I recently read an interview with a local writer whose debut novel has just been published. She talked about how she always carries a notebook around with her and writes down snippets of overheard conversation, how people will often find her in the bathroom at parties, madly scribbling.
I don't do that. It seems to not be a part of my nature. I used to think that made me a bad writer, that I wasn't always observing people acutely and using interesting conversations I'd heard and characters I'd met. Sure, I carry a notebook around with me, but that's usually to write down things my imagination dreams up before I forget them.
I think I did, once. I did it because I thought that was what I should do, and I certainly wrote descriptions of some interesting people I saw or met, but I don't think I have ever directly used them. I once saw a young girl standing at the counter of a cafe with her mother. From behind, she looked about ten and she wore a long pink cardigan, a pink floral skirt and frilly bobby socks. She also clutched in her hand a packet of Holiday Lights and a lighter. Then she turned around and I had a moment like Donald Sutherland must have had in the movie Don't Look Now, when the little girl in the red coat he has been following all over Venice, thinking it's the ghost of his daughter, turns out to be a wizened old crone. Who then stabs him.
I didn't get stabbed, but the little girl I had observed was actually about 35, still dressing like a child but smoking cigarettes.
Anyway, I dutifully wrote down a description of her in my notebook, but she never made it into any of my novels or short stories. Why would she?
Despite not jotting these things down anymore, I know that I do observe, in my way, and these observations get chucked on the pile with all the others in my unconscious mind, where they fester and ferment and come out, in whatever form, when they are ready.
I also hardly ever use my own direct experience in my fiction. I once quit my job and travelled around Europe for three months in preparation for getting serious about writing. Listen, I needed to. After four years at a job with no proper holiday my mind was gunked up and needed a bit of freeing. Upon my return, my aunt asked me what I had written while I was away, and what was I going to write based on my experiences, and I said "nothing". She couldn't understand and thought I had wasted my time somewhat. But I know that bits and pieces from that trip are still all buried in there, and they will, and probably have already, come out in some shape or other.
Imagine my delight when I found an essay by Norman Mailer in his book about writing, The Spooky Art, called 'The Unconscious'. Everything I have talked about above was not even something I had consciously thought about before, apart from having a vague sense of confusion at my inability to use real life conversations, characters and experiences. So it is fitting that an essay entitled 'The Unconscious' helped me to understand my own methods that I had buried deep inside me.
Here is what he says about creating convincing characters: "As we go through life, we do, after all, observe everyone, wittingly and unwittingly. Perhaps, out of the corner of your eye, you glimpse someone in a restaurant who represents a particular inspiration or menace or possibility, potentially friend or foe -- and the unconscious goes to work on that. It needs very little evidence to put together a comprehensive portrait because, presumably, it has already done most of the labour. To use an unhappy analogy, it's as if the unconscious is a powerful computer that does not often need much in the way of new data to fashion a portrait, considering how much material it has stored away."
And about using your own experiences, citing 9/11 as an example: "If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such an event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague... All kinds of scenes and situations can derive ultimately from 9/11. What won't work is to go at it directly."
This has helped me to understand that the child-like woman and the three months around Europe (for example) have all become a part of the mish-mash that is my unconscious brain, the animal that I get to work so hard for me on a regular basis. I might not write about that woman, or those train journeys, but they contribute to the composites that end up in my work. The Sound of Butterflies is ultimately about a long-distance relationship, of which I have had plenty. And as, Mailer points out, I need to take care of that animal: "Sometimes, I think you have to groom the unconscious after you've used it, swab it down, treat it like a prize horse who's a finer animal than you."
(NB: this is not a new post; I have just renamed it. It was bothering me.)
I was talking with a friend of mine the other night who took exception to the fact that a writer we had both read, a woman, uses a lot of misogynistic (and occasionally homophobic and weightist) attitudes in her characters. My friend felt that it showed that this writer must share these attitudes or she wouldn't voice them so often.
I disagreed. At first I didn't know why - it was just a gut reaction. But as we talked I was able to articulate what I was thinking - that it is much easier to create characters with nasty attitudes than it is to make 'nice' characters interesting. Perhaps this writer simply doesn't realise that she has done it so often. Perhaps this is her crutch. I'm sure if she realised she'd done it so often it was turning her readers off she might think twice about it. Or maybe not.
But that all got me thinking about how we make characters interesting. Does nice equal bland in a protagonist? How do we make nice people interesting? By having terrible things happen to them, giving them conflict to resolve, adversity to overcome, oppression to rise above? Is that enough? Certainly it is a challenge. Much easier just to give someone bad habits and a cynical attitude so they do things that they regret, or that make people around them react in a negative way, thereby creating conflict. But is that a cop-out?
The best piece of writing advice I ever got was to not make readers wonder what will happen next to your characters, but to make them wonder what they will do next. And for that, characters need to be unpredictable. And when they do act, it has to be believable and inevitable - you can't just make a nice person suddenly go and kill the neighbour's cat without giving them a very good reason. That's what makes it hard and perhaps why writers fall back on a grouchy personality to create conflict.
I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on characters from books who have been both nice and good, and interesting, without just reacting to some cataclysm in their lives.
