Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The perfect novel.

I have written the perfect novel. It is complex, multi-layered, gripping and very important. The story is fantastic. It will move readers, and sell extremely well. The critics will laud it, and of course, it will win the Booker. Or the Orange. Or both. How could it not, when it is perfection itself?

The trouble is, so far I have only written it in my head. In your head, things can afford to be perfect. And effortless. The novel assembles itself with precision; all you need to do is get it down on paper, right?

Wrong. In making the transition from head to page, that perfect creature becomes a baggy, twee, trite, lack-lustre, confused monster. I wonder how many great ideas never make it into book form because people can't bear to see their precious darlings being born a bit spotty, or, OK, hideously deformed.

But this, I have to remind myself, is what writing a novel is all about, and those of us who persevere - who don't abandon our ugly babies but work with them to make them achieve all they can in life - are the ones who get the books finished. And OK, they might not be the flawless art that we first imagined, but we have to at least try and mould that first effort into something as close to our dream as we can manage. We can't give up.

On a personal note I thought I could get this novel out in a year, no worries, because it was all there in my head. The days when I hated what I saw appearing on the screen sometimes crippled me for the rest of the week. I have come to realise that I was being a bit optimistic. Sure, I will try and write it in a year, but with a few exceptions, novels can - and probably should - take a lot longer that that.

A few weeks ago, a night class student asked me how many words I like to write a day and I said a thousand (this wasn't a lie - I do like to write a thousand, but I usually fail at this target miserably). He said with a very confused look on his face "But this isn't very many at all!" People have this image of the full-time writer sitting at their desk banging away on their keyboard for 8 hours straight, but those who have actually been there know that this is virtually impossible. Sometimes I sit in my office all day and only write for an hour. But try and explain to people what you're doing for the rest of the time and you realise that to the outside world writing a novel looks an awful lot like laziness.

Other people have also said "If you write a page a day, that's a novel in a year". I think those people have never written a novel either. They must be the kind who think that the perfect novel in their head will pour out of them at a perfect page a day, and at the end of that year all they need to do is print it out and send it off.

The conclusion to this rant is that I am going to go back to trying to write 1000 words a day, and if they look nothing like I was hoping I will shrug my shoulders and tell myself that I have all the time in the world to shape it once the first draft is out. If I hate it, I don't have to live with it. I have the power to change it to the best of my ability. And I don't need to rush it out. If I take the time to research, and ponder, and read things that inspire me, I am not being lazy; I am being kind to my baby.


Andrea Eames said...

This post struck such a chord with me. I have been thinking about loving one's (metaphorical) ugly babies recently. I got the official Nanowrimo book out of the library yesterday and read it this morning - I found it very inspiring as an incentive to just plough through and FINISH without worrying about the quality.

My productivity has dropped over the last couple of months, and I feel very guilty about it. One tool I have been using lately is the 'You can do anything in fifteen minutes' theory (catchy, ain't it?). I set the timer on my cellphone for fifteen minutes from now and write hell-for-leather until the bell goes off. It's amazing how much this helps me to focus.

Anonymous said...

Like the post Rachel, often a mad debate between myself and other writers I know. I personally think it is a 'wank' to think one can write all day. Sometimes I am sure the spark is on fire, but I think there absolutely needs to be a time of reflection ( I think you called it laziness). For me, it is an hour of solid getting it out, a day. It shuts the inner critic right up because it doesn't have time to but its fat nose in.When I have had more time, the rest is full of strain and the writing is tight because of it. Instead in my hour, I get condensed content.

Many of my writing friends labour under the myth of being a writer, but if you look at some well known writers, they have produced great works without the weight of the chained to the desk myth, Hemmingway wrote 4 pages a day, Philip Pullman for Dark materials wrote 3 pages a day, after teaching.

The novel in the head is a curse, because it doesn't exist and is too fixed. It is the spark that counts, and the patience to show up every day and trust it to come, and write even when it doesn't, to allow for the quiet, and doing other things, the magic connections that happen when not chained to the desk, that all make for better writing than being chained to a myth and a desk for a day.

excuse rant. too much coffee.

Mary McCallum said...

I know this problem too well. I had a novel in my head and a synopsis down on paper that I sent off to Creative NZ. Now, I thought, I just need to write it. But words are tricky things - each one generates other words which generates other words exponentially - and things change. Colour has come into my novel and is confusing things. Kurt Cobain has also made an entrance. Then there's that avenue of trees I didn't expect. Also, when you actually write it down you realise the logistics of things - would he have drunk whisky at an architect's party? Would she have seen the fish at dusk? And bit by bit the planned story changes and becomes something else. The words on the page have tentacles, I suppose. That's the bliss and bale of writing. In the end, what you have is a more organic sinewy thing. It's just hard to get your head around it sometimes. The 'lost' story is a bit like a miscarriage - you wonder about it, what it could have been... when the truth is, it never was.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachael, I can't even get a perfect sentence out of my head without screwing it up. You have no idea the panic I was in when I first got the idea for Milligan and Murphy. I had to hold an entire paragraph in my head till I got to work when I could find a pen because – idiot, idiot, idiot – I have left home without a notebook.

Tim Jones said...

I find that chapters of a novel break down naturally for me into 3-5 scenes of about 800 words each. So what I hope to have in my head each day before sitting down to work on the novel - which I should start doing five minutes hence! - is an outline of what will happen in that scene. If I don't have such an outline before I start on a scene, I tend to end up with 800-odd words of wasted effort.

Anonymous said...

Mary you nailed it, tentacles and all. The story that never was, gives you the hope that you can and sees you through

Unknown said...

I have the deepest admiration for authors. I always get struck by ideas that I think would be good for a book, but am so cripplingly daunted at the thought of trying to write that I give up!

I must check out your book!