I finished the first draft of a new novel at the weekend, and fought off the flat, empty feeling by taking myself out for lunch to celebrate. At the end of a book I always feel a bit depressed - I want to be back with the characters and in that wonderful state of discovering what's going to happen next in the story. Believe me, as the author, I'm the last one to know!
Anyway, I finished the first draft, and gave myself a pat on the back and a nice lunch, and the manuscript will be left fallow for a little while before I start the rewrite. Amazing what new ideas and insights come into play when it's been left alone for a while.
I think celebrating every milestone in writing is important: the first draft, completing a novel, sending off a short story, winning a competition. It's easy, as time goes on and the writing credits pile up, to take it all for granted, but one thing about writing is that it's uncertain. You never know definitely that you'll ever have anything published again. When I was a new writer, and sending work out was a Big Thing, I used to be so frightened of putting the manuscript in the post box that I pretty much hyperventilated. I used to hold the package in the slot, wish it luck on it's way (out loud, to the amusement of passers-by), and cross my fingers as I let it drop.
I don't hyperventilate when I post off work now (at least not as much) and I rarely wish my manuscript bon voyage or cross my fingers. But I do take time to acknowledge that there's another story on it's way; another story I've crafted and rewritten and stamped on and cursed at and rewritten again and again until I think it deserves an outing in the world. Sometimes it's just a moment when I think about the story and say to myself, 'Well done for finishing it.' Sometimes I have a little treat - a walk in a beautiful place, a poke round a junk shop, or a manicure.
Celebrating the conclusion of this latest first draft was a big deal for me, as a few months ago I thought the novel wouldn't get written at all. I normally take about a year to write a novel, end to end, but this one has been on the go for about eighteen months. Why? Because I caught flu five months in and was out of action for weeks, and have been pretty ropey since then. When I returned, eventually, to the manuscript I was part way through, I realised I didn't know my victim well enough, and I hadn't got a clue what made the murderer tick. It needed a complete overhaul: new scene outlines, new character sketches, a few red herrings to keep people guessing, and a subplot or two.
It was a while before I could face starting again, but I did, and the first draft was - eventually - finished. I learned a lot from having to start again, to rip up what I'd written and rethink the whole blessed book. And that's worth celebrating.
This chap is John Schorne, a thirteenth century miracle worker. During a drought, he's said to have struck the ground with his staff, and water poured forth. From then on, pilgrims flocked to the well to drink the holy water and to be cured of gout. Those who visited the well would very likely have bought a badge as a souvenir of their trip, like the one represented above.
This is a replica pilgrim badge, based on an original design. It sits on my desk to help me with my writing. Not by working miracles, (though some days it would be handy!) but by helping me to understand faith, religion and miracles in the past.
Having something tangible to ground your writing was a tip given to me by fellow History Press author Anne Strathie. She writes biographies, and told me that she likes to have some tangible link to the person she's writing about close to hand, to keep them real and to keep her focussed.
I'm currently writing Holy Blood - the second in the Eden Grey series, and the historical part of the action is set at Hailes Abbey, and concerns a relic known as the Holy Blood. During the middle ages, Hailes was one of the major pilgrimage sites, as it housed the blood of Christ. It's likely that Hailes, too, would have sold pilgrim badges with images of the Holy Blood, but I haven't yet been able to track down what a Hailes badge looked like. In the meantime, John Schorne reminds me that during the time I'm writing about, people believed that seeing a holy relic could earn them some time off in Purgatory.
It helps me to build the world view of someone who knows that when he or she dies, their soul will spend some time doing penance before they're allowed into heaven, and that the length of time spent there is negotiable through prayer and religious observances.
The pilgrim badges bought by those who visited shrines served not only to show others where their devotions had taken them, but was a tangible reminder that they had done everything they could for the sake of their soul.
A little badge, a scrap of metal, yet it helps me to connect with a world view and absolute faith that otherwise would be alien to me.
About a year ago, I heard an item on the Today programme talking about a phenomenon called ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Now call it synchronicity if you like, or simply put it down to my being aware of ASMR, but since then, there's been a lot more discussion of ASMR, what it is, and whether it helps the creative process.
For those of you who don't know, ASMR is a relaxing, tingling sensation in your scalp, that can spread down your neck and arms. Some people call it brain tingles. I like to think of it as human purring. If you've ever experienced ASMR, you'll know it feels delicious, and that it is set off by certain sounds or sensations:
People who experience ASMR may have different triggers, but there are enough common triggers to spawn a whole ASMR video industry. Search for ASMR on You Tube and, if you have ASMR, that's the rest of the afternoon gone for you. From crinkly bags to soft voices to binaural role play, there's an ASMR video to match your trigger.
Some people say that the deeply relaxing sensation of ASMR is great for tackling sleeplessness. Others claim that it might help the creative process, as the sensation is so relaxing it can overwhelm the critical, logical part of our brains (the bit that stifles creativity before it even hits the page) and make a space where creativity can flourish.
I'd love to know how many other creative people experience ASMR, and if they actively use it to encourage and promote their creativity. ASMR is likened to 'flow': that sense that you're beyond time and completely in the moment, and that whatever you're doing is happening effortlessly. I find that a routine helps me to get into a flow state with my writing, but there are days when churning out the words is, frankly, hard work. And I wonder if a few minutes of ASMR would help unblock my thoughts and get those words pouring onto the page again.
And then I think, why have I never come across this sensation described in writing? Is it because we all assume that we experience life identically? And if so, what else are we missing?
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.