Friday, May 29, 2009


That's the number currently displayed on my picometer (in the bar to the right). By the time you read this, the number may have gone up, but for now I am reminded that 66,600 was the exact number of words of the first novel I ever wrote. And no, I'm not talking about The Sound of Butterflies.

It was called Birds of Passage, and I wrote it for the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University (the IIML). It wasn't published; it never will be published, and I am unlikely to mine much material from it for future books.

Don't get me wrong; it wasn't a bad book, but ultimately, it wasn't the kind of book that I wanted to write. My big epiphany came half way through it when I realised that the kind of books I should be writing are not the ones I thought I should be writing, but the kinds of books I like to read. That was when the idea for TSOB was born, but I wanted to finish the job at hand first. I needed to write a novel in nine months for the MA, and knew that TSOB would take me several years.

Loosely, it was about the young kiwi OE experience. How so many people of my generation drift off to the UK to see the world, and have a slight yearning to discover their roots all over those fair isles. In the case of my novel's protagonist, it was Ireland, where her estranged father lived. She travelled around Ireland with him, getting to know him and a few family skeletons. The writing of the novel coincided with a trip I made with my own (non-estranged) father; in fact, it was the upcoming trip that gave me the idea for the book in the first place. But the protagonist was not me, and the father was definitely not my father. I often thought that if I'd had it published, people would possibly buy it to get an insight into my own father. They would be severely disappointed. Either that or they'd be misguidedly excited - the father in my novel turned out to be gay, which was the reason for the estrangement. At the end of course they made their peace, on top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, a set piece that I'm still rather proud of and may have to turn into a short story one day. 

If I'm honest, I would say that if I hadn't written that book and someone else had, I would have picked it up in a bookstore and put it straight back down again. Although it's a novel that would have reflected my own experiences, I realised that in the end, that's not what I want to read about, so how could I write those kinds of books? I want to read books that aren't about my experience. And those are the books I would like to write as well. The truth is that my writing is better when I can step outside of myself and use my imagination.

I would like to say that I stuck it nobly in the drawer as soon as I'd finished it, but I did try a few publishers, and received very encouraging rejections. I am so glad that it was never published. The Sound of Butterflies had a much better impact for a first novel than Birds of Passage ever would have. So my thanks go out to those editors that turned it down. You know who you are.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Festival, aspiring writers and the joy of the unmarked page.

Husband has taken son to creche on the way to work today, so have a couple of hours more Friday than I usually do (they left very early - I don't usually get it together this early, hence the huge amount of extra time). I'm fighting the urge to go back to bed, to be honest. Instead I thought I'd take the opportunity to update my sadly neglected blog.

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.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Titles are hard.

I have not been blogging lately. You may have noticed. Instead, I have been deep inside deadline-land, trying to finish the new novel by August 1. Anyone following my picometer (to the right - just a bit of fun really) will see that although the word count is inching up, the percentage of novel completed is not. That is because for every 3000 words I write, I realise that the novel in fact needs to be 3000 longer than what I originally thought. It like one of those sci-fi or horror movies where the heroine is walking down a corridor and the corridor just keeps expanding.

One thing I have been thinking about, of necessity, is the title for the novel. I thought I had it all sorted, with two title options, both of which I liked, but one I liked slightly less due to its construction being The (something) of (something). One of my friends from my very scientific Facebook poll suggested that "Either's a good title [The Sound of Butterflies and the Something of Something]; together they look like an attempted branding exercise." Well, that was what I had been afraid of all along, despite this title's absolutely perfect capturing of theme and motif.

The other title, secretly my favourite, has had a mixed reaction. It seems it is too similar to a famous book written in the 1960s - do I really want people to think of that book? Well, actualy, it wouldn't hurt if they did, but it may set up expectations about the plot and deliver too neatly to those expectations. Need a bit more mystery in there. My version of the title has also been done before, and quite recently, albeit for a trashy thriller a million miles from the literary masterpiece I am constructing. But, like, it's been a bestseller, so a lot of people have at least heard of it. The final nail in the coffin is that some people think it's just plain boring - but it makes so much sense when the book is read, and brings the two threads of the story together in perfect harmony. Sigh.

So it's back to the drawing board. Everything I come up with just doesn't make me fall in love. It's a stock phrase, or it's been done before, or it looks good on paper but when you say it out loud it is clumsy. And the worst thing is that it's distracting me from the important task at hand - writing the book. I'm hoping that as I type the last word the perfect title will just slide into my head. Unfortunately I need it before then.