Monday, February 8, 2010

On Novel B: Black Holes and Revelations

The single most exhilarating thing about being a writer is also the most infuriating. I’m talking about those moments when the clouds clear and you see that significant aspect your story needs which has hitherto been obscured.

It's exhilarating because with this new knowledge, everything seems to fit. You feel a burst of incredible energy, and perhaps even affection, for this story which until now has niggled with its not-quite-right-ness.

It's infuriating because when that cloud-parting moment begins to fade, you realise how long you've been labouring under false assumptions, and how much quicker the whole process would have been if you knew from the outset what you now know.

My example d’jour is actually from October. My account sticks closely to what I drafted at the time, but never posted. It refers, of course, to Novel B.

For the sake of background: I first started developing the idea in January of 2008. By March I was putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard is more accurate but less musical). Due to the fact I was trying to write a million words that year, and my obsession with excel spreadsheets, I can report that I wrote 75,765 words towards what was calling 'Novel B'.

Once I'd returned to New Zealand, got a job, a place to live, put the majority of the work required for my short story collection to bed, I returned to Novel B at the beginning of October 2009. The most recent file was dated September 2008, meaning a full year had passed since working on it. This September version had already sluffed off the detritus that occurs when you set yourself the target of writing 2,732 words a day, and was a sleek document of around 8,000 words, roughly the first two chapters.

When I started looking at it seriously in 2009, I decided the second chapter needed to work differently, so when it came to writing again on the 1st of October, the document that was twenty-one months in the making contained only 3,173 words.

Over the next nine days I doubled this word count by a process of additions and subtractions, trial and error, flights of fancy and falls from grace. But something still wasn't right.

Part One begins with a quote from John Cleese: "If you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick". My narrator was down in the mouth, for sure, but there just wasn’t enough in his backstory for him to be that upset. What I knew about the future (i.e. the events of the novel I was to write) required some sort of rising up of fortunes and expectations (and, of course, another dashing against the rocks).

I was faced with a choice of either changing the narrator's outlook at the beginning of the story, or changing his backstory. The latter might seem like the easier option, after all, so much of the problem was with his voice, his preoccupations, and in the end these are but words. But, when I thought about where the story needed to go, we really did need to start down in the dumps. So the reason for his "visit to Palmerston North" needed changing.

I was walking back from the kitchen at work one afternoon with a cup of tea when it hit me. A character who'd been brewing away since the inception of the story in January 2008 suddenly had a very different role to play. In fact, he'd be dead for the duration of the novel (perhaps one day I'll write a novel where someone returns from the dead to justify the grammar of this sentence).

To be clear: I decided that the narrator’s infant son must die before the novel’s action begins.

When I look back through some of last year's offcuts, there are scenes where this son is alive. At one stage, he provided the frame narration from the year 2018. So much writing, so much labour wasted.

But perhaps it takes this investment in wasted characters to truly feel the exhilaration that comes with these cloud-clearing moments. Would Archimedes have run naked through Syracuse if he and others hadn’t first wondered about volume?

The sweetest victories are the hardest won, or something like that.

At the time I wrote:
I expect several more cloud-clearing moments as I move along with Novel B. It is dispiriting to know that I will waste many days of writing on wrong assumptions. But you can only see the flaw in an assumption when you start to put it into words. A writer must write in order to realise what they should be writing.
All writing, even the most misguided, is progress.
Oh, what a sage I was back then.

For the next few days after this cloud-clearance, I was rather productive. As the voice was already maudlin, it didn’t take a lot to drip-feed details about his son, and voila: the opening chapters were sorted. Well, perhaps.

One of the reasons I didn’t post my account of the cloud-clearing revelation back in October was I remembered a friend was expecting his first child (a son) and there were murmurs of health issues. Indeed, the wee tyke spent his first few weeks in the neo-natal unit… My cloud-clearing moment was independent of this real life drama, but it would be false to claim that I could continue to write about losing an infant son without thinking of this friend of mine. Waters got muddied. Sections got pushed into the too hard basket. Christmas arrived.

Time and piecemeal progress on the manuscript quickly laid sediment over the new addition (dead infant son), and the pressure of moving forward compacted this idea into the river bed of the other ideas I’ve incorporated (they were all new once) to become the bedrock of the story.

That’s not to say things won’t change – that there may be a better use for the son down the track and I must resurrect him – but for now, it’s not really up for negotiation. When I think about the fact my narrator is dealing with the loss of his son I am no longer filled with images of giant escalators, clouds clearing, and angels strumming harps. That feeling only lasts a short time. Usually long enough to get stuck into the manuscript and start playing God. That should be all you need.

I haven’t had any cloud-clearing moments since October. It is impossible to disentangle the fact I haven’t been writing that much to ‘earn’ a revelation from the fact a revelation would encourage me to writer more. That’s the way it goes.

It’s infuriating if you think too much about it, but as I’ve said before, the trick to being a writer is wilfully ignoring the practicalities of your craft: the fact it takes ten hours to write two pages which will, in all likelihood, never make the finished manuscript (and the fact you’ve finished two manuscripts and they never got published).

But it is worth it.

Later this month I will talk about narrative perspective: the choice between first and third person. Despite how far advanced I am, things are still fluid in this respect. Again, it stems from a problem within the text (whether something is more believable from the horse’s mouth or from a third party). But so far there’s been no lightning bolt. I’m still wandering through the fog. Perhaps by the time I write this narrative perspective post, full visibility will be restored. Perhaps, the act of writing the post will be what clarifies things. Perhaps, I’ll be just as clouded at the end. We’ll just have to see.

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