November is traditionally the month when writers everywhere set about penning a novel from scratch. Not me though; I’m neither daring nor desperate enough to attempt that sort of stunt. Besides, I’ve been too busy writing other things: lots of bits and pieces that don’t amount to very much.
Or do they?
Here’s the thing: the novel is an ultra-accommodating art-form, the literary equivalent of an open house. ‘Wonderfully omnivorous, capable of assimilating all kinds of nonfictional discourses’ is how the novelist and critic, David Lodge, once described it.
In its time the novel has taken in all sorts of strays. Whole works are based on fictitious letters and diaries – Pamela and I Capture the Castle spring to my mind – and any number of novels feature other types of texts, everything from shopping lists to court reports.
Looking back at the tail-end of 2020 again, I reckon I might have written a novel without even knowing it…
The story is told through the scribblings of its protagonist, a wannabe writer like me. (I’ll call him Will even if you won’t.) It starts with a poem.
I’m not dying
I feel close to death.
my body lives on
while so weak
my spirit seeks release
from a straitjacket
of self-hood borne
Will, it seems, is sad. And why not? It’s mid-winter and the pandemic is in full swing.
With the walls closing in Will tries to reach out. He starts penning blog posts, one about identity…
It’s one of the biggest decisions of our lives and we make it every day: who to be (or not to be).
… and one about illness.
So, I’m writing a novel – not because the world needs another one or because I’ve got something special to say, but simply because I’ve got a bad case of novelitis. I’ve had it for years and the condition is all but incurable.
But his thoughts turn to other things and he shelves the posts. Owing to Covid, the nature of his work has changed. He explains the situation in an email:
For now I remain in ‘redeployment’, my office having taken over the national helpline when demand for passports plummeted and call centre staff were sent to the Eastern Front (Human Services). Thus I spend all day on the phone, answering silly questions and being called the wrong name (Stuart, Kieran, Stan…)
Before long, though, the novelty of the situation has worn thin and boredom begins to set in. Will dreams about starting a business. Write to Life it’s called, and he drafts a proposal.
Creative writing brings us more than pleasure and publication: it can help us find ourselves and our place in the world. Write to Life is a program designed to help people of all ages achieve greater self-fulfilment through storytelling.
Will loves the idea – it’s a product of his own experience, after all. But he knows he’s not bold enough to give it a go.
His thoughts turn instead to university and to studying honours, something he’s long wanted to do. After weeks of preparation he applies for a scholarship, submitting an outline of a thesis topic.
Roy Bridges (1885-1952) is Tasmania’s most prolific novelist, having published thirty-six novels. He lived with his sister, Hilda (1881-1971), who wrote thirteen novels herself while acting as Roy’s amanuensis. Both were born in Hobart and formed a deep attachment to Woods’, the family farm near Sorell.
In 1933, after working on the mainland as a journalist, Roy returned, somewhat unwillingly, to Tasmania, thereby keeping a promise he had made to his family. He remained at Woods’ until his death, battling anxiety and loneliness as he and Hilda tried to restore and protect the property.
Will hopes to study the Bridges’ letters and manuscripts, many of which have been preserved. Displacement is to be his theme.
It’ll be months before he’ll learn if he’s been successful. In the meantime, though, Will wants to stay busy. He knows that boredom might bring on a breakdown.
He and his wife have talked for years about home improvements. Now, though, the situation is more serious, the family having outgrown its digs. Will decides to get the ball rolling. He contacts a designer who sends him a questionnaire. It’s important, the designer explains, to see if their values align.
We value modesty and simplicity, durability and functionality [Will writes]. Ideally, our new space will reflect and support these values . . . The history, personality and environmental impact of our house is as important to us as its monetary value and appearance.
They arrange to meet in the new year.
But Will is not done yet. He’s suddenly smitten by the prospect of a new job, in a different part of his department, a job that would require him to ‘think creatively and critically’ and would encourage him to ‘subvert the dominant paradigm’.
Will decides to show his suitability by writing his pitch for the position as a story. He calls it ‘Will Meets His Match: A Fairy Tale’.
Once upon a time there was a passport officer called Will. Although Will was good at his job – he foiled a serious fraudster in late 2020 while assessing applications – he knew he’d be better suited to some other work. To something involving ideas.
It’s a gamble that pays off. Will wins himself an interview, which goes well. (The interviewer even claims to love Will’s blog.) Although he won’t know for weeks if he’s got the job, Will’s not worried. He’s living in a fairy tale, after all.
