Saturday, May 31, 2008


For obvious reasons, I have been thinking about first lines and beginnings of novels a lot lately, trying to choose which approach to take and experimenting with different kinds of beginnings.

How many novel start with arrivals, alarm clocks, hang-overs, descriptions of the weather? The Sound of Butterflies originally began with an arrival at a train station; my new novel at the moment begins with an arrival at a house. The challenge is how to make it different from every other arrival. This beginning is by no means set in stone - I have many other forms to try out before I settle on one, and it probably won't be truly written until the novel is finished. It was only at the last minute that I changed the beginning of TSOB, as if only when I knew what the completed novel was going to be could I know the best way to begin. Now it starts: "Nothing in the letter suggests to Sophie that her husband will arrive home a different man." Rather than starting with a (not very active) action scene, with Sophie standing on the platform, thinking whimsical thoughts about spring flowers while she waits for Thomas, I went for the first line that drops you into the heart of the matter and asks you to read on. What letter? How is he different?

Often it is an atmosphere that we are trying to evoke in the first lines, but I think that can be as much about getting the writer into the book as getting the reader, and once the writer is off and away with the story, it can then be changed. Ditto it might be about establishing the voice of the narrator or the main character.

There is the arresting first line approach, where you shock a reader into reading on ("The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut"). There is the action scene that starts the story in the here and now. There is the general backstory kind of beginning. A lot of it depends on the point of view the author has chosen to tell the story in: first person can add the confessional beginning, a few words about who the narrator is and why they think their story is important to tell. An omniscient narrator can comment about the characters' situation, the place they live etc and set the scene for the events to follow.

While I was writing TSOB, I picked up Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (one of my all time favourites) and read the first line: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy in an emergency room near Peteoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." Because the grass is always greener, it made me yearn to be writing a first person narrative, and I decided then and there that my next book would be told in the first person (which it is, well half of it anyway). The way I saw it, it gives you much more freedom than the third person limited that I had chosen to write TSOB in, but of course it has its own problems, which no doubt I will discuss at a later date when I'm having trouble with it.

So while I've been thinking about the beginning a lot, I do know that there is no pressure to get it right immediately, which is worthwhile thinking about when starting out with a new novel. I recommend starting it ten times, in different ways. Have fun with it. You never know how it might turn out, and you'll probably go back and change it at the end anyway.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I hadn't realised until today how much I slip into writer mode when I leave the house in the morning, whether I'm writing or not. This morning I said good-bye to my husband and son, walked out the door and entered the novel world. It didn't, as I had always thought, start when I got to the office and turned the computer on. It started as soon as my feet touched the footpath outside my house. I didn't go very far. I had a casual appointment with a research subject whose business is not far from home, just near my bus stop. He let me sit with him for an hour or so while he worked and I asked lots of stupid questions, examined his workspace and just sort of hung out. When I decided I'd seen enough for one day, I left and popped into the cafe next door for a take-away coffee while I waited for my bus. There, I chatted to the cafe owner about the research I had just been doing.

As I was leaving, my husband walked in, wheeling my son in his pushchair. I was of course delighted to see them, but after a quick cuddle and play with my son, I found I would not be deviated from my path and left to catch that bus, much to the confusion and annoyance of my 18-month-old, who had to say good-bye to me twice in one day.

Once on the bus, I questioned myself about why I hadn't stopped and had lunch with them - after all, a girl's gotta eat. I even called husband to check on son, but after a few tears when I walked out the door, son had quickly recovered when his fluffy arrived. So I didn't have to feel guilty anymore, but I wondered why it hadn't even occurred to me to linger for a while.

But then it became clear to me. I wasn't in mummy mode; I was in writing mode. Despite not actually being at my desk, I had just spent an intense hour immersed in one of the subjects of my novel and I was still ticking over everything I had seen and learned. I was free to chat to near-strangers, but seeing my family unexpectedly like that threw me a little bit. It meant a sudden shift of gears, which I didn't handle particularly well. It was fine, nobody was traumatised, but it just brought home to me how absorbed I am in my work as soon as I leave the house, not just when I get to work, and how I leave it at the door when I return home each night. And rarely shall the twain meet.

