Exactly a decade ago I spent every day, between the hours of about two in the afternoon and three in the morning, tapping out a novel called The Beauty of the Lion. I had just finished a short contract testing mapping software on the Science Park in Cambridge and had returned to my parents’ home. I don’t know how they tolerated me, but I spent about five months solid writing that book. When I had finished, I printed five limited editions on my HP inkjet on some plaid A5 paper I had bought from WHSmiths. My father then took the pages with him to the office where he had them bound.
Shortly afterwards he kindly ordered me a dozen packs of guillotined A4 paper, which arrived in thick A5 blocks wrapped in brown paper. A few more copies promptly popped out of my printer. I say promptly, but there was me printing the odd pages from each one of the twenty-nine chapters, each one stored in a separate Word file, turning them over, setting the file to print back-to-front and then printing the even pages. My sobs when it pulled multiple pages through the printer at once were audible throughout the house. When I had finished I flew off to Tanzania to spend forty-nine days with my missionary uncle.
By the following summer, after a year at university, I had decided to re-write that novel, having concluded that the original was a pile of #@£$. I wanted to make a decent book out of it, so I spent my entire summer holidays working through it. Again, I don’t know how my parents tolerated me, but they did. The first draft had been all about race, the new one more about religion. The shift in my writing reflected what was happening in real life, as attested by The Neurocentric column published in the student magazine. I never finished this draft for by the following summer I had embraced Islam and was shunning the creative life.
The Neurocentric disappeared from the student magazine and all work on the novel ceased. A couple of years later in a fit of disillusionment I deleted the files from my computer and threw the printed copies away. A week or so later I wondered what on earth I had done; the writing may have been poor, but those books were part of me. I frantically searched for some software to restore my files, for they were long gone from the Windows Recycle Bin. I searched my Zip disks, my floppies, the odd CD-ROM. Some files, at least, I was able to restore, but half a dozen chapters from my latest work were gone. There was once a manuscript from that one circulating amongst friends – it is the only remaining copy of those words – but I have no idea where it is, even if it still exists.
I have written on this web log before about why I ceased to write in this fictional setting. I stopped for three or four years, although there were moments now and then when I returned, or thought about returning. The urge to write remained, but I was often disillusioned. I did not know if I still could, or still should. There was another aspect: in the past I had been a rather angry chap and so I used my writing to work things out of my system. As a Muslim, however, I no longer have that anger, or at least I cannot sustain it. If I am angry, my prayer makes me calm again. With five prayers in the day it is nearly impossible to use that anger, to put in down on paper. Rage is such great inspiration, but Islam has made me calm.
Around four years ago, however, I finally came to some sort of peace, reconciling my desire to write with my Islam. I perceived a need. And so began a new novel at last. It is a tale about the way power can corrupt and temptations overcome us. Progress is incredibly slow, but at least there is a work in progress. These days I am employed full time and I am a married man. I cannot lock myself away for hours on end; especially since I haven’t even shared a paragraph with my good wife in three years. Progress is painfully slow. No more than 90,000 words in three years. But at least I am writing again.
Despite the constant requests, I am reluctant to share my novel even with my wife or a writer friend of mine because it is disjointed at the moment and would not make sense. I have long since abandoned the first chapter which I wrote three years ago, thus my original second chapter is just hanging there while I rework everything. Alas it was not a short chapter either, so it is quite a substantial gap. While reading a bit of Wilde and a bit of Dickens recently made me re-evaluate my chapter structure and make them much shorter, those early versions were 16,000 and 36,000 words respectively. The early text was also set in a fictional town circa 1993, while it now encompasses a very real landscape and a new decade – so continuity is hugely wanting.
What is more, the way in which I am writing this novel causes reluctance. As I have said before, I describe it as “layers upon layers”. I usually start by rushing the dialogue down, then I would go back to really work on that dialogue. Later I would move on to the environment, the setting, the details. Sometimes it’s the other way round – I have swathes of atmospheric text I am really happy with, but the dialogue is hollow. I would say I have a continuity of twelve chapters now which could be considered a complete first draft – from what was my new first chapter – and the original long second chapter, but beyond this all I have are islands. Some of those islands are there because I haven’t got to them yet, but many others are there simply because they are so difficult and I am avoiding them as long as possible.
People think I am crazy: I am the author after all. Why am I making things so difficult for myself, they ask. It is the gap between formulating the story and my ability to tell it as I want it to be told. It is really hard work. My writer friend was asking me why it is taking me so long a couple of weeks ago. I explained that I tapped out my first novel over just a few months a decade ago, but it was a load of rubbish: it had no stylistic merit whatsoever. This time I want to write something that is “good” at the very least.
I have picked it up twice this week, but only managed five sentences. I am lazy, or easily distracted, or I have a very short attention span. Emails took me away from it. The Neurocentric took me away. The call of my garden pulled me away. A forum for writers distracted me. My evenings pass me by too quickly. I do not want to neglect my wife. So much to take me away. I may pick it up again this evening. It is Friday night, I may work into the early hours. I may.
But then again, I said I would cook a pie tonight; I said I would do my share. Sorry, dear novel, I must neglect you once more.