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.


Unknown said...

That's a really interesting post Rachael.

I'm the opposite of you, I want to write about material that affects me directly (and probably brow beat people with it :) I know, I can pretty well give up on the publishing bit). The novel, my first, I'm working on is almost creative non-fiction. I'm already at the point of just getting it out of my system and treating it as a learning curve.

Perhaps I'm wrong, as it's also the type of novel I like to read; I guess that's why I like Maurice Gee so much.

Rambling really.

After about eight weeks I'm on 36,755 words, which I'm happy with, even if a forlorn exercise.

In our holiday home, from which we've not long returned, we have Freeview TV, and while there Freeview Channel 6 (I think, the arts orientated channel), had a fascinating documentary on your father. I wish I could remember the name of it, as I only caught it half way through, did not write the name down, and wouldn't mind finding it to watch it all [while sober, because I wasn't quite at the time, hence not writing it down]. It dealt with his life, and the genesis for some of his works, especially his writing partnership with Maori, and the Moriori book.

Can you think of the one I'm referring to?

I've always liked watching programs about writers, and listening to interviews. I also noticed that book show, The Good Word (I think) was on that channel. I used to love watching it at home, but can't get it on the networks or Sky anymore, which I think is pretty pathetic. I wasn't even aware it was on again.

Anyway, trying to get to 37,000 words by the news, I"m just procrastinating really, so off I go ... All the best with finishing yours.

Tania Roxborogh said...

I too have a 'novel' I wrote before I wrote a proper book. I actually think it's a fab story and maybe, one day, I'll write it.

I've always thought, until the last few days, any unpublished works were a waste of my time. Now, since Banquo's Son has made a splash in NYC, I've realised that these initial writings have not been wasted but have helped me develop my craft.

I think I couldn't have written B.S. as well without all the years and books before - I've done my early apprenticeship.

Still, fascinating story line - don't think it's long gone. Fleur Beale's Juno of Tarris was written eight years ago, put away, lost (with the theft of her lap top in the UK) and rewritten. Awarding now.

Congrats the word count.
lots of love

Rachael King said...

Mark - The doco was probably History Man, made by Greenstone in 2004 (the year he died, which is why my brother and I appear looking extremely sad).

Good luck with the novel Mark! I found just the act of writing one to be the best way how to learn to write one. If you know what I mean. So even if you're not happy with the end result, you will make huge leaps and bounds in your writing, and the next one will be a doddle.

Rachael King said...

Tania - I never look at that novel as a waste of time. Some people have said "oh what a shame, what a waste" but no way! I got that one out of the way and learned how to write a novel. TSOB came so much more easily after that. I couldn't have gone straight into it without that first one under my belt.

Fabulous news about BS. Any publisher's nibbles yet?

Andrea said...

I really agree with that! I'm someone who is starting out with creative writing in a fairly amateur capacity and I feel I'd much rather write about interesting things that I probably don't know so much about from first hand experience. I've found your blog interesting reading.

Jonathan Ganley said...

Hi Rachael - Thanks for dropping by my blog. Those pictures of the Cakekitchen at the Basement will be posted sometime soon. Sorry but no Battling Strings pictures ... I think now that those pictures of Bird Nest Roys were taken on another night.

Rachael King said...

Thanks for dropping by Andrea!

Jonathan - good news! I'll keep a look out. That was possibly the best gig we ever had (in that line-up, which blew apart a short time later).

Ruth (Book Focus) said...

Interesting post! I was thinking something similar earlier this week. That is, I'm an unpublished writer (apart from short stories), but I was comparing my first "novel" - written for NaNoWriMo - with the one I wrote last year. I've done NaNoWriMo six years, and ended up with six manuscripts. While I love the first one I wrote, and keep my copy of it tenderly tucked away in my bookcase, I'm so glad I never tried to do anything serious with it. It helped teach me how to write - and while I'm still very much of an amateur, if I hadn't written those first couple of "novels", there's no way I could have got to where I am now with my writing. I guess you learn something from every novel you write!

I think it's so important that a writer's debut novel be great, so I'm glad your debut was one you were so happy with, and which was so well-received.

...although I'm also quite curious to read Birds of Passage, now. :)

Beattie's Book Blog said...

I'm ready to read Birds of Passage.

Rachael King said...

Ha ha! no! you'll never see it! Mwahahaha!

Rachel Fenton said...

I was thinking about your post and then back to one of my first questions to you, about whether a writer should worry about being typecast, so to speak, before they even get that first book published. When you say write the sort of books you read, that is exactly my problem. The books I like to read, and write, are very eclectic and diverse and my concern, as an unpublished writer, is whether it is necessary to worry about this in terms of which book to put out there first? I suppose none of it matters at all if nothing I write ever gets published, lol, but I am certainly aware of a growing trend in the publishing industry to market a writer as the producer of a paticular genre. I know that many writers also get around this 'typecasting' by using pseudonyms but how does this work for writers just starting out? What happens if you get four books published but all in different names for example, is that better than two in just one genre and in one name in terms of building a reputation? So many questions! I think that because I've waited such a long time to put my writing out there that I want to get it right.

Rachael King said...

Rachel, my only advice to you is to stop thinking so much and get writing! You shouldn't worry about anything before you have your first book published. Just write the very best book you can, regardless of genre and send it out into the world. Honestly, the rest will take care of itself.

As for publishing different genres under different names, well, I'm probably not the person to ask. You seem to be talking about commercial genres, which I don't write. But Kate Atkinson, a literary author had no problem writing a crime series under her own name. Again, I think you shoudln't even be thinking about this until you have honed your craft - then when you get a book published you'll have publishers to and editors to advise you.

There is a danger with new writers to put the cart before the horse. My advice is always to write write write - and enjoy the process of learning the craft before bothering yourself with the business end.