After six weeks of my residency I had an epiphany: I now have time, not just to write, but to not write. By this I don't mean I can skive off and do other things, I just mean that I now have the time to think, to plan, to mull, to percolate (which is the word I have always used instead of procrastinate). When I was only able to work part-time on the novel, I would feel that on the days I got to write I had to make the most of them and get as many words down on paper as I could. Often I would get paralysed by this.
When embarking on a long project, you have to let it take over your life as much as possible. You just have to. It should be the last thing you think about when you go to bed and the first thing you think about when you wake up. It has been difficult with a baby, but I am now finding that I have my late night musings back if not my early mornings. But it doesn't matter because I have all the time in the world, during the day, to let the ideas, the feelings, envelope me.
Last week, when I realised this, I decided to let myself have a day of letting the air in. I jotted down images, subjects, songs that I think have inspired this novel on my whiteboard so I have to look at them every time I walk in the room. I went to the library and looked at pictures of Russian prison tattoos (don't ask). I bought index cards . I walked and I thought. I looked at the internet without guilt, googling random subjects associated with the novel to see if I could find any juicy new snippets that would send my thoughts spinning sideways. I did. It worked. By the end of the day I was inspired and excited and ready to get back into it with a new understanding of where the novel was going.
Writing a novel is about not writing as well. This is why I have ruined myself for life. I want to keep writing novels for ever, but I just can't write fruitfully unless it is full time. That is why I have to make the most of this year and appeciate it, because it's a real gift.
You always hear stories about new authors obsessively checking their Amazon ranking, and I can tell you this: it’s all true. I have to say that since my book has been out for a while I don’t check it nearly so often, although I started again in earnest when the UK Picador paperback was released recently, but only for a couple of weeks. That's when I realised it wasn’t ever going to get to 4 digits.
I had long since given up looking for readers’ reviews after the hardback drew only two (admittedly very nice) responses, including from one RN Morris, author of A Gentle Axe. But today I thought I’d check how my wee book was doing (still clinging to the 5 digits, but only just) and found a glowing review by someone who loved the book so completely that it has really given me a boost. It’s all very nice to get good reviews in the media, but there is something just so heartening about getting one from a reader who has obviously gained so much pleasure from what you’ve written. It sounds like a cliché, but it really does gives you the strength to carry on and write that person another book they can hopefully enjoy as much. So thanks, Mr P Wood from Bristol, whoever you are, I’m having another crack at it.
I am reassessing the whole idea of the shitty first draft. On the one hand I found it enormously liberating when I started the new novel, just to power on and rack up the word count and get the story out. On the other, after 10,000 words, what I have is, well, shit. After taking a break to work on other projects, and coming back to it, I didn’t experience the feeling I had with my other one, I just felt a profound sense of disappointment, which is probably the reason behind my mood last week.
But, not to be deterred, I decided to adopt the Chris Else method of working – he has talked in the past about starting the novel about four times and each time getting further and further into it before scrapping it all and starting again. I thought this was a bit nuts when I first heard it, but I can totally see how it works – each time you get into it, you start to know your characters and story so much more and can go back to the beginning with a stronger idea of the voice of the novel and what it needs.
That means piling up a huge number of words, but the idea is that by the time you have started it the fourth time, you will be sailing through it (and I’m sure you can lift good passages from other drafts).
Speaking of word counts, kiwiology.com alerted me to this blog, which is basically one Edinburgh-based NZ writer’s challenge to write a million words in one year. Each week he charts his progress using graphs and pie-charts – genius! I would love to do this, but the difference between him and me is that I would probably make the graphs instead of writing, thereby negating the need for any graphs at all. He seems to be working on a whole lot of things all at once, and includes his blog in his word count, which I thought was a bit of a cop-out, until I read that he also has a day job. Now I’m impressed.
He also sets himself interesting exercises, such as writing a story at the rate of 8 words per day for a month, the result of which is actually quite a sweet story, if a little mad (not surprising really).
The blogger is Craig Cliff, who has already made a mark on the NZ writing scene (he won the novice section of Katherine Mansfield award) and I predict he will feature quite strongly in the literary landscape in the future. Especially if he writes a million words a year.
Craig’s work is also featured in Turbine, which I have been reading lately. My favourite part of Turbine is the 'Reading Room' - reading journals of students of the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. They are a lot like the blogs I seek out on the internet, about the writing and reading process, the thoughts that go into creating. They are full of excitement too, by people who have been given a precious year in which to do nothing but write and think, which I know from my own experience of the MA is a gift that keeps on giving long after the year is over.
Finally, I’d just like to say that I had a great start to the week, clocking up a good word count (not enough to get me to a million though) and, using my new technique, working my way towards finding the voice of the novel, but all was thwarted yesterday by a sick family. I got three hours sleep on Monday night due to a clingy child who would only sleep in my arms while I sat in a chair (“And when does Mummy get to sleep, hm?” I asked him, but he didn’t notice) and my husband was no help as he had been struck down at the same time by a vomiting bug. So I was off work on Tuesday looking after them both, but I’m back into it today, by golly. Just a little sleepy.
