It’s clearly no good continuing to brood, though, and this week has felt like a process of clearing my desk, ahead of finding some new work to get excited about. I put the creepy flash fiction story through another draft and finally got it out to Stew’s editor (who liked it). I wrangled the first three chapters of my 9+ work-in-progress into a semi-coherent form, for my Oxford critique group to look at this weekend. And, after much umming and ahhing, I’ve decided to send a sample of my completed novel for the SCBWI Conference manuscript one-to-one. I was exceedingly tempted to send out 4,000 words of my work-in-progress, because that book is shiny and new and untainted in my mind by rejection. But I’ve also fallen into this trap before, of focusing on the new project and letting the old project fall by the wayside before it’s had its chance.
Meanwhile, I’ve been giving some thought to my creative direction. If this really is it for my hopes of becoming a conventionally-published novelist, what does that mean? Several writers have suggested taking the artistic high ground, and this is an idea that appeals to me right now. For too long, I’ve shaped my material to fit a preconceived idea of the market, frequently discarding books after a few chapters, as it seemed pointless to spend so long writing a novel that was unlikely to find publication. But when even my most commercial work is not finding favour, it’s time for some new thinking.
Given this self-imposed process, I suppose it should come as no surprise that my Stew stories (many of which have been constructed from abandoned material) feel more creatively vibrant. The short length and low risk has definitely encouraged me to experiment with form and content. I’m not putting my longer work down – it’s just as well-considered and well-crafted – merely observing that it tends to play things safe. Having said that, when I was rereading my work-in-progress this week, I was cheered by how out-there some of the book is. It’s full of the kind of voicey/zany stuff that often gets ruthlessly deleted in my quest for novelistic clarity. It isn't what anyone would describe as high art, but then it's not realistic to expect that I will suddenly start pumping out literary fiction!
Novice authors are often warned against writing a series of novels before they've secured publication for the first. There are good practical reasons around this, namely that a publisher may want major changes to the first book, which will then impact on the sequels. But I think there's also a stigma created by a certain kind of unpublished writer, who has embarked on a massive word splurge series (typically fantasy) and who becomes so lost in their own internal world that they also become immune to sense or reason.
I've always prided myself on being a "good" writer, one who wouldn't dare to send a fifteen-page synopsis of a seven-volume fantasy epic to an agent, and who dutifully parks my series ideas after the first installment is written. But that also means I've been missing out on creative opportunities that might have made me very happy. I fondly remember the day that my former agent asked me if I had any ideas for a sequel to my Undiscovered Voices novel Back from the Dead, as she wanted to share them with a publisher. I hadn't thought about this much, but once I opened Word, a miraculous stream of ideas poured out. Within half an hour, I had a fantastic one-page synopsis for a whole new novel. And yet the first novel didn't sell, so, four years later, I still have only those 337 words to show for it. But when I read those words back, they still excite me, and it's very clear that zombies as a cultural artefact aren't going anywhere.
Should I write it anyway? Even if I'd have to publish it myself? Here's the synopsis, so let me know!
SYNOPSIS: DEAD SCARY (BACK FROM THE DEAD SEQUEL)
Life should be getting back to normal for Griff Lawford – he and his parents are fully cured of the zombie virus, and his scientist friend Hugo Curzon has just been appointed the head of the government special task force for infection management. With the help of the Remedion 7 serum, it looks as if the zombie outbreak will be brought under control in a matter of weeks. Griff’s parents are still feckless musicians, of course, but he loves them and becomes annoyed at their random behaviour – disappearing at all hours of the day and night, and not being able to remember where they’ve been.
Griff tries to concentrate on helping his friend Sarah, who’s decided to find her own zombie parents. Hugo’s son James has become obsessed by the Broken Scar water-poisoning incident that caused the outbreak and Griff helps him hunt for clues to a cover-up. But then Griff himself starts to suffer from unexplained blackouts, waking up in unfamiliar places and with blood on his hands. At first, he fears that he is becoming a zombie again, but as he repeatedly flashes back to the eleven months he spent as a zombie, he begins to see a more sinister pattern. Griff knows that rogue scientist Roger Forsythe was experimenting on the bodies of the zombies he had captured. Griff fears that he might have been experimenting on their minds as well.
The zombies – previously scared of other humans – become bolder, venturing into towns, stealing and causing public hysteria. Griff’s parents disappear completely and he realises that Roger might be building an army of zombies, but to what end he can’t imagine. Hugo comes into grave danger and it is clear that Sarah’s parents are involved in all of this in a way none of the children could have expected. Griff must again fight against himself and the zombie threat, as he follows the threads of conspiracy that lead high into government and threaten the safety of everyone.