The death of a novel

A couple of months back I did a public event where I was talking about the novel I’m working on at the moment, Lullaby. At that point I’d just completed a second draft, and was preparing to send it off to my editor for feedback and, hopefully, a commitment to publish.It’s always a slightly strange time, when you finish a novel. Woody Allen described the creative arc well, I think, when he talked about turning up to the first day of a film shoot, carrying in his head the perfect version of the masterpiece he is about to shoot. And then, the first truckload of compromises arrives, and you’re on your way. Little by little, you move from the project you dreamed of making, a shadowy, tantalising thing, to the project you have to make, constrained as you are by time, talent and other terrors.

This can be disheartening. Certainly with any novel there are moments where you have to battle past doubts, but equally things appear on the page that you never anticipated, and on the better projects the excitement of the new, balances out the little disappointments. When I reach the end of a book I find I start thinking and talking about it in a new way and part of that is about finding the story of the story, categorising its strengths and weaknesses and moving on.

So, there I was at the end of the draft, talking about the novel. I’m the sort who often has to wait to hear what I say before I know what it is I think, and I set about trying to explain to the audience the concept behind the novel not really knowing how to do that. Essentially it plays with the notion of death (if death is a thing to be played with), and the grand starting idea was the weaving of a tale that would offer an alternative metaphor for dying. In order to explain this to the audience, I seized upon a brief passage near the end of the novel, when one of the characters poses a question to his friend.

In the novel, the passage takes up less than half a page, but in the telling I began to embellish; partly because that’s my habit, but partly too because I could see the way the audience was responding. Sometimes, when you talk, you can feel the audience’s focus settle on a particular idea or observation, and when that happens you get to drawn to the same point. So I stretched it out a little more than I’d intended, taking the question from the book and giving it a further twist I hadn’t previously considered, and then finished with ‘so that’s what the novel’s about.’Only, as soon as I said it, I realised that wasn’t what the novel was about at all. Rather, it was what the novel should have been about. Somehow, through talking to a bunch of strangers, I’d found the heart of the story, which had in fact been eluding me for two years. At first I ignored this revelation, because the implication was less than thrilling. To take the novel and turn it in the direction my impromptu speech suggested would, if I was honest with myself, require throwing out every thing I had so far written. The characters, the place, the time, the events. It wasn’t going to be a rewrite of the novel, I was going to have to abandon two years of hard work and start again.

That sort of admission of defeat is not something that comes naturally. The instinct is to believe that the thing you have is salvageable. Within three weeks though, and after a conversation with my editor, the truth had started to settle. There was no way of turning the book I’d been trying to write into the book I wanted to write. It was time to drag to the trash and say hello to the empty page.

Two months later, I’m delighted to report that the new novel is proving fun to write in a way I haven’t experienced for a good many years. There’s a thing that happens when you find yourself inside a story that wants to be told, where the telling moves from work to recreation. The trouble is, you can’t always find those stories. To a large extent you have to just sit and wait for them. I think that’s the most nerve wracking part of being a writer, because what if the next one never comes?

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4 thoughts on “The death of a novel

  1. Cristian says:

    Bernard, you touch on a sensitive point! I only just discovered this blog because a friend posted a link to your previous post on Facebook and it piqued my interest. I, too, am not sure what I am thinking until after I have said it – this is how I am writing this post. This is why I sometimes find starting to write something difficult, because I have a thought that I must know what I am going to say before I say it. You know that thinking – “think before you speak” – I find that most of the time, I stumble when I write (and speak) first drafts, but then when I go back and figure out what I intended to say (which writing allows), I can say it properly, more eloquently… but then there is, of course, beautiful moments when the words arrive already arranged well.

    Your question at the end reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on “Your Elusive Creative Genius” in which she mentions that she had to face up to the likelihood that her biggest success as a writer (“Eat, Pray, Love”) was behind her. And I think the answer to the question you pose has something to do with trusting that somehow it will work out. When something wants to be told… there’s that momentum/absorption going on. Will it choose you as your vessel? You hope something will… in some respects then we do have to wait for it. But we ought not be passive. Gilbert’s answer is to show up, to keep showing up, because we cannot hold ourselves wholly responsible if the wind of creativity chooses not to blow our way.

    If you have not seen it, I recommend you take a look at it. It’ll be on YouTube.

    • Cheers Christian

      I’ll check out that talk. I think you’re right, it’s somehow about active waiting. There’s also something going on which is to do with perspective. Joseph Heller once said a wonderful thing when a journalist asked him how it felt to have never written anything as good as Catch 22 again. His answer? “Well, no, but neither has anybody else.” Assuming a certain tongue in cheek quality is in play, that feels like a pretty smart reply.

      Bernard

  2. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard. I just discovered your blog and I’m enjoying it.

    Not only am I also the type of person who has to hear what I say in order to know what I think, I have a tendency to disagree with myself once I find out what I think. 😉 This induces no end of consternation among co-workers. More than once I’ve found myself taking a position in a meeting, defending it strenuously (because if a position is worth taking, it’s worth defending strenuously, right?), then returning the next day full of criticism of the same position.

    I suspect that the speech center in my brain is in the critical path of my higher cognitive functions.

  3. Hi Ron

    Well, there’s much I recognise in that personality outline. I’m thinking of writing a post trying to nail down the form this consideration, conversion, opposition and then synthesis/rejection takes.

    Bernard

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