And when I said to write what you want to read, I don't mean necessarily write in the genre you want to read (since this seems to be causing you anxiety as well), but just choose a story to tell that you would be excited to pick up as a reader, not one that you think would 'sell' or be critically well received or any of those outside influences. Please yourself as a reader foremost and you will write the best book you can.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks Rachael,
I do think to the point where my brain is about to implode!

My preoccupation with genre is not anything to do with wanting to write genre fiction, as in popular genre fiction (eg detective, chic-lit etc) I have no desire to either read nor write these kinds of books, which is I think the root of my being stuck on the issue.

My main problem is that I write somewhere, I think (rather optimistically it may be conceded), somewhere in between Michael Ondaatje, Angela Carter, Arundhati Roy, Kate Atkinson and Margaret Atwood, with lashings of contemporary social comment: but it isn't a simple case of saying I am more or less like any of them because the fact is, I am finding it difficult to say just what my writing is, and as this is a requisite of the agency/publisher's query letter I am desperate to sell myself accurately.

I can tell you what influenced a piece or where it started and what elements I have put in it but I cannot condence it into one neat label.

I have zero issues with writing novels, short stories, poems; just you try nd stop me, the stories pop out faster than the poems surrounding the Oxford poetry row!
It's the query letters that tumble me! And I suppose beneath my obsession with genre lays the worry that perhaps my fiction isn't going to rake in the money in the way, say, a Marianne Keyes novel will, and that this is the sort of fiction the agents want right now, in a recession, because it's a given that it will sell.

So, to conclude:

What is my writing? And how important is this to know now?

These are my concerns.

P.S. I do't expect you to answer these ramblings! You've been a great help already.

Ruth (Book Focus) said...

Hi, Rachel - just to briefly answer your comment, I've heard a lot of people suggest that you just go to your local bookstore and look at the books, and see where you think they'd put your book.

If that doesn't help, there are a lot of websites around that are set up for writers, and they may be able to give you a hand! There are at least three blogs for helping writers with queries, that I've found: Evil Editor, Query Shark and the Public Query Slushpile. A lot of other writers read these websites, and can give some really invaluable/insightful advice, including on things like what genre you're writing in, etc.

Hope this helps!

Rachael King said...

Rachel, the most important thing in a query is your writing sample. You don't need to describe your writing, just what your book is about. It is enough to as if the will look at your 'literary novel about...' without you stressing about who to compare yourself to. Trust me! And if you're not writing commercial genres, then all that stuff you were worrying about pigeonholing and pseudonyms is all null and void IMO.

Take Ruth's advice about queries and send in your best work. Let it speak for itself.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks for the feedback - I've really been thinking myself in knots and had got to the point where I couldn't see the thread for the wool; or the wool for the sheep etc....! I will ditch the overanalysis for the query letter and do as you say; let the writing speak for itself.

Anonymous said...

Rachael, that's such a fascinating story. I think everyone has a 'first' novel, which has to be got out of the way. In some ways it's a good thing if it's not the novel you REALLY want to write, but a prentice piece where you can learn technique and flex your muscles, ready for the real thing. Nothing you write is ever wasted.

Your story also chimes with my own and lots of others' experience. The fourth novel I wrote came very, very close to being bought (editor moved jobs, etc. etc.) I still wouldn't be ashamed to show anyone, but I wouldn't want it published. If it had, I would have gone on writing the same sort of thing (upmarket semi-literary women's fic) branching out a bit, no doubt, and hopefully acquiring a better technique, but not really becoming a different animal as a writer: the rejection was incredibly frustrating, but it made me strike out into much deeper water in the quest to write something compelling enough to land a contract. The following two novels were very ugly-duckling, because I was trying things I didn't have the technique to do well, and in my case it was a Masters which helped me pull everything together: that turned into The Mathematics of Love. But I don't think I would have got nearly so much out of the Masters if I'd come to it with fewer flying hours under my belt.

Rachael King said...

Thanks for that Emma - VERY interesting. I imagine many people assume that TMOL was your first and that you had 'overnight success'. People just don't see the years and years of work that goes into learning the craft. I am actually amazed at how many novels you wrote before you were published! I guess that goes some way to explain how you are so disciplined and can write fairly quickly. I imagine all those 'flying hours' have sharpened your focus.

Anonymous said...

I think all those flying hours have made me a bit better at spotting things going awry sooner, and given me more tactics with which to tackle the problem. But it's also that I'm naturally impatient - there are always ideas which look more fun, so by the time a novel was rejected I was already in the middle of a new one. Themes and characters which I didn't pull off, I tend to re-work in new novels, rather than going back : between them TMOL and A Secret Alchemy re-explore important aspects of every single one their predecessors. If it takes a million words to become a writer, as Hemingway says, then some re-write their 100,000 word novel ten times, and some write ten novels...

I was a bit taken aback when, before TMOL came out, it was made clear to me that it wasn't a good idea to talk about earlier 'failures' of novels, because it would create an atomosphere of failure round TMOL. It disconcerted and even upsets me because to me craft is all. The myth that we sit down and have our novels delivered from on high (or just mine our own lives for them) is bad for writers, and wannabe writers, and ultimately devalues what we do, because why should we be paid decently for doing something which comes so easily?

Rachael King said...

Yes I have had people think that I started writing when I did my MA in 2001, when in fact I started seriously 6 years before that and had had several short stories published. Some have even said that I 'came to writing late' because I didn't have my novel published until I was 35, but actually I came to it seriously 10 years before. It just took me that long to finish a novel I was happy with, and that 10 years was learning the craft.

Jonathan Ganley said...

Hi Rachael - completely off topic again ... but the Basement theatre cakekitchen pics are now up.