The journey of a novel: Snakeskins

I hope you’re all managing in these strangest of times. After the first two weeks of lockdown and homeschooling, my brain’s starting to come alive again, little by little, by which I mean I’m writing again.

I’ll have updates about my next novel, Hope Island, very soon – but for now here’s a turning-back of the clocks by almost a year, to my last novel, Snakeskins. The article below was originally intended to feature in BSFA Focus, but after a mix-up it’s now without a home, so I thought I’d put it up here. It’s an overview of the writing and route to publication, which may be of most interest to upcoming writers.


Beginnings and false starts

In July 2015 I noted the following idea in a Word document:

Instead of the body’s cells gradually being replaced every 7–10 years, it all happens in an instant. This produces a ‘snakeskin’ version of yourself that is able to live independently, for a time. Somebody living a full life might produce eight Snakeskins, each of which continue to live for a short period after being ‘discarded’.

It sounded a rich idea, and even had a title built in. I began writing a story about a teenage girl experiencing her first ‘shedding’, roughly coinciding with her entry to adulthood. The result was… all right. I liked the depiction of the shedding ceremony well enough, but the aftermath felt too brief, constrained by the short story format. I had concentrated on this aspect: Perhaps Snakeskins tend not to be inhibited because they know they have limited time to live. Are they therefore more effective people? But this seemed only one possible repercussion, and more occurred to me over the following days. I wrote this list – the first item no doubt informed by the fact that I was considering quitting my job at the time:

Pros of Snakeskins:

  • You might be able to convince your Snakeskin to do your day job for you
  • Someone to confide in, who understands you entirely
  • Rejuvenation?
  • Sheddings represent important milestones in life, especially the first one

Cons:

  • Can’t necessarily control or even relate to your Snakeskin
  • Unwanted responsibility for someone else
  • Interruption to normal life
  • Desperately sad – like caring for someone with terminal illness

The short story had been vague about the world in which the characters existed. I began to wonder about aspects that might affect wider society. Had people always produced Snakeskins? Did everyone produce them? Did the process have some scientific basis, or was it essentially magic? How would Snakeskins expire – an ordinary death, or something stranger?

I ran through other possibilities. Should a novel-length version of Snakeskins be a Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque parable? Should the story be from the point of view of the Snakeskin? Should the teenager, Caitlin Hext, exploit her identical twin by perpetrating impossible crimes? Should it be set on Mars? (There’s no rhyme or reason to the final suggestion; I always ask myself whether stories ought to be set on Mars. I just like Mars.)

Ultimately, it was the issue of identity that felt central – the same conflict as in the original short story, but explored more fully. The teenager would produce her first Snakeskin, and would immediately question whether her new twin was a benefit or a liability, a blessing or a curse. The world would be broadened by the introduction of two other viewpoint characters, an investigative reporter and a political aide, to allow the reader glimpses of a Britain that has long wrestled with the moral and ethical quandaries thrown up by the existence of these temporary clones.

Influences

I’d never written a novel with multiple viewpoints before, but planning it felt quite natural. Some of the biggest influences on the novel in terms of pacing and structure were TV series, from more obvious examples such as Humans, which deliberates upon the place of anthropomorphic robots in society, to Deutschland 83, about an East German spy working undercover in West Germany during the Cold War.

However, one literary influence towers over the others. When I came to pin down the origins of the Snakeskins, I tested various ideas, but in the end settled on a meteor strike that occurred a century ago – directly inspired by the meteor shower in John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids.

I can’t overstate the importance of this novel to me. At the age of ten, I’d been a rabid Doctor Who fan for a couple of years, despite my introduction to the programme coinciding with its cancellation. The Target novelisations of the televised TV serials had turned me from an avid reader into a bibliophile. Perhaps concerned at my literary cul-de-sac, my parents encouraged me to read two tangentially related books: H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.

Wells’s novel is wonderful. It’s serious and pulpy and pretentious and daft all at the same time. With The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine, Wells covered the bases of a huge range of what would become accepted SF territory. The Day of the Triffids is another matter entirely. When I read it, I swear I could feel a rearrangement of my brain patterns. My first shock was the shock. I was totally unnerved by the initial hospital scenes in which the protagonist observes people blinded after witnessing the meteor shower. A snapshot image of a blind patient standing in broad daylight, demanding that the curtains be opened, haunted me for months. I’d been prepared for an alien invasion, but the beginning of the book was, in fact, my introduction to horror.

And the alien invasion was complicated, too. Far from a marauding army, the Triffids – huge, carnivorous plants – arrived on Earth years before the novel begins and have been initially safely contained. Our hero, Bill Masen, is already an expert on the Triffids. It’s only the effects of the meteor shower – the debilitation of the majority of the human population – that allows the Triffids to escape and thrive.

