This is a subject I would like to come back to some time, but in the meantime here is a letter in the Guardian from an as always level-headed Hari Kunzru on the subject of whether you should only write from your own experience and background. It was in reponse to this article about Monica Ali's Brick Lane and the furore that has plagued it at times.
I think it was Anne Lamott, in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird , who coined the term 'shitty first draft', whereby a writer switches off the inner critics (Lamott imagines them as mice which she then locks in a jar) to just 'get it down' for an entire draft. They can then go back and use that raw material to start to shape and mold, to see what's there (or, as EM Forster once said, "How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?").
In principle, I have always used this method for my non-fiction - reviews, articles, essays and whatnot - and sometimes for my short stories. That way, the 'shitty first draft' may only take an hour or so to write, depending on the length of the piece and the level of inspiration that day.
But as for writing novels, I have not applied it - at least, not for a whole draft (for the record, I have written two novels and started another two, not counting atrocious first efforts in my 20s), but certainly for one chapter at a time. This is partly due to the fact that I need to establish a 'voice' for the novel before I can go on. For The Sound of Butterflies, this meant that the first chapter probably went through twenty drafts by publication, whereas the last quarter of the book may have only had five - by then the voices were well established and I was off like a rocket.
So this method has always worked for me, and a shitty first draft of a whole novel was just not an option. Until now.
I have just abandoned a novel that I have been trying to work on for two years. Not steadily, I'll admit - in that two years I had a book published with all the distraction that brings, got pregnant (a sense of fog and wonder prevailed) and given birth (cue sleepless nights, no time and so on). The current novel was no longer the last thing I thought about when I went to sleep and the first thing I thought about when I woke up.
After struggling with an empty page and the realisation that I had a small truckload of research to do before I could write each scene or description (with TSOB I dived into that with glee, but things have changed!) I finally gave up and realised that not only did I need a new idea to get me inspired again, I needed a new method of working to fit my new life.
The new idea came to me as all my ideas do - out of the blue, this time triggered by an article in a community newspaper. I could finally relieve myself of the burden of that other novel. I am a different person than the person who started that novel. A new project allows me to acknowledge that and embrace it.
So I started writing it, and even though I knew vaguely where I was going with it, I was dissatisfied with the voice of the narrator as it was appearing on the page in front of me. But I kept going anyway. Then I read this, from a link posted by Emma Darwin on her wonderfully (and scarily) erudite blog about writing, This Itch of Writing. And I realised that this new Rachael could do things differently. I need to do things differently now that I can't selfishly devote all my headspace to the creative monster. I only get three days a week to write and the rest to devote to my other little creation. At least I have my nocturnally wandering mind back, now that he sleeps through the night, but mornings definitely have a different focus.
And so I am embracing the shitty first draft. And it seems to be working. I am switching off that pesky inner critic and just writing. I have a vague idea of where it is going - I am in that wonderful stage where aspects of the story and characters pop into my head at all times of the day, night or week - but I'll have to see what I say to know what I mean with this one.
Well, in a month when a report by the New Zealand Society of Authors shows just how poor the lot of NZ writers is, it is refreshing to see someone take matters into her own hands. My friend Bianca Zander has come up with the genius plan of asking people to sponsor her novel writing. And it's working. She has so far raised more than $3000, which is well on the way to her goal of $8000, with which she plans to write for six months. Hardly the lap of luxury.
I applaud her initiative. Rather than sitting about moaning, she has come up with a scheme. I also applaud her cheek. Some people might be indignant that someone would ask them to fund their "hobby". But stop for a moment to consider the long tradition of arts patronage in western society. Pick up any programme at the opera or the ballet and you'll find a long list of 'friends' at the back who are people with a bit of spare money who love the arts and want to show their support. This is arts patronage of the 21st century ladies and gents.
Which is what could have been a very interesting discussion when Bianca was interviewed on National Radio recently. I didn't expect the interviewer to bow down and blindly pimp the website, but she forsook an interesting discussion on arts patronage and initiatives for artists and instead came over rather prickly and asked Bianca if she didn't think that having a long list of acknowlegements might hinder her chances of publication. When Bianca said she didn't think so, no, and that if it was a good book then that should take care of things, the interviewer asked her if she'd spoken to any publishers about it (in a rather 'oh, you're so naive' kind of way).
For the record, you can fit about 300 words onto a printed page, so even if Bianca gathered 300 sponsors, it would still only fill two pages (using first and surnames, in an admittedly dense block of text). I have seen authors' notes and acknowledgements run to eight pages in a novel.
Anyway, she implied that Bianca should get a job and struggle a bit, like everyone else, thereby missing the point that she was actually doing something different and that was why she'd been invited on the programme to begin with.
If you'd like to sponsor Bianca, go to www.sponsormynovel.co.nz or click on the title to this post. I'm happy to support a fellow artist.
I blogged all through September at the NZ Book Month site. Topics included: a diary of a writing day; what we expect from our novelists when it comes to 'the facts'; imagining if the arts were given as much coverage on the nightly news as sport; and finally a week which saw me goingto the Going West Festival, the Prime Minister's awards for literature, and my book being released in the USA. Click the title above to go to the blog.
Hello. Welcome to my new blog. I enjoyed blogging as a guest on the NZ Book Month site (see above) so much, I decided to keep going. So this blog is not so much about The Sound of Butterflies as about my thoughts on the writing life and books. I hope to inspire and maybe generate a bit of discussion. I will try and post regularly, at least once a week. If you enjoy this, then please feel free to link to it if you have your own blog. And if you're interested in my novel, you can find out all about it at www.rachael-king.com. Thanks for visiting!
The Sound of Butterflies was the title of my first novel, published in the UK by Picador, in the US by William Morrow and in New Zealand by Random House, and translated into eight foreign languages. In 2009 my next novel, Magpie Hall, was published in New Zealand by Random House, and in 2012 my first novel for children, Red Rocks. This blog is my thoughts on the world of writing and books.
Photo by Sharon Blance.