Thursday, March 24, 2016

Writing a Novel

I'm writing a novel. Or, should that be, I'm rewriting a novel? Yes. That's more appropriate. 



The manuscript, all 65,000 words of it, had been sitting dormant in a thumb drive since February 2011. The last time I glanced at it was in London in August 2011. And rather than have an unfinished manuscript cluttering up the details of my life, I decided, in February 2016, five years on, to get to grips and finish it. Incompleteness is not for me. And I have known lots of people, folks with great talent and rich imaginations, who start novels but always fail to finish them. So I am finishing this one. But what is the story?


Me in 1997

I'm not going to bore you with details of the plot. I want to talk about the story of a novel. When I was studying history at university in London, I started bashing up ideas for my own stories and that's when I first thought that maybe I could be a fiction writer. I started on the first novel proper in July 1993. It took me 2 years to complete. Then I spent months hustling for an agent. After 9 rejections, I got finally one in 1995. But the relationship did not last long. Then I was without an agent from March 1996 until July 2004.  The market was changing, the industry was in crisis and I had chosen a bad time to become a writer.

Working in London (2012). My bedroom in Notting Hill where I wrote the first two books.

After the first novel, I immediately went to work on the second - a 1980s set spy thriller. Boy, what a palava that was. I kept chopping and changing the plot and it wasn't until 1999, or thereabouts, that I finally completed it. But like Graham Greene said, the first three novels are practice and I was learning what to do, and what not to do, as a would-be writer of fiction. After university I went into journalism, but I was always writing fiction in my spare time. As for those two first novels, they got turned down by, I don't know, twenty or so literary agents. I didn't let it deter me. Speaking from my own experience, perseverance is the key to breaking it. You have to master the art of rejection and keep on trucking. If you know that writing is what you want to do, then you have to graft. Not many people will help you. Nobody said that it was going to be easy.

A friend of the folks

 "Know your craft," said Anthony Burgess, "and you will be an artist." Fat chance of a literary agent gleaning that. But what's the bait? I got to begin with a sentence that pulls them right in (check!) If the first page is well-written, captivating, intriguing, and with the promise of a rollicking story to come, then the sucker will continue reading. After the first few pages, they will get a sense of whether this is a story, and a client, for them. Most literary agents receive around 5,000 manuscripts a year from would-be authors, and each year they probably end up taking only half a dozen of them on as clients.   I've spent the last four weeks going through it with a bullshit detector and knocking it into shape. It has completely distracted me from doing any form of journalism whatsoever and I need to make some bloodclaat dough in 2016.


Check out his review of dad's first book, motherfucker. And Malcolm Bradbury (1963)

But I keep thinking about Anthony Burgess' blag that he could bang out "a book in a month". Because this is an age of instant gratification, me and the Contessa have reduced that to, for our own amusement, "a book in a week". I think I could finish my book in a week, and trump Burgess, but I don't think my "book in a week" would be any good. You can't rush art. You have to work at it. You have to graft. As for Burgess and his "book in a month" boast - that was Burgess with a book deal taking out an unsold dusty masterpiece from the filing cabinet and rewriting it in a month. Oh, and how do I know this? That dirt comes from Roger Lewis, Burgess' biographer, another old drinking buddy of my Dad (and a former employee).  Mind you, Lewis was accused of mixing fantasy and fact in his appalling biography...


Costas in Notting Hill Gate (2012)

Like I said, I won't tell you the plot. But I'll tell you how the story came about. I was living in London at the beginning of the century and haunted by a strange dream that I'd had. A journalist is sent to a mysterious house in the countryside to interview a reclusive famous person, possibly an author. When he gets there, he discovers that the man he is sent to interview is his body double. The dream, with its creepy Victorian house, dissonant colours and distorted people, haunted me for weeks after. I even talked about its Freudian and Jungian symbolism with the Contessa on a night out at Costas in Notting Hill Gate.  I was also a bit lost about what to write and she was the one who suggested that I use it as a premise for a prose narrative set in the present day.  


At work in the pub. Where else?

Now I've chopped it down to 52,000 words. I took out 13,000 words of blood and guts - the novel was full of some horridly violent stuff. What the hell was going through my head at the time, I've often asked myself. God only knows. Then I remembered that I was living in Bangkok at the time, and that explained everything. Sort of.  Like my old man said, the art of the novel is always in the rewrite. How long will this take to complete? Three months, six? I don't know. And then there's industry eyes. Can I blag another literary agent?  I haven't had one since January 2014. Best finish the novel: art first, business second.


Until next time


The Male Trailing Spouse