I had a wonderful weekend at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. My plane was delayed on Friday night so I missed the annual party held by my publishers (bit sad about that one), and missed most of Richard Dawkins, but arrived just in time to see him present the Royal Society prize for science writing to my talented and beautiful sister-in-law, Rebecca Priestley, for The Awa Book of New Zealand Science. Very pleased and proud I was. It was odd seeing it being presented by a huge man on a screen (Dawkins via satellite).
The rest of the weekend was an intense round of sessions, five or more per day I think, and catching up with all manner of friends, family and colleagues in the gaps between. I won't go into it too much - others have written about it better and more thoroughly than I have (here, here, here and here), but I will say that the highlights for me were Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and Monica Ali, both warm and engaging and thought-provoking with beautiful readings that left me wanting more (I confess I often nod off at readings and prefer to hear writers talk, but these two were an exception). The success of these sessions was in no small part due to the excellent chairing by Paula Morris, whose energy and intellectual capacity always astounds me. Chairing can be exhausting and challenging, and far harder than it looks, with hours and hours of preparation time (and that doesn't even include all the books you have to read), so I take my hat off to her for chairing three sessions with important writes and doing a wonderful job, as well as appearing as a writer in two sessions. And she even finds time to write books. To digress for a moment, I probably shouldn't point this out but I'm going to: Paula and I wrote our first books together in 2001 during the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML, and since then she has had three novels and one collection of short stories published, with a YA novel due out in August. I am hoping to have my second novel published at the end of the year. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Another session I enjoyed was the 'Emerging Stars' (no pressure!) with Eleanor Catton, Bridget van der Zijpp and Anna Taylor. It was a great idea on the behalf of the organisers to make this a free session, as it introduced new writers to people who might not otherwise have taken a gamble with their money. Sessions with new writers always attract aspiring writers, so there was the inevitable questions from the audience of "Did you get an agent first or did you just send it into your publisher?" and "Did you sign your international rights over to your publisher?". It always amuses me how aspiring writers (and I still count myself among that group) always want to know things like this, rather than questiosn about how to write well (this has been my experience speaking to first year creative writing students as well). People, it doesn't matter how many agents and editors you sumbit your work to, you've got to put in the hard yards and learn how to write as well as you can first. That should be your priority. And try and enjoy the process of improving your writing for the sake of it.
Now I'm back home and trying to write as much as I can. I have about 10,000 words to go for a complete draft of the new novel and have possibly settled on a title. Because of the way I work, although it will be a complete draft, it won't be a first draft as such. I tend to work things out as I go along, and the first half of the book is pretty polished as I wrote and rewrote until I got the voice right. Once the voice comes, it can seemingly just write itself. This novel has a contemporary story and an historical story. Unlike with The Sound of Butterflies, which I wrote from start to finish in the way it is read (alternating between two different time periods), I have completed the historical section and am now tackling the end (and the middle and all the bits in between) of the (much more complex) contemporary section. To get myself in the right frame of mind, I started at the beginning, picking up the printouts I have been carrying around with me for nine months of what I have written so far and went through and incorporated all the notes that I have scribbled over those pages during the that time. I can't tell you how satisfying I found it to get to the end of one chapter and reprint it, all clean and beautiful, knowing it was as good as I can get it at this point. I have five more of these to go, and then it's the home stretch, pulling all those loose threads together and writing those final chapters. I am on track, so far, and have scheduled panic and anxiety for six weeks time. Before that, it is not allowed.