And that’s where we return to reality.
Okay, so I didn’t knock off a novel in November. I did, though, add a chapter to my life story, potentially adding a twist to the tale.
Thanks to the writing I did at the end of last year – some ‘creative’, some not – 2021 promises plenty.
Writing a novel is a lot like making stone soup.
Remember that story?
A hungry wayfarer meets a tramp who offers to make stone soup. Into the pot goes a stone and, while the water is warming, the tramp idly mentions that an onion might help. Tempted, the wayfarer takes one from his pack. ‘A carrot,’ the wily tramp says. ‘If only…’ And out comes a carrot.
This goes on until a rich minestrone has been made from the purloined provisions. The wayfarer is amazed. ‘This,’ he asks, ‘is stone soup?’
The first draft of a novel is a pot of stone soup: the seed of an idea swimming in a sea of words. Only by convincing ourselves that our book-to-be is a delicacy can we make it minestrone, adding ingredients until we too end up asking the wayfarer’s question.
This is stone soup?
Seen the road to hell lately?
It’s a mess. Paved with good intentions, the path to perdition is littered with bad decisions, the failed forays of famous folk who sought success in a speciality other than their own.
Many are called to cross-over but few are chosen…
Singers and sportsmen, authors and actors – the line of wrecks is long and varied, taking in everything from Ash Barty’s crack at cricket to Chris Cornell’s dalliance with dance-pop.
Now the Tasmanian novelist, Heather Rose, has come a cropper.
Last year Rose published Bruny, the follow-up to her Stella Prize-winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love, a work of literary fiction. Billed as a thriller, her latest book proves that acing a new genre ain’t easy, even for an accomplished author.
What went wrong?
It’s a good question. Bruny appears to have all the hallmarks of a respectable thriller: a preposterous plot, a cast of barely credible characters, an awkward romance and a nondescript style.
And yet it lacks a key component of any self-respecting suspense novel.
Show don’t tell – it’s the shibboleth most closely associated with creative writing. Despite its limitations, this tenet holds true for some books. Take the thriller: readers of this kind of novel need to feel close to the action.
Too often in Bruny the real business takes place in the background, especially as the story goes on. The result? The tension never builds. (And the book garners praise as a ‘satire‘.)
Sadly, some parts of the story kept me on the edge of my seat: namely the narrator’s tiresome tirades about the state of Tasmania. Would they never end?
Despite my reservations – all totally valid, I’m sure, and yet totally irrelevant – Bruny continues to sell well here in Hobart, almost a year after its release.
Which just goes to show: I’m as bad a judge of another writer’s work as I am of my own. Failure is clearly more transferable than success.
Here’s the thing about writing a novel. No-one will care if I do it.
I mean, who reads novels these days? Hardly anyone I know. A couple of my colleagues maybe, none of my mates, a precious few friends and family. That’s not many folks.
Of course if I write something that sells, then people I don’t know might care. But what’s the good of that? As the least famous Churchill (Charles, the poet) wrote, ‘Fame/is nothing but an empty name’.
But why do I even care if nobody cares?
Because I’m human and humans crave unconditional love.
‘Growing up involves accepting that we’re not as special as we thought,’ Nick Hornby once said. ‘But artists have to keep that feeling alive.’
Come to think of it, I do know someone who will care if I write a novel.
And that someone is me.
Read all about it: Kindles are the best thing since printed books.
They’re compact, for starters. I once took mine on a five-day walk, slotting it into my pack without any trouble. Thus I was able to while away the evenings reading Clive James’ Complete Unreliable Memoirs, the book of which resembles a brick.
Kindles are food-friendly too. I like to read as I eat and yet most paperbacks make this an impossible feat, even with a sauce bottle on hand to help out. An open Kindle, however, never snaps shut.
The instant free samples are another fine feature, one which has led me to books I wouldn’t have otherwise read. Books like Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, my novel of 2019.
The best thing about Kindles, though, is the fact they’re not books.
By being so different they make books even better.
‘Call me Ishmael.’
So begins Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic tale of whales and whaling, first published in America on this day back in 1851.
The brevity of the book’s opening line is misleading: Melville’s masterpiece has 135 chapters and more than 500 pages, making it a whale-sized story by anyone’s standards.
