A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the struggle to keep going. The novel I am working on was feeling unwieldy and misshapen, and I couldn’t get a grip on it. It was only by writing that post that I realised how long that struggle had been going on, and I took drastic action.
The next day, I cut 12,000 words. It was like losing a gangrenous limb. Those three sections had, at one time, seemed necessary. They were long, obviously, and I liked so many things about them. I had worked so hard to make them as good as I thought they could be. But I had had doubts for weeks and the relief when they were finally gone, falling away while the rest of the manuscript drifted slightly higher, was intense and energising.
I began a new plan. I moved other elements around. I streamlined, though that sounds coldly managerial, and all of a sudden I had room for the parts that had been missing. Which means I am once again writing, actually writing, and not just tweaking. Whole new scenes need to be created and, since that is the fun part, I’m in quite a good mood.
It’s easy to write blog posts about things being difficult, so I am going to leave this happy little post here to remind me: there is so much joy in creating something new, and that creation shouldn’t always be shackled to complaints of how hard it is as well.
The news came yesterday that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There has been so much written about it already, an endless back and forth about whether songwriting is literature and, if it is, what that means for literature.
I find it hard to get angry about prize-giving. The idea that one person, or book, is simply and objectively better than all the rest seems obviously foolish. The idea that one person, or book, is absolutely undeserving of a prize seems just as foolish.
But this prize has made me sad and it took me a while to figure out why.
Last year’s winner was Svetlana Alexievich. I had never heard of her before, but I read a number of articles following the Nobel announcement and then read one of her books, Voices from Chernobyl. This is a woman whose work investigating, exposing and simply recording the tragedies of Soviet and post-Soviet history in Eastern Europe is intensely political. She had to leave Belarus because of what she was writing. Despite the size of the tragedies she writes about, the stories she tells are those of people whose stories do not generally get told. People get so easily lost within history and she gives them a place. By giving her a prize like the Nobel, it felt like the world gave them a place as well.
This year, I was looking forward to seeing whose stories would be illuminated by the Nobel. What part of the world would they open a door to? It was undoubtedly selfish of me to want the Nobel committee to give me someone whose work, and world, I could begin exploring.
I’m sad that this year we missed out on the chance of being introduced to someone who writes about people whose stories aren’t given much space or time or thought. I’m sad that for another year they will remain in obscurity because we are once again looking at white, middle-of-the-range America.
It’s not about deserving or not, it never really is with prizes. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of writers who might have deserved the Nobel this year and maybe Bob Dylan was one of them. But this year in particular, when diversity finally seems to be moving out of the tokenism of the early 2000s, I had higher hopes of whose stories might be chosen as a shining example of the best.
I have been stuck for a while. I have blamed it on many things but mainly the upheaval of moving to a different city. But I was stuck before that as well, and then I blamed it on summer and it’s associated distractions – socialising, long evenings, heat. The truth is I would be stuck no matter what was going on and these are just useful excuses.
I started thinking that maybe I am done, I’ve published something, isn’t that enough? Am I really going to just keep doing this, over and over and over? It’s really hard. And apparently it won’t ever not be hard. What the hell have I got myself into?
I have a draft of a novel, and another almost-draft. This is supposed to be good. I have done a lot of work and I’m reasonably proud of both of them. I should be elated.
But I’m not. After weeks (months) of tinkering, changing a word and knowing deep down the change did nothing, I did what we all do when we get stuck these days and I asked google. I found this:
A first draft is the beginning of the end. But the end lasts for ever.
Forever is a long time. I feel like I should be seeing a finish line for at least one of these drafts but instead it is like I just got off the plane at the foot of the Andes, and now I have to actually climb the bloody mountains. All of them. Do I restructure? Change the tense? (If you have ever changed the tense of more than a page, you will know what an intimidating thought that is.) Will it actually be better if I drastically change it or am I so tired that anything different will seem fresh and interesting? Do I just throw in the towel and start something else from scratch, something that might be good enough with only one draft? In the words of Mr Bernard Black, don’t make me laugh bitterly.
The worst thing, by far, is that there is nothing for it but to keep going, at a snail’s pace, with lots of cursing and wine, with the knowledge that even if the end comes it might not really be the end, there might be another eight-hundred drafts behind it, and the constant toddler-like foot-stamping changes nothing. This is it, and you better believe it just keeps going.
My instinct when I first try to describe a woman’s outfit is to say she is wearing a blouse. For some reason, that is the piece of clothing that automatically comes to mind. I’m not sure why, I don’t think I’ve ever actually worn a blouse. Does anyone wear blouses anymore? I’m not sure I’ve even described a man’s outfit but they would probably be wearing a blazer if I did.
There are many parts of A Perilous Margin which make me cringe to think back on, but one of the least consequential, easiest to fix and therefore most annoying is a description of food at a dinner party. It is terrible. A weird combination of dishes which no one, especially an artistic, reasonably well-off, middle-aged couple, would serve to friends.
Food and clothes are the bane of writing for me. They impact on every day of our lives and yet I have no words for them. I have no idea what people wear, what types of material clothes are made of, what different styles are called. Clothes create an immediate impression when we meet someone, and when introducing a character they can provide a cheat-sheet as to what that person is like. And yet, when every woman I write ends up wearing blouses it seems like they are either middle-aged or a complete dag.
