I see this topic a lot on writing forums (fora? forii??) and I’ve been asked it a few times too. And I don’t know. I tried to write Not Your Heart Away a lot, but I didn’t know that was what I was trying to write. It wasn’t ready.
I wrote a shadow of it when I was eighteen, just after I finished A Levels and couldn’t stop working. If I’d started working earlier it might have helped. It took about a month and it was just under 50,000 words. It’s on Amazon as A Day For Pyjamas and one of these days I have to get down to doing something with it.
For an eighteen year old it was ok. I tried to get it published but I hadn’t a clue where to start. I walked up and down the Grays Inn Road with it one day knocking on doors and entirely surprisingly to me, got nowhere at all. I went to Smiths and got another publisher’s address out of the first book I saw. Pan liked it, took it home and read it one weekend or so they said, but pointed out quite reasonably that they were actually more into publishing stuff other publishers had already published, so they knew there was a market for them. This was also the time it might have become obvious to anyone a bit more self-aware that one of the steps in my cognitive process wasn’t fixed that securely. A Day For Pyjamas was a love story about a teenage boy who can’t steel himself to get the girl of his dreams, for reasons he can’t work out. From here, I can – I think he wanted to play safe and did it the worst way possible, because your heart doesn’t know what it means. But not the point. This is the book I took the publisher’s name from, in WH Smiths in Trowbridge, a long time ago, when I was looking for someone to help me bring this tender, angsty, teenage love story to paper:
There’s something not right in that thinking, isn’t there? So hard at the time to see quite what, though. Oddly, Pan thought it wasn’t quite their thing, not without more Panzerfaust rocket launchers in the text than I thought the sensitive, calf-eyed poet narrator could reasonably carry to school. Back in Walcot Nation, Bath Arts Workshop had a look at it and decided they’d publish it. Then their funding was axed. Then their building burned down when someone decided to get really into his roots and light a cooking fire. On a 250 year-old hardwood Georgian floor. No, not in the same room as. On.
After that I took it as a sign that A Day For Pyjamas was supposed to do what it did, go back in the drawer for years to be taken out and shown to a select audience as conclusive proof that I really was sensitive and artistic and you know, if they turned the lights down and sat on the sofa, no, over here with me, we could maybe read it together. That didn’t work out most of the time either. But the story was still smouldering at the back of my head. I’d get glimpses of it, the same kind of feeling you have when you go into a room looking for something and as soon as you’re there you can’t remember what it was you were looking for.
I could never put my finger on what it was the story was looking for. Maybe love. Or the past, but really none of those and more than them, both. Certainly both of those things got it written. Last August I drove down to see an old friend, someone I knew from the days the book was set. We sat up nearly all night, far too old to do this, far too old not to now, talking about old times and all the “whatever happened to” stories. When I came home I stopped outside the house of someone I used to know. It’s in the book. It felt like thirty years before, even though I couldn’t get into the grounds and had forgotten or never really knew that this house actually had grounds. No-one ever talked about it. Not the girl who used to live there, certainly. I stood in the lane and a wave of I don’t know what seemed to flow down the lane towards me. Warmth. Happiness. Nervousness. The other word Ben in the book couldn’t bring himself to use, the one he couldn’t trust himself with. I spoke someone’s name from long ago.
I got in my car and drove away. When I sat down to write that week it didn’t stop. 111,000 words later it became Not Your Heart Away. It’s a memorial to the times when there was something you were just about to find, before you never quite found it, before it slipped out of your fingers into the shadows again.
So that’s how I wrote it. You have to feel it. But more than that, you have to sit down and do it. And the sitting down, facing up to having to do it, that’s the really hard part. Write the story in your heart. Everyone’s got one. All you have to do is listen to it.