Monday, October 3, 2011

Some things I wrote about writing a novel over the last week and have decided to finally post

A writer who knows what he is doing isn't doing very much -- Nelson Algren

All images in this post by Jean Lowe, via Juxtapose

Looking Back, Looking Forward

No one ever asks me, ‘Why do you still keep a blog now that you have a column?’ Maybe I'm the one one who wonders about this sometimes. Because for long stretches of time there’s not a lot to write about in a writer’s life. At least not this one’s.

When I go to work for my 2-day working week, people often ask me how THE NOVEL is going, which is a fair question, but difficult to answer, especially if they’ve asked you this the week before and again the week before that. I think they’re all waiting for the day I say, ‘It’s finished’ and they can ask about the sexy stuff like covers and sales figures. Hell, I’m looking forward to the sexy stuff. But for now it’s drudge drudge drudge, and there doesn’t seem a lot that’s blog-worthy (or column-worthy) about this.

Something I can talk about with a certain amount of perspective is my old book (it’s only in the last four months that A Man Melting has felt like my old book, not my only book). I received a royalties statement from my publisher a few weeks ago that made interesting reading. The statements come every six months and this was my second one, covering sales from Jan-June this year (so sales from 6-12 months after A Man Melting was released, but covering the period I won the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize [March] and the overall Best First Book [May]).

The good news: I’ve earnt back my advance and last week got a small (3 figures) royalty payment.

The rub: This isn’t saying much when my advance was very small to begin with. To put it in perspective, I’ve earnt less (advance + royalty payment) from 12 months of sales of my 320 page, 18 story collection than I have from selling one 6,000 word short story to the Griffith Review in Australia. Of course, A Man Melting opened a lot of doors (it helped get me my column, it’s taken me to Australia three times and Auckland twice, it won some prize money, it helped get a Creative NZ grant to assist with writing THE NOVEL, etc etc) but in pure sales terms, it’s small biscuits. Which is fine. For some reason people don’t buy short story collections in the same numbers as they buy novels. Maybe it’s because after reading a collection of short stories it’s hard to read novels as they seem so flabby and gratuitous… Maybe that's just a reflection of where I'm at with THE NOVEL.

More good news: I’ve sold roughly as many copies of A Man Melting in Australia as I have in New Zealand. Not many first time NZ authors can say this.

The rub: Australian sales are classed as exports, so I get a smaller royalty percentage. (Also, NZ sales figures are relatively small, so it's not that hard to equal a small number). But I’m grateful to have had the support of Random House Australia when I’ve been over there the last two times and it seems there are some of my books in Aussie book stores, which is pretty cool.

I keep having to remind myself that I didn’t expect any Australian sales when the book came out in July 2010. I've mentioned on this blog already how I expected the whimper of noise around the book to die out back in November 2010 and that it was time to muscle up with the next book. But I’ve been lucky and A Man Melting kept popping up in various places.

I was looking forward to the post-publication world and it hasn’t disappointed. The scary thing is meeting raised expectations (mostly my own) for the next book. It seems wrong to think about the post-publication world for THE NOVEL right now and use it as an incentive to finish the damned thing, but I’ll take whatever works. And thinking about finding the right title and giving it the perfect cover (no long haired women in period costume!!) and talking about it as a finished piece of story telling… well, that does just enough for me to stop blogging and return to 1919…

Delivering the Goods

To counter the sense of drudgery and general mire my novel writing had entered, I started mixing up the music I listen to while I write.

You can get a sense of what's generally on heavy rotation as a write from the playlists I post here from time to time. As a rule: not a lot of heavy metal.

To counter the general seriousness and po-facedness of how I've been feeling, I went to the Wellington City Library and got out Best Of compilations for Judas Priest, KISS, Iron Maiden and Rush, as well as Iommi featuring Black Sabbath axeman Tony Iommi with various vocalists.

And you know what? It seems to be working. The music is bold and adolescent enough to loosen the tension I might have felt had I been persisting with Radiohead (I honestly haven't liked an album of there's since Amnesiac, but I can't delete anything off my hard drive because I think I might one day come around) and Bill Callahan and Wilco.

Playlist for a teenager trapped in a novelist's body

Run to the hills - Iron Maiden
Flame on - Iommi and Ian Astbury
Love gun - Kiss
Breaking the law - Judas Priest
Limelight - Rush
Heaven and Hell - Dio

What the Dickens?

