Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The empty chalice

So it’s the first of August, which means I owe cyberspace two months’ worth of consumption diaries and probably a whole lot more.

Like, what’s going on with my novel? The one I had 12 months full-time to write in Dunedin in 2017 and for which I am leaving money on the table in 2018 to work part-time and finish the f**ker off.

Well, for starters it’s called Nailing Down the Saint. For now at least.

In May I sent the manuscript to one of the US agents who came a’knocking when The Mannequin Makers started getting good reviews in the States. I also sent the manuscript to the publisher here in NZ that’s put out my first two books.

I have comments from the NZ publisher, which translates to a bunch of small tweaks and some more fundamental questions that I may or may not have to action (I’m doing the tweaks first and hoping for a eureka moment that tells me exactly what I should change and how). If I can turn around the next version of the manuscript by mid-September, then it’s on track to come out in July 2019. No contract or anything yet, but that’s the pipeline. My experience of these processes is that the publication date inevitably gets pushed back. And I’m not going to send something off in September if I don’t feel happy with it.

Right now, I’m a little tender about it all. I find it hard going through the edits. I could tell when I got my wife to read the version before the one I sent to the agent and the NZ publisher that she wasn’t that into it. And there’s a lot of “I didn’t get this” or “explain this for the reader” type comments on this latest version that I have to weigh up. Which I might ordinarily find helpful, but at this stage in the process I’m like a baby rat: pink, hairless, vulnerable. Any breeze is chilling. Any light too bright for my still-sealed eyes. I feel attacked. Which is weird. I’ve written before about how necessary and, ultimately, positive the editing process is. Even with this perspective, I feel an uneasy and contradictory mixture of exposed, misunderstood, worthless, frustrated and tired.

Mostly tired.

(Meanwhile at my day job, I’ve spent the last six months trying to get the green light for a multi-million dollar change project. A green light I received in July, about the same time I got my NZ publisher’s comments. However, trifling things like the budget and resourcing are proving harder to nail down than “Approved” might have you believe.)

It doesn’t help that it’s radio silence from the US agent. Of course she hated it. Look at everything that was wrong with it. All those basic errors: “bought” instead of “brought”, “disinterested” instead of “uninterested”. The slow patch in the middle. The too-fast, too-oblique patch towards the end (okay, the whole last forty pages).

At times like this I feel like I should never write a novel again. The short story is so much more forgiving. My writing muscles are fast twitch, meant for sprints not a marathon. When I look at my manuscript, all I see is text. Words placed for manipulative purposes. No matter how much I want it to be a story, to have narrative, to be an immersive experience for the reader, it’s the opposite.

The Chalice
The image in my head is Neil Dawson’s sculpture, ‘The Chalice’, which stands in Cathedral Square in Christchurch. The words are the structure of the chalice, starting solidly enough at the base, but getting more and more sparse as it rises. And at its centre? Nothing. The further from the base you get, the clearer the nothingness is.

Writing a novel is a confidence trick twice over. First, you need to trick yourself, then you need to trick your reader. Right now, I’m falling at the first hurdle (albeit with a 110,000 word manuscript to wring my hands over).

I keep saying things like “right now” and “at times like this” because I know it’s just a mood. I’m at a low ebb. It’ll get better. But the peril is real. This book might suck. The tweaks to make the intended meanings more clear might just bring out the suckfulness. The wordiness. The nothingness.

A lot of this stems from how and why I attack the novel form. I do so as a short story writer with oodles more space. I want a patterned, complicated web of meaning. I don’t ever think in terms of “theme” while plotting or writing, but the best term I’ve come up with for my novelistic approach is “thematic maximilism”.

I begin to build a novel around two unlikely elements. With The Mannequin Makers it was shipwrecks and department store mannequins. With NDTS, it’s Hollywood and a levitating saint. I then build a bridge between these two elements, which inevitably centres on characters.  For TMM the most obvious bridge is The Carpenter/Gabriel Doig, who goes from being a figurehead carver to a mannequin maker, via a shipwreck and extended period as a subantarctic castaway. For this current novel, it’s my protagonist, who is a floundering Kiwi filmmaker in Hollywood, given a lifeline in the form of a location scouting gig for film about the life of San Giuseppe da Copertino.

