after realising that I didn’t actually read much horror/fantasy/sci-fi myself (it goes without saying that this should have been a blindingly obvious conclusion, but was instead on a par with always fancying bad boys without realising I didn’t actually like them very much).

So. I decided that all those years of short story writing was instead an apprenticeship. A pre-med. I would easily segue into novel-writing. Wasn’t I pretty much there already? I’d been nominated and won writing awards; I was regularly being reprinted in annual Best of anthos both here and in the US. I was already reading a ton of women’s fiction, historical fiction, crime fiction, psychological thrillers for pleasure. I’d also just taken a year’s sabbatical from my NHS job to go travelling. I would simply sit down with my laptop and write the mainstream novel that would launch my new career. Easy peasy.

And it was about two months after deciding all that that I realised I was a commitment-phobe.

Writing novels is technically very different from writing a novella, a novelette, and very definitely a short story. Initially, I imagined this would give me an advantage. The short stories that I wrote were the kind of short stories that I liked to read: they had a beginning, middle, and—most importantly—an end. I am no fan of ambiguity, or of letting the reader make up her mind, even though it’s a much easier way to write short fiction. It’s very hard to pack good character development and tight plotting into less than 10,000 words. But if you could—if you did—then surely that would be great practice for writing a novel? I could keep it tight, keep it moving, no waffle, no going off on self-indulgent tangents. When I first started writing short stories, apart from copying Stephen King and Margaret Atwood, I would have no real outline apart from an initial idea. Very quickly that changed, and I would carefully plot out even a 2,000 word short before letting myself start writing it. This would put me in great stead! EASY PEASY.

And, to an extent, I was right. My novel was to be a psychological thriller set in Leith, Edinburgh. I allowed myself two months of solid research. I bothered relatives and friends until I managed to commandeer a Lothian police sergeant, a detective, and a forensic scene of crime scientist. I read manuals: police procedurals, forensics, sailing, psychology, 17th century pirates (don’t ask). I took terrible advantage of the freedom of information act. I plotted the novel out chapter by chapter, character by character. I knew it inside out. I was beyond excited to start. I started.

And then, over breakfast by a pool in Cyprus less than a month later, I read an article in the New Yorker about a shocking three-day siege between the residents of a ghetto in West Kingston and the government/army a few years before. I was enthralled; appalled that I had never heard of it until now, even more appalled by its bloody and unjust outcome. I idly started googling the incident, reading first-hand accounts. Days of this turned idly googling into research. I’d just write a short story about it while it was fresh in my mind and motivation, I thought. Maybe a novelette. But the dialogue would have to be in patois, of course. Otherwise it wouldn’t be remotely authentic. Cue more research—and then some. Three months and 92,394 words later, and I’d written my first novel, Incursion.

I was appalled. The novel was far better than I’d ever imagined it would be setting out, and I was far too proud of it. But it wasn’t commercial. And cultural appropriation is a big enough issue these days to give any writer nervous pause. Neither was it what I was supposed to be writing: a novel that I was just as excited and enthused about as I had been three months earlier, and yet which had somehow been completely dumped in favour of another, on the strength of reading a newspaper article and being enthralled and appalled.

A writer friend of mine whom I love and respect very much once told me that my first published novel would be the most important novel I would ever write; that I should therefore be very careful about what kind of novel it was. Agents and publishers want a quantifiable, sellable writer who will stay inside her stable, of course they do. You can’t write a contemporary novel about violence, betrayal, and corruption based on true events and written almost entirely in Jamaican patois and then get going on your sexy psychological suspense set in Leith. You have to choose. You have to commit. The hook, the lure, of short stories for me is that I can—and have—written about gritty serial killings in the east end of Glasgow one month, and then a deadly ménage-a-trois aboard a spaceship on its way to Jupiter the next. I am far too used to finding ideas in everything: news, books, documentaries, conversations. And I have got far, far too used to switching my affections like a magpie from the last story to the next—because I can. Short stories are one-night stands; novels, of course, are a far longer, far deeper commitment. Not just one of time and investment, or even love, but of judgement, of representation, of saying this is the kind of writer I am, the kind of writer I want to continue to be; this is what you can expect of me, this is what you can rely on me to be.

And so I started and finished my original novel. It was everything I wanted it to be. It was everything I hoped it would be. It is the kind of writer I am, the kind of writer I want to continue to be. The kind of writer I hope that an agent, a publisher, a reader will want me to be too; will believe in enough to trust me, to choose me. To return the commitment. And maybe one day, they'll want a contemporary novel about violence, betrayal, and corruption based on true events and written almost entirely in Jamaican patois too.

I recently started researching my next novel. A psychological suspense slash twisted love story set in Victorian London. I got the idea after reading a fascinating article in the Guardian.

What?

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