I think I have worked out why I am addicted to the internet and why I can’t stop trawling through it when I should be working. It’s because I’m looking for answers. Looking for magic. A way to make things easier, better. When my writing’s going well I completely fall into it and don’t need to go off reading people’s blogs or book news. But when it’s not going perfectly, which is more often than not, I find myself searching for something. First on my email, then on writers’ blogs and sites I go to. I think I’m looking for the magic page that is going to show me my novel and what I need to do and how I can do it. It’s almost as if a part of me believes that my novel is already written – I just need to find where I left it on the internet.
I am also becoming overwhelmingly sleepy every afternoon and I tend to deal with this by laying myself down and having a wee nap. But I realise this is wrong, that when it is going badly and I am sleepy that I should go out for a walk – even better finally get around to joining the university gym. I know that my novel and I will benefit from this and yet my head still says to me ‘but you haven’t done enough work to just swan off for a walk’. Somehow I seem to have tricked myself into believing that if I stay in my office (having my little nap) then the possibility of work is still there.
I’m having trouble finding the voice of my main character. I have written quite a lot and it is helpful to know where the book is going, but I haven’t reached that stage when the character’s voice is so strong that it just takes over. At the moment it’s too much like my voice, which would be fine if I was writing a memoir, but this is a novel and I get bored reading things in my own voice. I think the solution is to read and read, and I don’t mean to pick up someone else’s voice, but rather just to get away from my own in order to let my character have the opening to pop in and start speaking to me. Perhaps this is the problem I have with writing a contemporary novel – by necessity I am drawing on too many of my own experiences, assumptions and descriptions, whereas the freedom with writing something historical is that you have to let that voice go. That’s also why I like writing from the point of view of a man, because my imagination has to work and that’s when I start to produce work that I’m happy with.
Don’t get me wrong – I would love to write a searing tome of modern-day life based on what I know. I just don’t think I’d be very good at it. Yet.
This is another post about a film, this time the film of a book that I loved when I read it in my early 20s - Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I came to Marquez through a stage 3 university paper, Post-colonial Lit at Auckland Univeristy in the early 90s. One Hundred Years of Solitude was taught by Sebastian Black, he of the tightly-buttoned paisley shirts and the bushy grey beard, which he often stroked as he pondered his own words. His enthusiasm for the work was infectious and I experienced the joy of loving a book because I not only read it but discussed the ideas it threw up. A boy I fancied sat in front of me and I gazed at the back of his head and nodded at his intelligent questions. Our lectures finished at 6pm, so as the days got shorter we would walk out together in the melancholy light and I would try and make him mine.
I read Love in the Time of Cholera after that, which was a much more straight-forward love story if I remember rightly. It appealed to my early 20s romanticism and idealism, when I was still falling in and out of love regularly and believed in all comsuming passion. On reflection, the boys that I fell in love with, especially those who spoke the language of love, were always the ones who ended up getting bored and moving on once the first spurt of romance (all midnight swims, drinking wine, sitting up all night talking) started to wane. They were in love with being in love (as I was, I guess). Still, exciting at the time and an essential part of growing up, but having now experienced more lasting love I can see that those affairs were nothing more than games really. Fun games, but games I'm happy to banish to my past.
So when I read Love in the Time of Cholera, with its great love that spans more than 50 years, I swooned over it in a way that I never would have over a Mills and Boon. After all, this wasn't just high romance, this was literature!
After seeing the film, I'm not quite so sure. I just wanted to give Florentino a slap, and Fermina for that matter, for falling in love before they've even spoken to each other, and believing they will die without each other. At least Fermina had the sense early on to see what it was: an illusion, with no grounding in real life. After Fermina rejects him, Florentino mends his broken heart by patiently waiting for Fermina's husband (a much more likeable character in the film) to die and by screwing more than 600 women. Oh the romance!
It's been so long since I read the book that I don't know whether the film was doing the book justice or whether it was just a bad film. I'd be interested to hear what others thought. The most interesting part for me was the relationship between Fermina and her doctor husband, but the film was marred by achingly bad make-up. The film-makers for some reason felt the need to give a young man a prosthetic face to make him look like a young Javier Bardem and it just looked awful. It was so distracting, as was the make-up of Giavanna Mezzogiorno as a young girl and as an old woman. It just looked like she had too much foundation on (one exception being her naked torso as a 70+ year old woman - now that looked realistic). For a review that sums up how I felt about the film, go here.
I'm going to have to read the book again to try and distinguish my feelings for it from the film, and to see if my jaded-but-content-in-love 37-year-old self still relates to it the way my wide-eyed 21-year-old self did. But I read Marquez's latest, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, about an old man in love with a young virgin, and to be honest, it left me cold and bit creeped out. I also think that the magical realism that I loved as a youngster (and tried to badly imitate in my own writing) is something that I've just grown out of.
My final thought on the book/film is that just like those young men that I had intense but short-lived affairs with in my youth (yes, including the boy from the lecture theatre), if Florentino had scored Fermina when they were young, he would have lost interest in her almost immediately and still ended up sleeping with 600 women. At least Fermina's husband gave up his mistress when she asked him to. I doubt Florentino would have done the same.
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.