The Bellows #3 – On How a Novel, If Not its Author, Matures

Novelist at Work

Horror writer extraordinaire, Simon Kurt Unsworth, brings us up to speed on the life of his new novel. And he’s had some very exciting news…

I shouldn’t have been so cocky.

It all felt like it was going so well; I’d sent the novel off and I was proud of what I’d accomplished in it. The final draft felt like it worked as a thriller and as a horror, I was happy with my imagery and its pace, and I liked my characters enough to have some emotional investment in them. I had two writing courses lined up to teach which I was set to be paid for, and life felt good. And then things started to, if not go wrong exactly, then at least yaw. I like the word ‘yaw’; it’s got a dizzying, oscillatory sort of feel to it, and it’s pretty much exactly how life’s felt these last months.

Here’s the thing; it’s a contradictory bugger this novel, both an important part of my life yet also low on the list of priorities. It doesn’t feed or clothe me, doesn’t improve my relationships with the people around me, doesn’t improve my frankly poor attempts to be a decent father or husband or friend, and it has to take second place a majority of the time. I’m still unemployed (I’m writing this sitting in a café after a job interview, waiting for my friend Rosie to arrive because she’s been interviewed for the same job and we’re hoping to jobshare it), and money has been tight recently. Fucking throttling tight, if I’m honest.

“How we pay the mortgage is an exciting question; how we pay the credit card bills is also a thriller.”The two courses I thought I’d be running were both cancelled, although I did manage to run a private short writing course, which went down well and got good feedback, but apart from that there’s no work about. How we pay the mortgage is an exciting question; how we pay the credit card bills is also a thriller. Well, I’ve always said eating is over-rated, and who really needs to be able to heat their home?  Under these circumstances, continuing to tinker with The Sorrowful doesn’t always seem that important.

But it is, ultimately. Partly, it’s important because it’s mine, dammit; my novel, my characters, and they mean something to me and I want to see them breathing and screaming and dying in public, and I sometimes feel like its one of the few things I have any real control over. It’s also important, though, because of what happened just after I published the last of these irregular columns. Now, before you get too excited, The Sorrowful hasn’t been accepted for publication or anything; no, but it’s almost as good. The person I sent it to replied positively, and now I almost have an agent.

Let me explain. Back when The Sorrowful was a mere stripling of three chapters, I mentioned its existence to my friend Stephen Volk, (creator of the frankly terrifying Pipes, and if you don’t know who he is SHAME ON YOU), who suggested I send it to his agent to look at. So I did, only to be told by said agent (the lovely John Berlyne at the Zeno Agency, if you’re interested) that he wasn’t interested in reading something that wasn’t finished but I was welcome to submit when it was done. Ah well, fair enough, thinks I, and got back to writing it.

Brighton Pier at Night

Brighton was home to FantasyCon in 2011 and 2012

Then, out of the blue a few weeks later, John emailed me to say that, against his better judgement, he’d read the chapters and thought there might be something there. He pointed out a few problems he’d encountered in that early section, we met briefly at FantasyCon in 2011, and then I went away and got on with writing it. It was to John I sent it when it was finally in a version I thought was presentable, partly because I’d got on well with him and he’d taken the trouble to spend time on my work and comment on it, and partly because I got good vibes from him. He seems like a decent man, and I like decent men. That’s where we were after my last column, and it’s from there the story now rolls…

John replied about the full manuscript pretty quickly, far more quickly in fact than I expected, and although he didn’t like The Sorrowful enough to take it on immediately, he was complimentary about it and wrote me a very detailed critique about how it could be improved. More importantly, he was clear that, if I could answer the issues he’d raised in this critique and rewrite The Sorrowful accordingly (i.e. make it better!), then he’d be inclined to take it on and try to sell it. Thankfully, most of what he said made sense and after meeting John again at this year’s FantasyCon and still getting good vibes from him, I’m happy to try and make the changes he wants. They will make The Sorrowful more commercial (I’d like the book to sell, after all) but they’ll also make it better, and that’s got to be a good thing.

“I’ve brought in a new demon that wears entrails for clothes.”So, what are the issues John raised? I’m not telling, because to do that I’d have to tell you about the story itself and I’m still wary of doing that; suffice it to say that most are smaller things, clarifications of situations or environments that I can sort with one or two small additions or amendments. However, he also wants a couple of subplots adding in an attempt to better explain a major character’s actions and to explain in more detail some of Hell’s backstory, and it’s here that the work starts. It’s taken me a few weeks to work out how to do this, and what the subplots should be about.

I’m now at the point where I’m working through each chapter, John’s feedback at hand, tweaking and adding and rewriting. I’ve brought in a new demon, an archdeacon of Hell that wears entrails for clothes, have shifted one or two scenes around, added a set of entirely new scenes and may delete some others later in the novel. One character’s actions are being changed to reduce their presence in the plot and another is being given more to do.  It’s slow work, slower than the initial writing, because I’m trying to do this without destroying (and therefore needing to completely rewrite) what I’ve already got, but I’m okay with it because the changes make sense and are making something I thought was already good, better.

Harrison Ford

The new face of Tom Fool?

Perhaps the oddest thing has been to think about my hero, Fool. Who is he? What does he look like? Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt? Lee Evans or Charles Hawtrey? It’s something I’d not considered before, deliberately leaving him a blank so that the reader could see him how they wanted, but now I need to visualise him because I need to decide more clearly how he’d act in one of these subplots. At the moment, I realise, there’s not enough of him to carry the weight of the plot; he needs to be more, and bigger, and more real. Is he brave? Swept along by events? A coward? Or just someone after a quiet life? I think I know, and I think I know now what he looks like. I have a model for him from life, and I think about that person when I write him and rewrite him.

This is all hard work, trying to juggle everything as it pitches and tilts about me, but the thing about a yaw is that it can be brought under control, stability can be regained. There are fixed and wonderful points in my life, people that I love, places that matter to me, music that lifts my heart (have you heard Bellowhead’s Broadside yet? No? You FOOLS!) and I’m keeping hold of them while I apply for jobs and sort my future out. The Sorrowful isn’t done yet, but it feels close, frustratingly so. Now, if only life wouldn’t get in the damn way, I could get it finished…