What do you do when you’ve spent ten years working on a novel, interspersed with long periods of not writing due to mental health, bereavement and debilitating self-doubt, only to find it unravel in your hands?
I’ve been working on The Shadows at Sunrise for a long time. The idea first came to me around 2007 or 2008, in the midst of my undergraduate degree and partly inspired by the spiritualism of the late 19th century, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and those theosophical societies of the time. It went through several different forms in the early days, including the first 50,000 words being written as part of National Novel Writing Month in November 2009, shortly after I started my master’s degree in Creative Writing. After that, I wrote some but never in any consistent way. I thought about it a lot; I was somewhat obsessed with the novel, and had a form of the ending in sight long before I’d written that far. I submitted pieces as a part of my master’s, but they were never really received that well by the staff in the university, who primarily wrote literary fiction about growing up in and around Belfast. They weren’t the right audience for a fantasy writer.
In 2011, my father died. I’ve written about this a lot. His loss is one of the single most defining moments of my life, and which triggered a deep depression I’ve still not dealt with. By this point I’d written perhaps 90,000 words, still plagued by self-doubt but ultimately excited to reach an ending and begin editing.
Dad never got to read what I’d written, and this continues to break my heart. It was one of the reasons why I stopped writing. However, after a few years, I got myself excited again. I finished it in the summer of 2013. I reached a point where I was happy with what I’d done, and I was so excited to begin editing. Hell, daresay I was proud of what I’d written. I’d finished a damn novel of 130,000 words. Who wouldn’t be proud?
A lot happened after that. I won’t really go into it. Needless to say, my mental health went downhill and The Shadows at Sunrise was, once again, sidelined. That is until this time last year, in spring 2017, when I happened to submit a pitch as part of Twitter’s #pitmad event. I got a response from a fantastic publisher, Oftomes, who wanted to see the novel. Someone actually wanted to see what I’d written.
I knew by this point that sweeping changes needed to happen in order for the beginning of the novel to be any good. I made the changes, submitted the novel, and heard back pretty quickly. They liked what they read. They wanted to see the full novel. They were pretty excited about it.
I had work to do. I had a novel to edit. I got to work until, about 30,000 words in, I hit a wall of depression. There were problems with the plot. I couldn’t figure them out. The old self-doubt came out of its temporary cage and revelled in its freedom.
“Ah ha!” it said. “Told you so. You’re never going to be anything. You fooled a publisher into believing in you, and now you’ve let them down.”
I wrote to Oftomes with an explanation. They were pretty understanding. “Submit when you can,” they said. “We still want to see it. No rush!”
So, I tried to work on it. I really did. I tried to fight through the depression and the self-doubt. This pretty much brings us up to the present, a rainy day in Belfast in the spring of 2018, sat in a coffee shop on cobbled streets, trying my damnedest to figure out where I’m going next. This was supposed to be it. This was supposed to be the beginning of a resurgence in the life cycle of The Shadows at Sunrise.
Instead, it all began to fall apart.
I’m writing this in part to reconcile some things in my head about what this means for my identity as a writer, if such a thing can even be applied to me anymore. I struggle with that a lot. How can I be a writer if I’m not writing?
As I planned and tried to stitch one scene into another, I realised a pretty huge plot hole that… well, imagine it like this:
You’ve lived in a house for 10 years. You’re pretty happy there. Sure, it’s got the odd bug, but you love how it looks and love how it feels. One day, you wake up and notice something you’d never seen before.
There’s a gaping hole in the floor. You can’t see the bottom; you try dropping something into the darkness of that hole and can’t hear it hit the bottom.
You’ve been skirting the edges of the room all this time, never realising the hole was even there or that you hadn’t ever been able to walk across the centre of the room.
This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I hope you get my meaning. That’s how this plot hole feels to me. Suddenly, corresponding scenes began to fall apart as well. I watched the arc of the plot fall away in a landslide. There it was, the hole that had been hidden from my view. How could I ever figure this one out without writing the whole thing over again?
I had a great conversation with Autumn, who has been here with me through thick and thin for the past four years and who has believed in me every step of the way. She saw how frustrated I was. Hell, I think she could see how scared I was. Everything I’ve known for the past 10 years… possibly gone. My identity as a writer (again, wraithlike and insubstantial) has been so tied to The Shadows at Sunrise for a third of my life. Those characters are my family. I love them and miss them. I wonder what they are doing (sounds weird, I know.)
Now, I don’t know where I turn. I know if I am ever to have The Shadows at Sunrise published, it’s going to require a lot of thinking and a lot of reworking. Who knows how much renovation it’s going to ultimately need. Will I have to take what’s decent from it and change the rest of the novel to suit? Am I ever going to be able to publish it? How can I give something up that feels like it’s such a huge part of my heart and my life?
Autumn asked me what it would mean if I could never get the novel published, and honestly, the thought breaks me. It’s inconceivable. It simply can’t happen.
For now though… what else can I do? Sit and torture myself over this for the rest of my life, or move on, if only for now? I have other novel ideas. Well… I have two other novel ideas. One feels more “ready” than the other. It still needs a lot of planning though. I could begin work on that, and maybe get somewhere with it. Meanwhile, Oftomes are still waiting. I don’t even know how to approach them and let them know what’s going on with The Shadows at Sunrise. Should I even inform them? Are they even still thinking “I wonder what happened with that Matt guy?” If I let them know what happened, will it harm any legitimacy they may see for “that Matt guy?”
I pinned everything on Oftomes being “the one.” They may not even like to see novel #2.
As I’ve written this, I’ve been trying to figure out my next steps. The only conceivable next step is to write something else. Granted, I still don’t feel like a writer. I still don’t feel like I have any damn talent or good ideas and I should just give up now and raise chickens instead. Chickens are cool, right? Plus we get free eggs.
I want to blog more about anything and everything that goes on in my head. I have thoughts and not a lot of confidence that anyone wants to read them, but maybe you do for some reason. Either way, shouting into the void isn’t bad. I need to disconnect the idea that I need an audience and just write, because writing helps work things out that otherwise rattle around in here and never see the light of day. It’s dangerous to hope for an audience for things. If you’re out there, audience, you’re going to come whether I have any say in it or not.
I’ve said that before though, about blogging regularly. Then I don’t come back to it for a few years. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, however.
Ugh, I don’t know if any of this entry made any sense whatsoever. It’s probably been a rambling mess and if so, I apologise. This is all weighing pretty heavily on me and I need to figure it all out. Who knows; maybe one day, I’ll link back to this blog and say “look, I gave up on it and now it’s back and ready to read by everyone who gives a damn!”
Maybe. One can dream, I guess.
Thanks for reading.
Photo by Kunj Parekh on Unsplash