When The Novel You End Up With Isn’t The One You Started Out Writing…

29 Oct

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to move back to my hometown of Glasgow.  The reasons were complicated, but part of it was because I felt so uninspired by where I was living. This was Aberdeen in Scotland. If you’ve ever lived there, you’ll know that it’s permanently cold and has a nasty habit of being shrouded in fog when everywhere else in Scotland is bathed in sunshine (which is admittedly rare). If you haven’t lived there, I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Anyway, after primarily writing in the dry academic mode for about twenty years, I wanted to stretch my creative wings a little. My aim was to write a novel loosely based on my student days at Glasgow University, but somehow the book I ended up with turned out to be a post-apocalyptic novel involving zombie-like infected (please, no jokes asking how I could tell the difference!).  I decided to ask myself how this happened.  This posting is the result.

I’d had the rough idea for both of these books floating around in my head for some years, but it was the one about student life in Glasgow at the start of the 1990s that I most wanted to write.  It was an interesting little sub-culture, with the potential for lots of intriguing characters.  It was also an interesting time to emerge from adolescence into adulthood.  This was Britain under the last few years of the faltering, and much hated, Thatcher government. Political unrest was in the air over things like the dreaded poll tax and Scottish devolution. So basically, there was a lot going for it that would make it a nice backdrop for a novel.  The trouble was I just couldn’t get into the head of the main character. Really, the issue here was I was having trouble writing from the point of view of an eighteen year old (I haven’t been close to that age in this millennium).  I knew what I wanted him to do, but I just couldn’t get it to come across as real.

This led me to make several failed attempts to get the book off the ground, each followed by several months of avoiding doing anything more with it.  I think I completely re-wrote the opening section where the main character is introduced four times but was just as unhappy with each one. So basically, I getting no where with this whole ‘Move back to Glasgow and write a book’ thing.

Then out of the blue, I heard that some of the filming for the movie version of World War Z was going to be done in Glasgow and that they were looking for extras.  I’ve always been a fan of post-apocalyptic stories, and particularly of the Zombie sub-genre, and so I couldn’t resist trying out.  Also, the money would come in really handy. While standing around on the set waiting for something to happen (there’s an awful lot of that in being an extra), I got chatting to some other Zombie fans and at some point I casually mentioned the idea for a post-apocalyptic zombie-type story based around people being trapped on a boat I had lying in the back of my head.  I was surprised to find that people seemed to like the idea, especially the fact that it would be something a little different from the usual zombie books. More importantly, they told me it was a book they’d probably want to read (and maybe even buy).

After the filming, life got back to normal (well as normal as my life ever is), and I tried and failed yet again to get my book about life as a student in 1990s Glasgow up and running. A bit depressed, I stumbled over an outline I’d put together for the post-apocalyptic zombie book, and more to procrastinate over what I should have been doing than anything else, I started to flesh it out. It turned out I found it much easier to get into the heads of characters facing the complete collapse and annihilation of their world than I did that of a Glaswegian teenager (I don’t know what that says about me!).  In no time, I was up and running and I was finding it fun rather than a chore.  After all, what could be more fun that destroying cities with a few words, wiping out civilisation with a single key-stroke or dreaming up deadly scenarios involving zombie-like creatures infected with some mutant virus that my characters would have to escape from. It also helped that I’d chosen to set it around the northern Bahamas, I place I’d lived on and off for much of the end of the nineteen-nineties and I got to relive my memories from an interesting part of my life.

Before I knew it, I had achieved my aim of writing a novel (well it took about nine months in all – with time off in between to earn some cash), just not the one I’d originally set out to write. Even the zombie book has changed dramatically from the original sketches I had in my head.  It’s much darker and bleaker than I’d originally anticipated, and is more about post-apocalyptic survival in a world turned upside down than the zombies (or more accurately zombie-like infected).

I think the lesson here is that, as a writer, often we look up to find that somehow we’re heading in a very different direction from the one we set out in.  Most of the time, we need to rein ourselves back in to keep things on track, but sometimes we need to accept that this isn’t a bad thing and go in the new direction that we’re being taken rather than fighting it. I’ll go back and write that other book eventually (or at least I’ll dust the idea off and give it another go some point), but for now I’m happily immersed the post-apocalyptic world I’ve created, and in writing the follow-up to For Those In Peril On The Sea. It happens to be set in Glasgow and involves the city being over-run by infected and destroyed by fuel-air bombs. I know, I can already hear you saying it again: ‘How would anyone know the difference?’


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

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