Last year I wrote about those cloud-burst moments while writing a novel when everything becomes clear and you know which way to take the story (see here and here). It's worth noting that these two posts were in relation to ‘Novel B’, which I later abandoned (actually, I’ve decided to carve it up into a couple of short stories, the literary equivalent of selling a car for scrap).

Work on THE NOVEL, my current beast of burden, has been quite different from work on Novel B. For one, THE NOVEL is historical and required/requires a lot of research, whereas Novel B was contemporary and stuck pretty closely to what one might expect of the experience of a middle class NZ male in the 21st century.

The roadblocks I encountered with Novel B were related to narrative voice (the narrator was fine for a 8-10 page short story but he wasn’t built to carry a longer narrative, he enjoyed stopping and ruminating too often) and a gnawing concern that as I writer I was taking the path of least resistance.

The roadblocks with THE NOVEL have been more to do with a lack of knowledge of time and place or not quite knowing how to tell the story (rather than one first person narrator, there’s a mix of first and third person from varying perspectives).

Some weeks, when I’m in the first draft flow, I can churn through scenes quickly, happily littering square brackets throughout the text where period detail needs to be checked or an example found. For example, there’s a scene in the first historical section where there’s a vaudeville show, which includes two real-life singers performing a duet. When I first drafted the scene, I was happy enough to write something along the lines of: “And then they sung [song title] as a duet.” A few weeks later I spent a day finding the details to fill in all the square brackets in this scene.

At other times, I seem to get stuck on these small details and can’t push on with a scene without filling in the blanks. Whether or not I get stuck seems to be more to do with my mood/headspace than the details themselves.

Sometimes the things in the square brackets are more significant than a song title or a type of horse-drawn carriage. Last month I was working on a section which is told in the form of a diary, written by a sixteen year old girl. She’s led a cloistered life and most of her knowledge of the outside world has come from books. I knew that on top of describing the action of this part of the novel in daily chunks, she’d also be reading a book in the downtime and would be likely to remark on it in her diary. So as well as adding sense of realism to the diary and consistency in her character, I thought this 'ther book' could be a useful tool to a draw out some of the substrata of this diary section (and/or later sections).

At first, I thought this other book might be one that I make up, so that I could make it link to those parts of the diegesis I wanted. I got as far as coming up with a name, The Voyage of The Penobscot, and liberally sprinkled square brackets through the diary entries saying: "[something about reading Voyage of the Penobscot]".

Aside: I had a little internal battle over including a character reading another book, real or made-up, in my own novel, because I know it happens too often in fiction and can be symptomatic of what you might call exogenous writing (writing that draws it’s power from the outside associations it draws into it’s own frame) rather than endogenous (writing powered by its own motor, though it can certainly make connections to other works). In the end I felt satisfied that I’d been led down this path of having a character read a novel by the fact my character is a novel-reader, and this character trait is a direct result of the cloistered upbringing, which in turn comes about as the result of a decision of her father, which is the key decision in the novel and the motor that drives the plot).

One thing that happens all the time when writing, but especially when writing longer works, is that you find what you need from what’s going on in your real life at the time. Having written a few failed novels already, I know to be wary of incorporating too much fresh thinking into the structure or plot of a novel that you’re part-way through. But for the small details, it’s perfectly fine to mention a TV show you’ve been obsessing over in your time away from the desk (if you’re writing a contemporary story). A novel is a patchwork of real-time thoughts, ideas and associations thrown over the pre-erected framework of your story. Sometimes you need to bend and adjust the framework so it supports the patchwork you’re creating, and that’s fine so long as it’s being driven by the characters you’ve created and the decisions they’re making, rather than your fervent desire to write something about ponaturi (sea fairies).

So I've been listening to Nicholas Nickleby on my iPod these past few weeks and noticing how certain elements mirror, albeit imperfectly, elements in the diarist’s life. And I thought: 'Could she be reading Dickens’ novel rather than The Voyage of the Penobscot?' In many ways her reading her own life into Nicholas Nickleby would mirror my own reading/listening experience, looking for points of similarity and difference with the novel I'm writing.

There are pros and cons both for using q real book and q made-up one. But right now I feel like it’s better to have the book she reads imperfectly reflecting her life than risk it being too perfect for the novel (even if she doesn’t pick up on the true significance of everything at the time).

Serendipity, controlled imperfection, drudgery: three things that should be on your shopping list if you plan on baking a novel.


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