Was the novel the ‘draft of a draft’, as Melville himself supposedly suggested? If so, his editor ought to have taken a harpoon to the text.
Melville had a tough time as a kid. Money was short, his eyesight was weakened by fever, and the lad had trouble impressing his father, who described him as being ‘backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension’.
Melville’s success might be attributed, in part, to an early lucky break. Unlike his brother, who wrote nothing, he was not given the name Gansevoort. He was called Herman instead.
Me: When did you start writing?
She: When I was seven I wrote reviews of my mother’s meals and stuck them on the fridge.
Me: How did they rate?
She: Poorly. Especially the steak tartare.
Me: I meant your reviews. Why historical fiction?
She: So much of it is set in the past. Old things are awesome.
Me: What’s the oldest thing you own?
She: A brooch worn by Henrietta Stubbs.
Me: Who’s she?
She: Don’t know. She sounds ancient though.
Me: Do you do much research?
She: Loads. I use it as mulch on the garden.
Me: What are your hopes and dreams?
She: To write the perfect novel. Again. I’m joking, of course.
Me: Of course.
She: I’d like to become a yoga instructor.
Me: Good luck with that.
Riding the Waves and The Crestfallen Tailor are published by Penury.
Here’s an odd admission to make on a blog about books: I hate buying novels.
Although I’m no bibliophobe – I love books! – I have a fear of ‘what books may do,’ as Holbrook Jackson puts it. Not all books, mind, just new-release novels.
Let me explain.
Buying books is risky business. A new novel hardly ever lives up to the hype, which says more, methinks, about the way books are marketed than about the books themselves. And then what?
Reading a novel is no one-night stand. Unlike a mediocre movie, a bad book stays with you; it crouches on your shelf, glaring at you like the picture of Dorian Gray, with ‘eyes of a devil’, a reminder of your profligacy and poor judgement.
Here’s another admission: I hate selling my books, even the bad ones. My ‘typographical errors’, you see, must never be known.
It’s time I tidied the books on my bedside table: two are giving me nightmares.
They’re fine novels, I’m sure, it’s just that I can’t read them right through. Here’s why: Less has too little sex and Atomised too much.
Like all earnest readers, I’m haunted by the ghosts of books half-read.
I can’t finish Catch-22 because the story changes; Inside Mr Enderby because it stays the same, funny but futile.
The Hobbit hobbled me a few pages in.
Of Tug of Love I’ve read only the title, while just one chapter of Eleanor Oliphant was completely fine.
I conquered War and Peace but that other Russian behemoth, Life and Fate, has got me beat.
Clearly it’s time I exorcised my literary demons. If reading is a kind of rewriting then my versions of some books are simply shorter than the rest.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Inside Mr Enderby by Anthony Burgess
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tug of Love by Penny Jordan
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
It is the best of things, it is the worst of things – the fact that you can start a novel any which way you like. Ever tried? Then you’ll know already what I’ve only just discovered: that the options are alarmingly endless.
Throw your readers into the thick of the action? Why not! Seduce them with purple prose? Go right ahead. Chat them up with a snatch of dialogue? Now you’re talking! Tempt them with a taste of the story to come? Perfect.
When it comes to pick-up lines, anything goes – or does it?
If you’re one of my two regular readers, you’ll remember that I’m writing a novel for kids. Narrated by Tam, a twelve-year-old girl who dreams of becoming a dancer, Dad’s Runway tells of a wheat farmer’s outlandish attempts to put a tiny country town back on the map.
Until a few months ago, I’d written the first four chapters. They’d come in a rush, drawn out by an approaching deadline: a meeting with a publisher at Penguin. The first chapter began with the following mix of action and explanation.
Everyone knew it was coming – everyone, that is, except Dad.
Mum had been pulling her hair out for months, working away the kitchen table with her accounts and her calculator.
‘It’s no good,’ she said, one night. ‘There just aren’t enough customers. I can’t keep running at a loss.’
Uncle Mick had no hair to pull out, so he just pursed his cracked lips and shook his sunburnt head.
‘No people, no houses to build. Time I started thinking about moving on.’
Even Jimmy and Joey, my twin younger brothers, knew something was up.
‘We heard Mrs Reynolds talking to Mr Collins,’ Jimmy said, excitedly. ‘They reckon there won’t be enough kids next year to keep the school open.’
‘Yeah,’ said Joey. ‘Then we’ll have to catch the bus to the city every day, and that’ll take hours and hours. There won’t be time to learn anything!’