The thing with food is I do have some understanding of it. I hate pretentious food and try not to open recipe books if I can help it, but I have a decent, basic understanding of what foods people eat and what those foods taste/look/smell like. And yet, while I am more than capable of noting all the times when characters are drinking tea, it is what they have had for lunch that I struggle with, even though that might give a clearer idea of their personality.
Maybe it is because, while I interact with food and clothes on a daily basis, the choices around them are not my favourite things to think about. Deciding what to wear in the morning is frustrating. I eat cornflakes for breakfast just so I don’t have to think about what to put on toast. I happily eat mushroom pasta every night. I think this ambivalence to two things which many people take a lot of pleasure from seeps into all my characters. They will be blouse-wearing, tea-drinking dags on the first, second and probably third edit, until I decide to put some time into thinking about a part of their life that I refuse to think about in my own. It may call for some research, *shudder*.
I find the word draft deceptive. It is so complete, so finite. It seems to belong to the days of typewriters. I can imagine someone sitting, typing page after page after page and laying them each in a pile. I can imagine them reading through it when it was finished, making changes in a nice red pen, then retyping the whole thing. Voila. That, to me, would be a draft.
I have been trying a new thing with two novels I am currently working on. In order to avoid the tendency to reread and continually amend the beginning chapters, which seems to lead to a pretty lopsided book, I have only let myself reread one previous paragraph before I start writing for the day.
Recently, I started from the beginning and read the whole thing. In some ways, I guess what I have just read is a draft.
What I really feel like I have been doing, however, is adding to a skeleton in order to hopefully, one day soon, have a draft. It is like I am making a real body, and the body will be the draft, because then I can cut off some fingers or even a limb, I can smoosh things around and end up with a new body, but I need a body to begin with. This is sounding a bit gross, sorry. Anyway, my first attempts are always skeletal, bare words which carry story but not much else. It is not complete enough, even at 60,000 words, to be a draft because a draft has to be a version of the final result.
To understand what I’m doing better, and because I’m a big nerd who likes thinking about things too much, I kept a few examples of paragraphs from before and after this process.
My dormitory had three extra occupants, I noticed as soon as I entered the room. They were absent but their heavy backpacks were lying against their beds. Men, I guessed by the look of their bags. I felt suddenly jarred by the thought of socialising, easy small-talk seemed suddenly far from my list of priorities. Although they weren’t there and I could in theory have stayed and been alone, I returned to the front of the hostel.
I was desperate to get back to my dormitory, which had been such a sanctuary the week before. I pushed the door open, preparing to feel cocooned in safety, and stopped. There were three heavy backpacks lying against three, formally empty beds. Men, I guessed by the look of their bags. I took a step in and dropped my bag on my bed. My bed, in what had been my room. The thought of socialising jarred against the image I had had for the evening, and small-talk was far from my list of priorities. I kicked off my hiking boots, aware of the odour in a way I hadn’t needed to be the week before, and put on my sandals. I stood, feeling lost, the bags like a presence in the room.
It’s still not finished but it is a relief to see progress. Hopefully that’s what I’m seeing.
I think it needs one more read through before it is actually a draft, and then I will abandon it for a nice couple of months. Then, I have found out about this nifty thing where you can send a PDF to your kindle. That is brilliant. That will be the real first draft, or maybe the seventeenth. Who’s counting anyway?
Read lots of really good books and try to be inspired by their genius rather than dispirited by the gulf between you
Read some badly written books and fix them in your head, and remind yourself that physiology – biting lips, churning stomachs, twisting fingers – is as painful to read as it is, apparently, for the character to experience
Read those sentences, paragraphs, or pages written by friends and family that seem so impossibly clever but remind yourself that that is a different gift to writing a book, and fight down that jealousy and the sense that you are the wrong person to be attempting this
Devote some of that precious writing time to looking through old work and thinking about how it might fit in the future
Daydream about all the amazing things that you will write and that maybe, one day, will be published, or else will be discovered on your death when you will be hailed the great, unsung hero of your generation
Think about what your life would be like if your favourite book had never been published
The referendum to decide whether the UK will remain in the European Union is happening on Thursday. Logically, I know the best thing is probably to remain. Without a doubt, the best thing for me is for the UK to remain since I am on an EU visa.
To remain is to carry on in much the same way, which makes sense for a country which is doing well and has no real reason to think that things will get better if it goes it alone.
But to leave is to make a new story – a story which could very well be catastrophic but which to me, an outsider, would be far more interesting.
Many leave campaigners seem to be under the impression that Britain’s historic international power was based on national talent and the ingenuity of the British people, rather than a rather bloodthirsty colonial spirit which has little (hopefully no) place in the modern world. Part of me looks forward to their arrogance being confronted with the reality that the country’s former power no longer commands respect or fear. Part of me looks forward to the stories that such a tumultuous time would create.
Don’t worry, rational me will win and I will vote to Remain, because unfortunately the boring choice is often the best choice in national politics.
