The Bloody Inches are islands in the lower River Tay and I think about them quite a lot. Their name has fascinated me since I first heard it, although until recently I didn’t know how they gained it. It turns out that a Northern warlord (perhaps Danish, perhaps a Viking) called Ragnar Lodbrok (or Regner Lodbrog, or Ragnar Lothbrok, or possibly Great Aunt Mathilda – history is a little fuzzy on who exactly he was, what exactly he can be confirmed as having done, and who he eventually fathered) was defeated on those islands in the mid-ninth century and driven from Scotland. (Here’s a link, though I think it adopts a more authoritative tone than it can really justify. The story’s about halfway down the page.)
I like the name Bloody Inches. It speaks, very eloquently, to the grim-hearted striving after something that only sheer brute stubbornness is going to accomplish. And it acknowledges that whatever progress is made is only made in tiny increments.
It’s been going through my mind recently because I’m still plugging away at The Wings of the Dawn. Some of you may know that the current word count is hovering at around 207,000; of rather more import is the fact that I am now in the last third of the novel. In other words, it’s the final act.
This is enormously intimidating, because now I have to start putting my cards on the table. I’ve thrown out threads, plot notions, hints and suggestions for the last – gulp – 650,000 words and now it’s time to find out if, in fact, I’ve been all talk and no trousers. Now’s when I have to start justifying the faith of the people who will have read the story until this point. They’ve invested emotional capital in this story by choosing to care about it: now’s the point when I have to start coughing up the rewards for that dedication.
And here’s my confession – I’m worried. Scared, in fact. Because while I have a reasonable idea of where the next five chapters are going – well, four-and-a-bit if you include the stuff I’ve already written – it’s the five after that, the final five, that are a whole lot less clear in my mind. (One thing I’m clinging to: I know exactly what happens in the epilogue.)
Years ago I did a bullet-point plan for the trilogy. I still have it, and occasionally I look at it and laugh, because I fairly swiftly wandered comically far from it. But it was nice to have, in the same way that even if you’re a confident swimmer it’s nice to be able to look over your shoulder once in a while and see the lifeguard standing on the shore. Now that I am finally out of sight of land, I am intensely aware that there’s no one standing by to fling me a rope: now I get to find out if I will sink or swim.
Here’s the thing. On the days when the writing’s going well there is literally no better feeling that I know of. Days when the writing comes easily, when the story flows, when you can reel off 2,000 words – 2,000 good words – at the drop of a hat, are brilliant. There have been occasions when I have struggled to type because my hands were shaking from the adrenaline backwash of the world’s best feedback loop – the loop that says this is good – I can do this – I’m having fun – I like what I’m writing ad infinitum.
I had a day like that a few weeks ago. But since then I’ve been struggling. Nothing seems to flow (though looking at the words on the page, you can’t tell. There’s a reason for that, and it’s called ‘professional pride’.) There hasn’t been a clear path through the undergrowth in my imagination.
So, I’ve been doing what I do when this happens. I’ve been tidying the supporting documentation. I’ve been making sure that the ships in the file called ‘Ships’ (there’s a time and a place for creativity) are up-to-date – that the ones that have been destroyed are marked as unavailable, and the locations of their destruction are noted down. This isn’t busywork, incidentally – first of all it wards off continuity errors, the bane of every long story; and secondly it’s always easier to play any game if you know what pieces are left on the board. Good writing days are much more common when you’re not having to stop and think about what ships you can use or what characters are where. If all the tools are to hand, the task gets done a whole lot more quickly.
(A brief aside: it’s surprising how easy it is to lose track of this kind of stuff. For this book I introduced a whole new class of ships, Duke-class Stealth Frigates, and I gave myself a resource of 18 of them. It wasn’t until earlier this week, when I realised that I needed 4 for a scene and couldn’t remember which ones were still extant, that I discovered that no fewer than 13 had been written off. That made me blink and sent me scurrying to a list of Dukedoms on Wikipedia, so that now I have added more to the class and the Gloucester, Wellington, York, Lancaster and Argyll have been joined by the Roxburghe, Aumale, Chandos, Rutland, Montrose and Qwghlm.)
I also know the title of the next chapter – ‘Nachthexen’ – which is a reference to these formidable ladies. I also know I want to know more about the German response to their activities, which rather suggests that my next non-fiction book – once I’ve finished reading this biography of John Dee, which has been providing me with all kinds of useful information that will yet make an appearance in my novel and which will go some way to tying up some the threads I mentioned earlier – is likely to be this one. But that’s next month’s problem/opportunity/task. This month I’m still trying to achieve the basic, fundamental order of business for any novelist: finish the current chapter. I can do it, too, if I average 730 words a day for the next 10 days. So for the remainder of the month, I will be claiming, as best I can, the bloody inches.
And here is your moment of Zen for today:
A Robinson J11 ‘Pom-Pom’ emerges from the tunnel and shuffles through the cutting with a train of loaded Trout ballast wagons.