My older sister, Beth, knew all about it, too, but she didn’t care.
‘This town sucks anyway,’ she sneered. ‘I’d rather go and work somewhere else, instead of being stuck out here like a loser.’
As for me, Tam, my dance teacher had just left Nanky – that’s what we call Nankervis, our town – so I knew something was definitely up. I want to be a famous dancer, you see, and always have. Think Ginger without the Fred. That’s Ginger Rogers, of course, just in case you haven’t watched as many old musicals as me.
If you haven’t, you should!
The editor liked my sample, but suggested I make some changes to the plot. In altering it, though, I went and rendered my first beginning pretty much obsolete. Which is a shame, because I like the pacy way it introduces the story, the characters and the narrator.
It was about now that the openness of openings began to get the better of me, and I made a few false moves, starting with this slow-burner:
‘Leave the gate open?’ Dad squawked. ‘Don’t even joke about it, Mrs Mac, or you’ll give me nightmares. I’m a farmer, remember.’
Mum grinned at him. ‘I’m just saying, Nev, that this meeting probably won’t go for long, so we’ll be back before your crops can escape.’ She peered in the side mirror. ‘It’d save the boys getting out again.’
‘They love swinging on the gate,’ Dad said. ‘Anyway, what makes you think the meeting’s going to be so short?’
Mum looked at him again, but this time she wasn’t smiling. ‘Not much,’ she said, ‘except just about everything.’
That stopped Dad in his tracks – that and the racket made by the twins as they tumbled back into the Land Cruiser.
‘I won,’ Joey yelled, scrambling over me to get to his seat.
‘Only ’cause I let you,’ cried Jimmy, close behind.
Col the kelpie greeted them with barks from the back.
‘All strapped in yet?’ Mum asked.
My sister, Beth, looked up from her book. ‘Belt up, you two,’ she told the twins, who were still arguing. They pretended not to hear her, and reached for their belts anyway.
‘All strapped in,’ I called.
‘About time,’ Mum said, letting out the handbrake. ‘Now, let’s make hay.’
‘I think you mean haste,’ Dad said, as we pulled out on to the highway. ‘Hay is what we’re leaving behind on the farm.’
It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon in the bush, and the Mackenzies from ‘Dalgleish’ – that’s us – were heading into town to attend an emergency meeting of the Show Society. Little did we know, though, that we were also setting out on the craziest adventure a farming family has probably ever had. Well, that’s what Gran reckons, and she’s been around since adventures were invented, so she should know.
Then came a turn away from action and explanation to description, albeit of a snappy yet possibly exasperating variety…
Not far from the middle of nowhere there’s a tiny country town called Nankervis. Not far from this town there’s a wheat and sheep farm called Dalgleish. And not far from this farm – just outside its front gate, in fact – there’s a dusty old Land Cruiser called Chelsea.
In the Land Cruiser there’s a family called the Mackenzies. In that family there’s a girl called Tam, and in that girl’s head – well, that’s where we are right now!
Which led me to the following exposition-fest.
It all started, I think, when the twins tumbled out and opened the farm gate for us to drive through. That’s when Mum said what she said and that’s when, a few seconds later, Dad suddenly began to get it – that our town, Nanky, was in trouble.
And when my dad finally gets it, things really start to happen. This time, though, the things that happened were pretty amazing, and they just kept on happening, until – well, until the whole crazy adventure came to an end. Back here at our farm gate again, actually, but with a closing rather than an opening.
Speaking of openings, I really wanted to start this story like this: ‘Once upon a Tam’, but I chickened out. My name’s Tam, you see. This is short for Tammy, which is short for Tamara, which is about the worst name ever. It’s even worse than Neville, my dad’s name.
Pretty awful, huh?
What makes beginnings so hard, I think, is that they ought to do two things at once: they should show and tell at the same time – even more clearly, quickly and compellingly than ‘normal’ text does.
As readers, we want to be lost in the action of a story, and yet we also need to know that the action has a purpose, that it is leading us somewhere special. In a paragraph or two, then, an opening has to both promise and perform, and therein lies the art of pick-up lines, whether they’re delivered on the page or in person.
It’s something I haven’t nailed for my novel just yet. My first attempt comes close, whereas the others don’t. That’s my conclusion, at least – what’s yours?
Don’t get me started on endings…