It's different when I know it's going to happen - after all, I look after my son on Thursday mornings and only after I've dropped him off at creche in the afternoon does the writer's mantle descend. I guess I have proved to myself that I have finally learned to switch it on and off - although only if scheduled in advance - something that only comes with the luxury of near-fulltime writing, and a skill I hope I can carry over when I am back to part-time writing.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Writers' groups and anxiety dreams.

I have been away quite a bit from my computer the last couple of weeks due to travelling both to Auckland (see below) and Wellington, and coming down with a horrendous cold in between. That hasn't stopped me from thinking about writing - quite the opposite in fact. The Auckland Writers' Festival fed both my brain* and my desire to write the best possible novel, and being sick of body doesn't stop my mind from ticking over as I'm lying in bed. Last Wednesday I visited the Hagley Writers' Institute and, along with fellow writer Carl Nixon, chatted to the class in my usual disorganised manner about my career thus far. Then, in Auckland, I got to have a session with my trusty writers' group.

But first the Hagley chat. I was able to pass on the secret I have been jealously guarding for 8 years - that the writers' site Zoetrope has been as much a help to my development as a writer as anything else I can think of. After being one of the only New Zealanders on the site for so long, it might now be flooded by kiwis, judging by how many people wrote down the address. I spent an energetic portion of the year 2000 doing nothing but writing, posting my short stories and critiquing others. I can't recommend enough the process of looking at others' work, thinking about what works and doesn't, and most importantly, why it doesn't work. It is much easier in the first instance to see the flaws in other people's work than in your own. Coupled with that is the networking aspect of the site, with message boards and private 'rooms' that you can set up and invite only people you want to join in. I have long since stopped posting short stories, but I have made some great friends and allies, many of whom I have met in person on various overseas jaunts. Zoetrope writers generally know how to party.

So after sharing that secret Carl and I tossed about ideas on our work habits, writing shorts vs novels, winning competitions (Carl must be the only writer in New Zealand who writes short stories for financial gain - he always does spectacularly well in competitions. Me, not so much). I also talked a little bit about my new novel. I have a policy on discussing new work. I don't mind doing it in a closed forum, but I do not talk about specifics of my novel anywhere that will get recorded for posterity, eg this blog. Call it superstition, call it coyness. But I have to say, it was great to articulate a little of my creative process for this one, which has been so different from The Sound of Butterflies. I think some of the things I talked about will make some good future blog posts so I'll stop here.

As for my writing group visit, I just have one word: fantastic. I have two highly intelligent and trusted novelist friends whose work I love. They read the first two chapters of what I have written on my new book and while gving me lots of encouragement, promptly tore them to shreds. I can now officially make a guinea pig's nest from those chapters. And I couldn't be happier. They got me thinking so hard about what I'm trying to acheive and why, and I can pick up where I left off with a renewed vigour and confidence in where I'm going (and not a small amount of humbleness about how much work I have ahead of me).

Writers' groups aren't for everyone. Many writers won't show their work to anyone until they have finished, but I find a few trusted people (and when I say trusted I don't mean that I can trust them not to hurt me, I mean I can trust them to be honest and intelligent) can help you find the core of what you are trying to acheive so you can move forward with that much more confidence, which saves a lot of time and energy in the long run. After crowing about the shitty first draft, then abandoning the method, I can safely say that if I were to write a whole first draft before showing it to anyone or revising, the lazy part of me would take over and say "oh, it'll do" and I would skimp on the effort I applied to revisions and end up with work all the poorer.

I'd be interested to hear anyone else's experiences of writing groups. Feel free to comment.

