Books Magazine

September – First Drafts and Fresh Starts

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Hello and happy September! Thought it was about time I showed my face after a long break from the blog. I hope you’ve had a good summer. Thanks to the incredible generosity of friends, mine has been bookended by trips to Spain in June and now Provence, where I’m enjoying some downtime with my French sister-in-heart after a very intense August working on my new manuscript. A lot of the story is set in Cassis, about half an hour from Marseille, where I’ll be doing some legwork next week.

September – first drafts and fresh starts

I’m one of those writers for whom the well ran dry during the worst of the pandemic and I didn’t even care. I was too busy grieving my mother, battling an acute health crisis and clinging to my sanity by my fingernails. In 2020 I produced precisely one new thing, a 24-line poem. The fact that it got published conveniently reinforces my belief that the end result is what matters, not where, when, why, how long or how often*. When I have something I really want to say, it finds its way out there somehow.

*even if this kind of cancels this whole post

It’s a huge relief that this is now the case with the first draft of my next novel. It’s no secret that I find this the most difficult part of the whole endeavour, the bit where you have to drag something inherently and unavoidably mediocre and half-cooked out of your head in order to have something to work with. (I didn’t bother finishing it once I was confident that I would, eventually.) As I often tell the writers I mentor, stressing over it and beating yourself up are not helpful (though we all seem to excel at that) but ‘showing up’ is.

And for most of August, that’s what I did, day after day after day, cranking out 1,000 words which is (was) unheard of for me.  It was pissing me off that I’d taken about eight months to reach 42,000 words but couldn’t see further than the mid point of the story. The reason? It’s a very character-driven book and I didn’t know these people, what they’d say to each other, how things would unravel when I put them in a room – or on a terrace overlooking the Med like I am now. They took up residence in my head; I’d go for one of my long swims and two of them would have a conversation I couldn’t have anticipated at all, or I’d get some blinding revelation about what it’s really about. (Although, someone asked me about the themes the other day and if I ever write a novel that’s not about sex, death and fractured mother-daughter relationships, please check that I haven’t been abducted and replaced with an avatar).

Three things – other than frustration – combined to motivate me. Just days before I embarked on this mission, my second novel Scent was longlisted for the Polari Prize for LGBT+ writing which was the most incredible personal and professional validation and slayer of self-doubt. Thank you again to the judges for this honor.

Someone who fundamentally gets me and my work is really keen to read my next book which let’s face it is only going to happen if I write it and will only happen again if it’s any good. The flow state truly arrived the day after I put a gift she gave me on my desk. You might call it coincidence – to me it feels transcendent.

(And if you call that pretentious, tough!)

Lastly, I watched both seasons of the Swedish Netflix series Love and Anarchy. It’s a really unusual combination of extremely funny/inane, very hot and surprisingly profound (it’s also set in the publishing world and has some similarities with the plot of my debut novel Paris Mon Amour). The second season is a lot darker but the character development ramps up and the writers get extra points for representation of older women and same-sex relationships – clearly these are people after my own heart. The Swedish language gets extra points for spelling it Anarki. I also went out of my way to read books that would provide my mind with the right kind of fuel and made some amazing finds – mostly non-fiction – which I’ll share in a round-up very soon.

I’m leaving the manuscript to marinate for a few weeks which is a very important part of the process. Now I’m going for a walk along the Corniche to one of France’s best ice cream places, because a huge cone of weird, perfume-related flavours tastes better than a pat on the back. If you have writing projects for this autumn, good luck and remember to be nice to yourself. Like anything you love, it’s bound to hurt sometimes. That’s when you know you’re doing it right.

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