The second talk I heard last weekend was called ‘City Fictions’ and included readings from a novel set in London and a novel set in Birmingham. The novels were chosen because the writers had tried – and presumably succeeded – in making the city a character, or character-like.
I love this idea, and it is something I tried to do in A Perilous Margin. The city we live in makes such an impact on our everyday lives – it takes me over an hour to get to work every day, I can see squirrels from my window at home, I walk streets everyday that have been bombed and rebuilt, just blocks from my work are thousands of objects stolen from around the world (controversial!) – these experiences effect me, as do the people I interact with and how they sound and what they have experienced. Using a city as merely a backdrop ignores the history, atmosphere, and layers of humanity unique to each place.
The woman who wrote about London moved here as an adult, while the woman who wrote about Birmingham grew up there. If I had been game enough to ask a question, I would have asked if they think those differences effect how they see the cities. There is something undeniably magical about the transition from tourist to local when you move to a new city. There is the first honeymoon year of finding a job, a home, buying plates and forks, watching your routines meld and mesh with these new spaces and pinching yourself everyday that THIS is where you live. There is the second year of getting a better job, a better home, buying a third and fourth fork (because you might have guests!), having visitors, learning to navigate without a map and the thrill of returning to places that you already know you like. And by the third year it’s just home. Or at least, this is how it has worked for me.
Hometowns are different. I didn’t stay in my hometown and now I find it quite impossible to imagine relating to it as an adult. All I know is the personal history is inescapable no matter how much the city changes, and I presume that is the same for people who stay.
The only place I’ve tried to write about is Sydney. When I first tried to think about how a city works in our lives, I thought about the difference between the New York City in Friends and the New York City in Sex and the City. I know, deep stuff. In Friends, they could be anywhere with a flat and a coffee shop, and occasionally that cardboard-looking street outside Central Perk. But the city is everywhere in Sex and the City – the views, the weather, the pedestrians, the taxis and traffic, the food – all of it informs the lives we see and seems much more realistic.
I’m writing my second novel now, and I’m getting a bit stuck. Sydney is feeling further away, and yet I can’t imagine knowing London well enough to write about it. It’s not just a new city, it’s a new culture, and it has so many bloody accents. Maybe one day I will know it well enough. Maybe that comes in the fourth year, I’ll just have to wait and see.
Yesterday I went to the Greenwich Book Festival, a two-day series of talks and readings in the Old Royal Naval College. I’m always a bit uncomfortable at these things, as I am anywhere where people are rhapsodizing about anything in particular. There is just so much in the world to love, and hate, that spending two days on anything seems a bit tunnel-visioned. I do love books, however, so I tried to ignore my misgivings.
The first talk I went to was about small independent presses and how they are in a ‘silver age’ and it struck me more completely than it has before how little control we have over what we read. I fully believe in the power of books to change our minds, our thinking, our lives. They develop empathy and push our experiences out of the immediate here and now and into an entire range of possibilities, and impossibilities. Through books I have met 19th century blacksmiths and 21st century zombies, Russian widows and Indian musicians, hermits and politicians and brain surgeons. I have been there while people fall in and out of love, have children and lose children, forget themselves and journey through self-discovery. There is an incomprehensible magic in being allowed into all these lives.
And yet, how many people have we been denied because a business model doesn’t think their story will sell? The three owners of independent presses spoke about how they do what they do for the love of literature, while large publishers have enormous overheads to cover and as such, can only publish commercially viable fiction. And yet they were saying that they personally choose what their press publishes. The ten books they release a year is entirely in their hands and dependent on their taste, and while there are many of these small presses there is no way they can cover all the good fiction that’s around.
So while they were busy bemoaning the evils of Amazon, I was thinking thank god we have another option now. Thank god I could release Andie and Caroline into the world because it is where I think they belong, and not because they will make anyone mountains of money.
Now I must try to navigate the self-publishing waters to try to find these mysterious characters whose lives might have been dismissed by people in The Business but who I, nevertheless, want to meet.
Many years ago I read something that my sister had written. While I enjoyed reading it, it concerned me and the first thing I said to her was, “I knew you always thought I was gay!”
You see, the younger sister in her piece was gay.
She laughed and said she didn’t remember ever thinking that. She said it was fiction.
One of the greatest terrors of showing other people my work is wondering if they will notice when I have borrowed parts of them to make new people. Or, even worse, if they will see something that is purely fictional and wonder if that is how I see them.
One of the interesting things about writing A Perilous Margin was seeing the fiction overtake the reality with each draft. I no longer feel there are parts of it which closely reflect people I know, and I guess that is one of the reasons I knew I was ready to publish it. While vague characterisations will always exist, I don’t think anyone will think I used them, especially not negatively.
But then I remembered what I thought about my sister’s work, and I realised people will always look for themselves when they know the author.
Lithub recently published an article which features court cases against writers by angry family members and friends who felt their identities had been taken and used maliciously.
As I am just beginning this writerly journey, I’m not sure how I feel about that. On one hand, I believe I have little control over what I write. On the other, publishing is entirely within my control. Perhaps it is a fine line I need to learn to walk, the line between finding inspiration in the people around me and respecting their right to privacy.