The Bellows #2 – On Writing a Novel

Bosch's vision of HellFollowing last month’s introduction, horror author Simon Kurt Unsworth returns to chart the vagaries of writing full time for a living.

So, where in Hell are we? This is a pun, of sorts, but not one that’ll mean anything to you. I may choose to explain it later. Bear with me.

Last time we talked, I introduced myself; this time, I need to introduce my novel, seeing as that’s sort of what these columns are supposed to be about. Well, I can tell you it’s been a long, long time coming. Don’t believe me? Picture it: it’s 1995, and I’m 23 and sat in a fairly grim bedsit in Leeds, near the Faversham Public House. I’m waiting for my then girlfriend, Susie, to come home from work and three things collide like damp tissue paper in my head.

The first is a picture I had seen recently in a television news article about Muncaster Castle, of Tom Fool, a deeply unpleasant jester still said to haunt the buildings (and from whom we get the word tomfoolery, fact fans). The second is looking out of the bedsit window and seeing a huge, black train rumbling past, its windows crammed with pale and miserable faces, and the third is seeing a body, floating in the water near a lake’s edge as tiny things dart up towards it through the water and eat it from below. Three things, and somehow they come together and they create a tale.

Tom Fool

The sinister Tom Fool

The problem is, I can’t write that tale. This has nothing to do with writer’s block, and solely to do with talent: I have none. I have written, at this point, precisely nothing of note. I cannot plot (and this story, although a horror, needs to be plotted like a thriller), have no idea about characterisation and am daunted by the idea that this might be longer than a page. I do eventually manage to write about a page and a half (written on my new, portable Amstrad word processor, a lovely machine that I never, ever used except for that page and a half), and it’s shit. That’s not false modesty; it’s genuinely shit, and I’m glad that when I sold the Amstrad, I deleted it without keeping a copy.

Fast forward seven years. I’m commuting every day, hating my time on the trains, slowly going mad from frustration and cold and hearing people cough and wheeze and talk about their lives and mobiles buzzing and more coughing and overpriced coffee and cramped seats and more coughing and eventually I know I have to do something.

So I write a novel.

Commuter train

An inauspicious source of inspiration

Not, I hasten to add, the novel these columns are nominally about, but a different one. It’s a ghost story, a good one although not good enough to publish. Writing it teaches me a lot, not least that I have the stamina to write 90,000 words or thereabouts of connected text. It also teaches me how to plot, how to tangle and untangle story threads, how to keep track of characters and not lose them in the wilds of the newly emerging plot, how to create effective scares and how to pace a story well. It doesn’t, sadly, teach me how to write decent characters, but still. Everyone’s gotta start somewhere, right?

Fast forward another few years, through various short stories and collections and anthologies, and it’s time to write another novel. For some reason I let my best friend choose which one, and he tells me that it’s time to revisit that Leeds bedsit and the train and the body and Tom Fool. For the first time ever, I do some research, buying a couple of books on demonology and witchcraft, and I actually make notes. Eventually, though, I have to stop researching and start writing.

It comes easier this time, this unfolding world I’m creating; pieces that I knew were there fitting neatly with pieces that emerge during the writing, characters meshing, grace notes emerging from the noise. I write a lot in cafes in Lancaster, or on trains, and I get about a third of the way through and then I stop because I have a new collection to put together.

This intruder collection, Quiet Houses, functions almost like a novel. Check it out if you don’t believe me.

Quiet Houses cover art

We’re going to push this every month until you check out our review!

After Quiet Houses is done, my work decide to threaten me with redundancy and I go back to the novel, sitting in cafes, at my dining room table, on trains and once for three hours in a chair in the triage area of A&E waiting for a doctor to confirm I’d fractured my wrist, writing about demons and death and men trying to be good in a place of evil.

It takes three more months, during which my redundancy is confirmed and I become self-employed by default, before the novel is completed. I leave it to percolate, write a couple of short stories, and then go back to it. I assume it needs lots of work, but it doesn’t; it’s surprisingly coherent and needs more cosmetic than structural adjustments. I make the tweaks and then leave it to percolate again.

Which brings us to pretty much this point. I recently took the novel back out of the drawer and gave it one last polish and sent it off. I’m not telling you where to. Not yet. Not because I’m a tease but for the same reason I’m not telling you anything much about the plot; because I don’t want to jinx the bugger.

I will tell you that it’s currently entitled The Sorrowful, and it’s a sprawling horror disguised as a thriller set in an idiosyncratic version of Hell (see, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see a link to my opening pun. How do I do it, you ask? I’m a writer!). Tom Fool is a character in it, as are sundry other humans, demons and less identifiable things. There’s death, and there’s more death. It’s bleak.

“It’s a sprawling horror disguised as a thriller set in an idiosyncratic version of Hell”
So, what next? Well, we wait. I have other stories to do and I have several ideas for the next novel – I’ve got the bug now, I’ve enjoyed writing The Sorrowful immensely and I want to do it again. I haven’t decided which one I’m going to do yet; two include a character from Quiet Houses who I like an awful lot and want to visit again, one may be a sequel to The Sorrowful or may not be and one’s just sodding weird. I’ve lost some weight, bought a new waistcoat and have some teaching gigs coming up that I’ll maybe talk about here.

It’s taken me over seventeen years, but I’ve finished the novel that I started in Leeds at a point in my life that is now absolutely passed and gone and cold; man, that feels good.