Looking back over the past 12 months, the thought comes to me: How very odd it’s all been; and still is. “Odd” is too small a word, but it will have to do. This time last year, my big anxiety was Brexit. Now, Brexit is still on the radar, but it has to compete against That Other Thing.
It was at the start of April this year that the Covid-19 situation really came home to me, so to speak. I had been working from home for a few days, in accordance with the Government advice, when I got a call from my boss to let me know I was being put on furlough – extended leave on a generous proportion of full pay.
I am one of the very fortunate ones, and I know it. There have been so many this year who have borne the brunt: NHS workers, refuse collectors, delivery people, cashiers, lorry drivers, everyone who not through choice found themselves bearing the load for the rest of us. Like so many, I feel guilt at being safe when others have not been. I feel anger that some, like those in care homes, were not kept safe when they, if anyone, should have been. Incompetence and corruption, those evil twins, have walked hand in hand. Those who have really saved us in these months will not be rewarded. To be truthful I will not be too surprised if they are punished.
But I have kept myself safe. Lucky me.
During furlough, I turned my attention to writing – something which has always been my spare-time obsession, to the extent that I had already started writing a novel, at the rate of a few lines a day in the evenings. I was now able to devote myself to it entirely. I completed a full draft in a matter of weeks – not because I am an especially prolific writer, but because the book is, as it was always planned to be, what they call a “novella” – a novel that happens to be short.
On this subject, I just want to say one thing. It is perhaps only when you try to write a novel yourself that you realise how much has to go into it. Characters, themes and subplots; dozens and dozens of scenes; many thousands of sentences, each and every one of them meant to be interesting. And you have to make all this up out of your own stupid brain.
While you are engaged in putting these things together in some sort of order, it seems an insanely complex operation; and then you finish, and you stand back, and you see that what you have written is absurdly tiny, ridiculously simple, a mere anecdote; a “novella.”
But you have to hold on to that other side of it too, its bigger inside, because after all, that is its essential truth.
I do not know how writers are able to write “real” novels, which are twice, three times, five times the length of mine. I doff my cap to them, truly. I can only say that the little anecdote I have written is the best I can do, very possibly the best I will ever do.
Having finished my book and tightened up its bolts as far as I was able, I sent it off to a number of agents. Most agents, I realised quite quickly from scanning the listings in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, do not want to see “science fiction”. I do not know what repulsive filth they conceive it to be, but so it goes. The book I have written happens to have a science fiction element, so these fastidious agents eliminated themselves from my list of choices until I had half a dozen possibles, and I wrote to them.
Weeks and months passed, and only one of them even deigned to respond (with a “no”, obviously). It was only by other means, a chance reference found through a Google search, that I learned that agents generally speaking are not interested in “novellas”. Apparently novellas make an agent’s gorge rise even more than science fiction – so much so that they dare not even mention the distasteful matter at all in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I suppose it is just one of those things that the “right sort” is supposed to know by instinct, like the correct knife to use with fish.
Further investigation has revealed that there are some publishers who, brave souls, are indeed willing to publish novellas (in a plain wrapper, one assumes). Small, independent concerns outside London, for the most part. I was able to submit a proposal to one of them this August, and I am awaiting their response. Patience is one of the essential virtues of a writer; or, rather, the après-writer.
Well, I mustn’t get too bitter. I know the pressures that publishers and agents must be under at this time, and, after all, why should they care about one probably not very good writer that they have never heard of? It would be nice if they were able to communicate with writers to a greater extent, because silence is such a deadly sound, but I know there must be good logistical reasons why they can’t.
I have been writing this year, not only the novel but also short stories. These, too, have not been accepted anywhere. But after all, that is not really the point. The point is that these things are written, and that I, if no one else, find them to be pleasing in shape and texture and meaning. They did not exist before, but they do now. What is creativity if not this?