About a year and a half ago I was busy writing a novel – an idea started over ten years earlier. It has become a familiar pattern. Every now and then the novel pays a visit. I pick it up for a few months and find myself writing ‘up to my bar,’ until, like an out of shape jogger, I find I have to let it run on ahead and leave me to catch my breath. Usually, I return to short stories until my confidence has recovered.
The last time I worked on ‘Making Sense of Stories,’ I had the benefit of working with a mentor. I learnt about pace and of relinquishing the urgency I had actively encouraged when crafting short stories. I saw my stories change: there’s an easiness in them that I couldn’t create before. I see it comparing this year’s ‘Nailing Cats to Trees,’ with ‘50p for the Aquarium,’ from several years ago.
I pushed on with the novel for about six months, but it had a problem. I knew it was there and had a fairly good idea of what it was, but you know what it’s like when a page is full of words that you’ve put there. You can’t see out, you can’t step back, because, like an incantation, you’ve just worked so hard to immerse yourself in it and now it won’t let you go even though you need it to. And it’s not simply a case of being unable to ‘murder your darlings,’ – there’s nothing to say what’s a darling and what isn’t – it’s all jumbled together in one big Eton Mess.
I decided to set it aside for a while, yes, because I was knackered, but also because I know what happens when I write on with something that I’m unsure about. The pages slowly build, but they all need deleting afterwards.
In a nutshell, in the novel, a twenty-one year-old has a crack at growing up and partially succeeds. It’s in first person, so the voice has to be true to her age and experience, but also leave room for growth. That bit wasn’t too bad. The problem was I also created a narrator who some readers wanted to slap – myself included – almost from the outset.
So what? She’s going to change, she’s learning, she’s human and we all have slappable characteristics … but it’s like real life: some people are idiots and you love them deeply, some people are idiots and you resent the breath it takes to say their name. I could imagine 50% of my readers losing interest before they saw how she was changing.
Eighteen months passed and last weekend I read the draft again and had a kind of Out-Of-Body Experience. I wasn’t woven into the story anymore – I could float above it, high in the air over Colmesey and look down at the bay, the town, at the characters, at the story. I had regained perspective.
I had known there was a problem with chronology, but eighteen months ago there was no room for manoeuvre, my brain couldn’t cope with the chain reaction that would start with a ‘simple’ change at the beginning. But now I can see it not only needs to be done, but it won’t actually be that horrendous to implement.
And the problem with the narrator’s voice. Duh. The solution was blummin’ obvious. I am making a new start on a new start…