*The downside of my brain being fed at a festival is that last night I dreamed that I was pulled in at the last minute to chair a session with Simon Montefiore, not knowing anything about him or his work. It was an extreme example of an anxiety dream that I can find no discernible reason for. To make things worse, and this is absolutely true, in the dream all my clothes fell off just before I went on stage and I couldn't find my dressing gown so I had to make do with an A4 piece of paper to do the job.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Auckland Writers' Festival.

I got back yesterday from a fantastic few days in Auckland for the festival. I would have liked to have stayed for longer, but I arrived late Thursday afternoon and left first thing on Sunday morning, and in that time managed to get to eight sessions and three parties and not a dud amongst them. Huge congratulations to Jill and Shona, Peter and Stephanie for the whole thing which was probably the best yet.

One of the things I love about the Auckland festival is the fact that there is usually more than one thing going on at once, and the half hour between sessions gives you ample time to buy books, get them signed, or mill around and catch up with people you haven't seen for a while.

While everything was great for me, highlights include Sarah Hall (smart, articulate, interesting), Junot Diaz (I only caught him on the opening night but he read brilliantly), Hermione Lee, Paula Morris, Luke Davies (a definite highlight of highlights: engaging, funny, honest)... oh heck now I've started I actually want to just about list them all. Special mentions to chairpersons Carole Beu, Graham Beattie and Kate Camp. I appreciate that chairing is a tough job (see my comments on Beattie's blog).

I came home with a nasty cold (thanks Paula!) so this report isn't as detailed as I had planned. Feel free to ask my any questions if you didn't get to it. I'm off to nurse my snuffles.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Other writers' lives.

An excellent new series is playing on The Arts Channel at the moment, called Scribbling. It follows four writers over the course of a few of years, from the beginning of writing a book to the publication. In a world of quick-fixes, I think that is very patient of the producers to take so long putting together a TV show, and I imagine they must have made it with blind faith before pitching the finished product to the TV networks, who I can't see saying way back in 1999: "Great, let's do it, you've got a deadline of Wednesday May 14, 2008!"

The first episode I saw was about Geoff Ryman, who I thought at first I hadn't heard of, but then saw he had written the much-recommended Was, which I still haven't got around to reading, even though I have it on my shelf. The story is about his novel Lust, and we get to see him sitting down with his initial idea and working through the first draft and all that that brings - the highs, the lows, the stress of also working a full time job, the deadlines from his publisher coming and going. One day, on holiday in Greece, he writes 10,000 words in one day and afterwards he looks drunk.

All gripping stuff. If you're also a writer. I can't explain what draws me to watching what to some people will amount to paint drying. It's something to do with the fact that as writers we are working wholly alone, at least for the bulk of the job and seeing how other people operate - their superstitions, work habits, their despair and elation - is as close to having colleagues in this busniess as we might get.

It was also interesting watching Ryman's first editorial meeting after his completed first draft, with two editors in a claustrophobic-looking meeting room of HarperCollins UK. One editor talks, the other smokes incessantly. They like the novel; they have some suggestions. Ryman goes home and gets depressed and doesn't write another word for three months. I even found the last editorial meeting before it goes off to the printer, where Ryman argues with his (different) editor about the term "our Michael" highly entertaining. The editor thinks it is wrong for the author to address the reader like this; Ryman thinks it's fine. Is this reality TV? I suppose it is, in a way, but not as we know it.

I can only watch these programmes alone. I can't imagine anybody else in my family being the slightest bit interested, but I actually find it as a gripping television expereince as any thriller. Will he get the ending right? Will he throw it all in? Will he get any writing done in Brazil, or will the urge to party overtake? Will it ever get published? I am looking forward to the episode on AS Byatt, although the website notes it only follows her through part of the process of writing her book. Perhaps some writers are just too slow for the fast-paced world of TV after all.

NB I may be a bit quiet this week as I'm going up to Auckland for the Auckland Writers' Festival, which I will report on when I get back.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Index cards revisited.

