Truth, lies and loathing in London

I haven’t been a very forthcoming blogger of late, initially due to a self-imposed and much needed time-out. Recently, it has been more about my reticence to publicly write about my novel demons. I mean, stats aside, does anyone know how many people read this thing? Do I really want potential book buyers, publishers and agents knowing about my inner struggle? Well, only if said struggle is being productively (ahem) dealt with and if I feel other writers may benefit from reading about my ups and downs.

Let’s be honest, writing novels isn’t an exact science, but on the flip side, it isn’t simply a matter of having faith or trying hard. We may as well be shaking feathers or tambourines, for all the revelations forthcoming.

Courses don’t hold the answers, likewise help books, other authors or fellow writers, although they are great for commiserating and can usually be counted on to produce grisly tales about their own struggles.

It shocked me the other day to discover how long I’d been carrying on in this intense on/off love affair I call a novel. And while I’d like to lie and tell you I’ve always stuck with it, the truth is I haven’t. I’m fickle. I ran away and wrote a short story collection, I took up blogging, redecorated my house and have spent the last few months playing scrabble. I’ve cursed, ridiculed and forsaken the book more times than I can count, trying to convince myself that time will eventually take care of my problems. Every few months, I go in with renewed vigour and end up more frustrated than the last time. I even started a new novel.

Mea Culpa.

For a while I tried fooling myself – non-linear narrative is a perfect place from where to launch an experimental first novel. Who needs structure? Bah, I spit on structure. Cortazar shuffled his chapters around in Hopscotch. David Mitchell sold his collection of shorts in Ghostwritten as novel, and everyone believed him — I can do something like that. Sure. And if all fails, I can always make butterfly sculptures with the recycled pages.

Above all, the biggest lie I told myself was that if I kept blindly writing, eventually the structural nightmares would take care of themselves. Wow, what a good way to end up with more mass, less focus, not to mention the sanity issue. I had index cards plastered all over the floors and walls of my office to prove it. Seriously, they were (literally) spilling out of books and files. We couldn’t have dinner without one of them springing out of the cutlery drawer or kitchen cupboards: stir fry with Jillian Jones chapter 19, scene 3. Drinks with Thomas, chapter 4, the kissing scene.

And that wasn’t all. I had construction paper timelines, four different software novel ‘helper’ packages, even motivational post-its: You are a Champ. Don’t you forget it.

Perhaps I was a champion, but I was still no closer to finding the answers I needed. Recently, it became clear that I couldn’t continue in this manner. I was filling my novel with random meaningless words. I HAD to wrestle the problems or they would cause me to close the (excuse the pun) book forever. At the pace I was going, it was soon going to be buried under so many layers of denial and regret, it would never see the light of day

.Looming large was the heavy realisation that I had scooped out the very heart and soul of my novel in return for plot, structure and a handful of magic beans. I was so concerned with it coming together, I’d managed the exact opposite. My book had become this contrived, earnest, tap-dancing affair that it made me want to down codeine by the handful, chased by copious amounts of grey goose.

Sitting in front of the computer for days/week/months was proof that desire and ambition weren’t enough. Eventually I hit the same wall over and over again — the only thing that changed was the force and speed with which I hit.

So, what changed?

An honest examination for starters, followed by a brutal deconstruction of my bullshit plot. That’s right, I had to force myself to dump thousands of insignificant words and crumple all the index cards, colour-coded character maps and notes of what I thought I was supposed to do, in favour of what I NEED to say, which is a different thing altogether. Maybe it isn’t necessarily what other people care about or want to read, but they are the things that are important to me.

Weird how easy it is to forget what you want to say when other things get in the way. In other words, I had to separate the truth from the lies and the fiction.Before you groan and moan – yes, yes, I know truth/lies can be interpreted in many ways. All stories, whether factual or fantastical contain a healthy amount of exaggeration, improvisation and flat out fibbing, blah blah blah. But when you strip out the details and the interesting anecdotes, what’s left? Anything worth telling? Cause after a while it all becomes repetitive and mundane, even the good bits. Just to be clear, I am not saying my new found realisation is the panacea that will make all the bad stuff in my life go away. I still have structural problems, my linear narrative is holding on by a dear thread, and there is a timeline problem that may only be solved by a drastic Quantum Leap like solution.

Yesterday, I hit a minor wall that ordinarily would have sent me rushing for the vodka, BUT I’m not despairing. I feel renewed and challenged, even though I am making s l o w progress. Even the fear that the love affair may not last another week, doesn’t daunt me. Really, for analytical, impossible me, it always comes down to the question, not so much the answers – and if that is skewed and insubstantial, no amount of technical expertise and perfect plotting will save me. I just have to learn how to keep myself from getting derailed.

6 Comments

  1. Oliver

    I assure you, your struggles do resonate throughout the intarwebz. I saw your post on my blog and opted for a peek – it’s perversely comforting to know that there are more people in abusive relationships with their literary projects. I loved your post on The BOOK, by the way, it sounded very familiar indeed.Good luck with your novel, and I hope you won’t mind if I add you to my blogroll, I’ve heard misery loves company or somesuch!

  2. jamie

    massively reassuring as ever… I’m still at the hoping-if-I-keep-writing-the-lack-of-structure-will-disappear stage, but it’s looking increasingly unconvincing. For a while it seemed if I could just get a draft done that would be progress, but now it’s feeling like racing to the end is just creating more work for later. I need to sit down and do a detailed re-evaluation of what it’s REALLY about… I think that has to be the only way to FOCUS FOCUS FOCUS…

  3. Hey Jamie, thanx for the comment. It is all about focus and control isn’t it? I mean we spend so much time unravelling, spinning, and weaving, but ultimately you have to steer it or it will become unmanageable and unruly.

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