Reading English and Writing a Novel

The City of Silk and SteelGollancz is delighted to be able to bring you a series of guest posts from Mike, Linda and Louise Carey to celebrate the publication of The City of Silk and Steel. Today, we are thrilled to bring you a guest post from Louise Carey.

It’s 3am on Tuesday 12th March.  I’m sitting at my desk, coffee cup in hand, having just finished the last piece of coursework that I will ever have to submit for my BA in English Literature.  There’s nothing left for me to do now except revise until my final exams start in May, after which I’ll (hopefully) graduate, after which it will at last be time for me to face up to the terrifying prospect of today’s job market and- gulp- adulthood.

This time two years ago, I was sitting at my desk, coffee cup in hand, wishing that I could split my brain in half in the vain hope that it might allow me to simultaneously finish both the City of Silk and Steel chapters which I’d promised my parents I’d rough out that night, and an essay on the Canterbury Tales due in the following morning.

Agreeing to write one third of a novel at the same time as doing a degree was in some respects one of the stupider decisions I’ve made.  Back when dad first proposed the idea, in those halcyon days of my A levels when I still knew what free time was and routinely made it to bed before dawn, it all seemed so much easier.  As dad mentioned in his blog post, the planning took easily twice as long as writing the novel itself, and at that early stage I got the impression that the life of a writer consisted mainly of extended working lunches where your parents picked up the bill.

It was only after we got a publisher, shortly before I left for Oxford, that I realised that mum and dad clearly had to do more with their days than play minesweeper and take their daughter out for the occasional Thai green curry in order to keep those careers of theirs ticking over.  I’d had no idea that writing took so much thought.  I take after my mum in that I like to plan down to the last detail, and I’m never confident enough to just wing it and hope for the best when I’m having trouble imagining how a plot device will play out, or a certain scene will work.  So, when I was writing about camels, I spent a morning browsing through camel fanciers’ websites, and the scene where Rem fights Hakkim was the product of many a youtube tutorial on the finer points of hand-to-hand combat.  This meant that roughing out chapters took ages, and writing them even longer.

When the real business of writing kicked in, juggling the demands of my degree and the novel meant that I tended to work on The City of Silk and Steel in short, intense bursts, usually in the holidays between terms.  I approached the book with the same set of rules which I applied to being a student:

1)      Never hand anything in before you absolutely have to.

2)      Leave everything to the last minute.

3)      The hours between 12 midnight and 4am are productivity gold.

This ethos often alarmed and frustrated my dad, who liked to read my chapters well in advance in order to catch any howlers before our publisher saw them and perhaps questioned the wisdom of giving us this book deal in the first place.  When I finished off the epilogue on the morning of our final deadline (already renegotiated once, I might add), having pulled an all-nighter on the living room sofa, he wasn’t best pleased.  I remember us passing one another on the stairs at 7am, he starting his working day while I stumbled off to bed, and exchanging a look of mutual bafflement.  Anyone who thinks that living together might have made the process of collaboration easier should remember that students and normal people effectively occupy different time zones.

I wrote the majority of my third of the novel in the summer holidays between my first and second year of university, between June and the start of September.  Of course, the term ‘holiday’ has always been a rather problematic concept in Oxford, so I was supposed to have been writing two essays as well.  In my first academic meeting of the new term, with about 50,000 words under my belt and the US publication of the novel just around the corner, my tutors asked me to explain why I looked so exhausted and yet hadn’t finished any of the work they’d actually set me.  I smiled weakly and offered them a signed copy of The City of Silk and Steel when it came out.  Needless to say, they weren’t best pleased either.

Writing The City of Silk and Steel was, as I said, a somewhat stupid decision.  It was also the best decision I have ever made.  Doing a degree and writing part of a novel was certainly a challenge, and yes, along the way there was stress, tears, family rows and a lot of late nights.  But there were also working lunches, amazing discussions, and, at the end of it all, a feeling that if I’d managed to get through this, perhaps adulthood might not be so daunting after all.

The City of Silk and Steel is out now where all good books are sold.