This setup remains hugely important to me. This idea of a latent threat (and a seismic event that happened some time ago, with the reader a first-hand witness only of the aftermath) is intoxicating. More and more, my favourite SF would follow this same pattern: benign new phenomena gradually being perceived as a threat. For example, soon after I read the Wyndham book, Russell T Davies’ Dark Season was televised on Children’s BBC – another touchstone to which I’m indebted.

There are other aspects of The Day of the Triffids that I find appealing. Brian Aldiss was referring explicitly to Wyndham’s books when he coined the term ‘cosy catastrophe’, but this seems hardly an insult. The vision of a post-apocalypse as largely safe, but with societal rules reset and simplified, was tremendously appealing to a child trying to understand the workings of a complex world, and it still appeals to me as an adult, whenever I find myself mired in chores or bureaucracy.

When I finally decided to make writing more than a vague ambition, the influence of John Wyndham was embedded in my stories from the start. My first short story was about an unexplained, persistent, blinding light that forced people to remain in their homes with their eyes covered. My novella, Blighters, features giant alien slugs that landed on Earth years ago, docile and exuding calm that affects anybody in the vicinity, so that they’re fought over for their strange properties.

I’m very happy to acknowledge this debt. The science fiction genre is formulated around appropriation, with new writers ruminating upon and expanding upon earlier ideas. Though John Wyndham resisted describing his work as following in an SF tradition, there are clear similarities between his novels and the works of Wells.  (This has noted by Christopher Priest, himself another great writer inspired by Wells, in several of his lectures.) However, no matter how many times I’ve riffed on The Day of the Triffids, each time I’ve soon diverged from it, finding my way towards my own specific concerns.

I’m currently finishing up edits on a novel, Hope Island*, which is about creepy children, and therefore clearly related to Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. At least, that was a starting point, but the plot and themes of my novel have diverged far from the inspiration; it’s now as much about parental anxieties, and my current obsession of sound manipulation, as anything else. While it’s healthy to acknowledge influences and thefts, and to make use of the narrative structures of our genre’s forebears, it’s also crucial to ensure that neither Hope Island nor Snakeskins become a clone of earlier works. Wyndham’s inspiration is only a jumping off point for me, not the destination.

The writer’s relationship to their novel

Another key aspect of the journey of creating a novel is the writer’s own attitude towards it. Snakeskins is not my first novel, but its publication by Titan Books felt like my ‘arrival’ due to the company’s far wider reach than the presses that put out my earlier work. It’s allowed me to justify spending more time writing, with far less of the guilty sense of indulgence. It’s changed how I view myself, too. Before this year, if asked the question, “What do you do for a living?” I would answer, “I’m an editor, but I write in my spare time.” Now, my answer is: “I’m a writer, but I also edit.” A subtle but also enormous change.

After I finished writing the manuscript in February 2017, I had a decent amount of faith in it, or at least its elevator pitch and its commercial potential, and I hoped it would allow me to find a literary agent. It didn’t – the two-book deal from Titan came first, the agent second. In fact, the manuscript was rejected by many agents before the offer came about, though several gave encouraging feedback. Furthermore, in the same week that Titan offered to publish the book, one of my favourite contemporary writers, Aliya Whiteley, announced her new novel, The Loosening Skin, which just happened to feature people shedding their skins every seven years… I was downhearted and certain that Snakeskins was destined for the bottom drawer. It felt that the manuscript was changing with each month that passed. I imagined it decaying, turning from an object of pride into something rotten.

A writer’s attitude to their own work has a great deal to do with its reception by others. For an unagented writer with no particular links to publishers, this reception comes in the form of feedback from ‘gatekeepers’ – agents and commissioning editors – and therefore a negative response means no publication at all. The published version of Snakeskins is, by and large, the same manuscript that I’d resigned myself to ditching in 2017, and only its perceived value changed. Upon publication in 2019, the novel featured enthusiastic cover quotes by authors whose work I love, and it was reviewed favourably. It also turned out to have little in common with The Loosening Skin despite the similar starting points. Most mind-boggling of all, it can now be found in – and has been bought from – bookshops. It turns out that the decay wasn’t real. My plummeting opinion of the manuscript was wrong.

I’m still struggling with the idea that I seem to have moved past the point of people disputing whether my writing deserves to be published in any form. The imposter syndrome remains very strong and I have to give myself a talking-to fairly often. But I find it helpful to look back at the journey taken by Snakeskins and to remind myself that, once written, a novel has a life of its own.

*Out-of-date reference! Hope Island is entirely complete and will be published soon!

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