How to write a novel during a global pandemic
Updated: Aug 30, 2021
Step 1) Lose your job, your visa and your house
Before the pandemic I was living in Switzerland with my boyfriend Chachi. I was teaching advanced exam English and trying to get on Rupaul’s drag race. In January and February my students joked about the Corona virus. I even worked some fun sentences about it into my lesson on the future-present-perfect tense. Then all my work was cancelled, I lost my visa, and I had to go back to my parent’s house in England. I waved goodbye to Chachi at the airport not knowing when we’d be able to see each other again.
At the same time, I was getting pre-written rejection letters from agents about my first novel,
“Though there was much to admire about your writing, we don’t feel strongly enough to offer you representation.”
I lay there in a mire of lethargy, in my teenage bedroom writing erotica and posting it online. Actually, the erotica got a lot of positive feedback – horny gays saying I was a good writer, and they couldn’t wait for the next part. It was their horny feedback that motivated me. I thought, I’m going to write another novel, something short, and wild, and moving, and self-publish it.
Step 2) Mull over the story for half a decade, then find it's emotional core.
The idea for “Two Million” had been with me for a while. (An anxious guy wakes up next to an alcoholic lottery winner, who takes them both on an international bender.) I was inspired by past journeys with drunk friends. The time I flew to Israel with a friend who was drinking only Baileys Irish Cream Liqueur. He quickly ran back to get a whole new bottle before boarding the plane, then ended up vomiting on my hat.
I also briefly worked in a bar that had the largest collection of gins in the world. That’s where I got the idea that Max, the anti-hero of my novel, would be a kind of rogue cocktail waiter. He has a portable mini-bar in a supermarket carrier bag. He mixes champagne cocktails in the street, on public transport, and at one point while rolling around in the jungle getting stung by mosquitos.
But I’d decided not to write this novel, it was missing something: the emotional core that takes it from being entertaining, to being real and heart-rending. I have a huge unironic admiration for the heterosexual classic: “Love Story” by Erich Segal. It’s only 130 pages long, but through lots of short convincing dialogue you become very emotionally invested in the characters.
One night in the second month of the lockdown I was thinking about the narrator of Two Million: an anxious Londoner called Theo who is addicted to Bach Rescue Remedy. And it suddenly came to me, the ending, the emotional strand that holds the story together.
Part 3) Find a mansion to write in
I’m a slow writer, I can manage about 500 words on a good day. To slow it down even further, I write in a notebook. Something about staring at Microsoft Word shuts off the bit of my mind that is able to invent stuff. But writing those five-hundred-or-so words a day about Max and Theo’s drunken adventure became my escapism.
At the same time, a friend of mine known as Unicorn was spending his lockdown with flamboyant gays on a 12-acre property that belonged to his grandparents. He finally took pity on me and drove across the country in his broken-down car to pick me up.
I was jobless with no money, but I was writing at an antique Victorian card table in a palatial bedroom with a view of our own personal lake. It was a dream come true – maybe especially the joblessness. We floated around the lake in the sun on inflatables – living in this opulent enclave while the world around us seemed to be experiencing a mild apocalypse.
Having a writing area with a good view helps. It’s a palette cleanser between writing about nihilistic philosophy and drunken shopping sprees. I finished my last novel in a cheap hostel in Guatemala with a view of a volcano. It helps having friends around too. Though I remember one day being so wrapped up in my writing that I was standing rapidly scrawling dialogue while they were waiting to have a meeting. I was in that alchemical state, when you’re so hooked on your own book that you have to keep writing to see what happens next.
Part 4) Write an ending that makes you cry (while you’re writing it)
The mansion sold, and we lived out the last few days there in a mix of hallucinogens and smashing crockery to Lady Gaga’s new album. Chachi came to visit in a break between lockdowns. He kept whining,
“What if you've changed. We’ve been apart for so long.”
But it was even better than before – we bought cheap cycling outfits, cycled across the Norfolk Broads, and made out in an ancient oak tree.
Then I was back in my parents’ house in another lockdown, unable to make any plans for the future other than finishing the book. I think the last two chapters were the hardest. If an ending isn’t fulfilling it tarnishes the whole book. Then there’s a book like “UBIK” by Phillip K Dick where the last few lines manage to redeem the whole story. I don’t consider a book properly finished unless I cry while writing the last few lines – and I did.
Part 5) Edit it until you can’t bare to look at it.
In December I went back to Switzerland and spent most of the time with Chachi in quarantine. His grandparents had both been taken off to hospital with the corona virus. We both caught it by quarantining in their house.
I printed out the first edition of the book and joyfully crossed out whole pages of writing. Like my first novel I had to completely re-write the first few chapters. I get to know the characters by writing their dialogue. By the time I've finished a book, I can go back to the start and know what they would and wouldn’t say. Chachi isn’t a fan of my perfectionist editing and re-editing. But I was still laughing at some of Theo and Max’s antics even five or six drafts in. I was also very ill and drinking Singapore Slings for research.
On new years eve, we went out into the cold and watched fireworks go off all around us. I didn’t know what we were going to do next, Brexit stopping us moving back in together, and another lockdown about to happen in the UK. But I was glad the year had given me the opportunity to write this wild, beautiful book.