Once I have the two poles and the character-based bridge, I go about filling in all the blanks that are necessary to translate my daydreaming into something that might be meaningful and enjoyable for another human being. So characters need other characters to interact with, they need jobs and motivations, passions and secrets, they need to have a look and a way of talking. When searching around for one of these things, let’s say it’s a job, I wait until I hit something that chimed with, or off, an element that’s already in the novel.

In TMM, when I was looking for what Eugen Kemp would be after he left New Zealand, and I came up with a surf lifesaver, that clicked because of the link with physical culture and the teachings of Eugen Sandow, and also the idea that he would spend the rest of his life trying to save people after not being particularly save-y (and in one case, being the exact opposite) in his teens. With surf lifesaving in place, the final section began to echo the first and second, while also pushing the interest in physical perfection (which might get called a “theme”) somewhere a little different.

In this next novel, there are clusters of association around scepticism and belief (Catholic saints, the feats of mystics, a modern cult; but also: Hollywood visual effects). The process of writing the novel was one of challenging my innate scepticism and the general laziness of my generation when it comes to anything beyond the superficial and instantly gratifying. The surface of the novel is still papered over with scepticism and contemporary references (the playlists the characters make for their roadtrip, the machinations involved with making a Hollywood movie), but underneath it there should be something more timeless, more confronting. I want people to see both the surface and the subterranean. I don’t want the chalice to be empty. But I don’t want to be too obvious about it. And that’s where I’m mired at the moment: an endless string of decisions about what I spell out, what I foreground a smidgeon more, and what I let lie beneath.

All the while having more instantly gratifying and superficial pleasures like playing Fortnite or watching Netflix instead of the mental gymnastics required to decide what are my minimum requirements and what are my readers’.

At the moment, I’m questioning if my imagined reader really exists. Like, there are people who’d get the references to Toad the Wet Sprocket and Wolfenstein, but do they read for pleasure anymore? Do they?

Should I spell things out for a more likely readership, and in the process alienate the one or two readers who come closest to what I’d be like if I was to pick up this book with no prior knowledge?

I don’t want to write something for Boomers or even Gen X. If they get it, great. But I wanted to make a book for cuspers like me, with one foot in the digital but one back in the analogue. People who vaguely remember having a rotary telephone, distinctly recall the first time they used the internet (that dial-up modem screech!) and spend most of their waking life trying to be good people on an ever-shifting identity playing field.

I’ve tried to write a novel about (inter alia) being a middle class, cis, heterosexual, pakeha male; one that is honest about the blind spots such characters can possess and acknowledges the bar must be raised for what passes as good enough when white dudes grab the mic; that suggests passing the mic down the row without adding your self-aggrandising reckons is acceptable without having to make it heroic (aside: how fucking hard is it to make your protagonist do the right thing in a traditional Western narrative from without it having to be heroic?)…

But at the same time I wanted the book to challenge where we draw the line about what’s important and what should be re-evaluated. If levitation is possible for some people (I know this is a big IF, but if it helps to suspend your disbelief try and think of this as a metonymy for anything the conventional materialist worldview dismisses as paranormal) does that mean there’s a kind of psychokinetic fluidity? How would you respond when asked to consider this possibility in the context of a traditional quest narrative?

Maybe I should just give up trying to order this spider’s web of words and meaning and just pass the mic down the row. Because Fortnite and Netflix and spending time with my kids and taming my garden and delivering a kickass change programme for the way we measure the quality of learning environments at schools is a pretty full and potentially fulfilling life… if I draw the line short of where I’ve gotten to in my head and step back over it.

Maybe I should just write about the music, books, film & TV I’ve consumed these past two months and pretend everything is hunky dory (when it’s more Aladdin Sane).

Or maybe I should give it a day, let my baby rat eyes open, my translucent skin toughen, and get back to nailing down this novel that keeps threatening to float away.

1 comment:

James O'Sullivan said...

When you're looking at public sculptures as metaphors for your writing, you may be over thinking things a tad. I think you should forget your readers and just try and write a good book, if your instincts are good the readers will like it. Readers should find a good book, a good book shouldn't go and find readers.