Thanks for all the suggestions about what to do with index cards after I complained about buying them because I'd heard they were useful, then didn't know what to do with the bally things. I don't actually know if any of the comments helped me, but I did have a revelation about them today. I looked at my whiteboard which is now covered with planning notes and realised I was running out of room. Right in the middle of the board is a very rough breakdown of one of the two main threads of the story, with a chapter number and two or three points about what will probably happen. Now I realise I can put all those points on index cards! And - dun dun dun DUNNN - I can add to them and scribble on them as the story becomes clearer. Hooray for index cards! Now my whiteboard can be free and blank again and I can draw a huge plan of the house the story is set so I can get straight in my head which room is where and which way it faces (and what the view from each window is).

In translation.

I haven't really used this blog to plug my book, at least, not as much as I might or, as much as, ahem, others have. But I was looking at these two beautiful covers tonight and just wanted to share them. Der Ruf des Schmetterlings is published by Pendo Verlag in Germany and De Stilte van de Vlinders by Artemis in the Netherlands. I love these covers and the production on both editions is superb. Now I can't wait to get my hands on the Russian, Greek, Italian and Taiwanese editions. Watch this space.

Monday, May 05, 2008


"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible."

~ Vladimir Nabakov

Somebody posted this over on the Zoetrope discussion board and it perfectly sums up how I have been feeling about writing this novel. I am no longer frustrated by the days that I can't write very many words, because my brain - conscious and sub-conscious - is ticking over things and assembling things that will come out when they are good and ready.

It's not new to say that writers often feel that their books are already written; that they just have to reach up into the ether and pull the words down. This belittles the work that goes into writing a novel of course, but I do agree with the essence of it. Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins once said, when asked why his songs sound so familiar, that it is because they have always been there, like the sea and the stars. Which is a little sick-making, but it taps into the same idea.

After a great initial burst of writing my nove at the end of last year - 10,000 words - I had an enforced break over the summer and couldn't come back to it until I took up my current position as writer-in-residence. I picked it up expecting it to be gold, and was sorely disappointed. I have since binned what I wrote. Quite simply, it was too soon for me to start writing it. The words weren't clamouring at all, they were being forcibly squeezed out in a shitty first draft. I then went through a period of a few weeks where I worked on everything else I could think of except this novel. But in that time, it was quietly assembling itself, like an army gathering troops. I am still not writing at a cracking pace, but I feel as though I am writing just enough, while in the background, the novel is quietly making itself, and is revealing itself to me as and when it needs to. Not without some sweat on my part, I hastily add. I'm not an airy-fairy "oh, the novel was a gift from the spirits" kind of gal, but I have begun to trust my unconscious a lot more than I ever have.

So when I sit down and look at that blank page, I can now trust that those words are just waiting there, and they will come. It makes the whole writing experience a lot more enjoyable than it did when I was forcing it out.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Re: Letting the air in.

It's always interesting to see the google searches that have brought people to this blog. Apart from the obvious ones, like 'The Sound of Butterflies', one of the most common is 'what do butterflies sound like?' A couple of people have googled the expression "let the air in" after my recent post about taking the time to think about my work without agonising over getting words on the screen. One even asked 'What does letting the air in mean?' Strangely enough, the search results bring up my post as the number one entry. So I just want to clarify some things. I actually got the expression from an Ernest Hemingway story, but I have absorbed it and used it to mean something totally different. Consciously. Hemingway used it in (his extraordinary story) "Hills Like White Elephants" when a young man explains to his girlfriend, who he has pressured into having an abortion, that "they just let the air in". So in that way, it's not a nice expression for me to use, but when I was looking for words to describe what I was doing, well, letting in some air seemed the most apt description: opening my mind as I might a window on a stuffy day. So anyone googling the expression: I stole it and gave it a new meaning. I'm afraid you'll find no insight into Hemingway's mind here.