Dragging my plot uphill like Sisyphus

Novel Number Two, The Magic Carpet, has been well received at the publishers – the rejections are very kind and positive. Here’s a typical one from last month:

I thought the ensemble characters were great and all clearly had their own well thought out narratives, and it was really interesting to see a novel not sit in a typical middle class setting. Unfortunately however, that being said, I am going to pass on it for the moment, purely as I feel it doesn’t quite sit in a specific genre, and as such it might make for a tricky sell in the commercial fiction market.

Do I care? I’m pretending I don’t. I read Camus as a student, and took his retelling of the Sisyphus11987 lesson to heart. (In brief: Sisyphus annoyed the Greek gods. He was punished by being made to roll a boulder uphill for the rest of his life. Every time he got it to the top, it rolled straight down again.) My agent will just have to go on bowling The Magic Carpet uphill at the publishers and catching it when it rolls down again.  KDP/Amazon can have it in the New Year if we’ve had no joy by then.  

I’m concentrating on Novel Number Three (NN3). I’m at that stage of a first draft when I have 90k words of material (picture Sisyphus aka me heaving my boulder optimistically uphill). I know I’m going to cut at least 20k words and add some other bits as yet unknown (boulder rolls about a third of the way down). I know what the end is – in fact I have several possible endings – up we climb, Sisyphus! But I can’t decide which scene should form the beginning (watch out below, boulder coming down). Different characters keep pushing to the fore and shouting “I’m important too!” (Broadly speaking, this is good news, so up goes Sisyphus with a boulder that seems lighter today.) But watch out for the many others who meekly admit: “I know I’ve taken up a a lot of your time and energy over the last few months, but actually I’m really, er, boring. Why not delete me?” Crash! Boulder hits base camp. Injuries reported.

Sisyphus 5
Notes weighted down by basket of random oddments that arrive on my desk from places unknown. But look! There’s a small boulder of fools’ gold. How apt.

Although all I’m actually doing is copying, pasting, cutting, repasting, rewriting  chunks of prose on a keyboard, I do feel as though I were pulling a boulder up hill. My ms has a  weighty quality, just as it would if it were a paper copy. I’m tempted to print out the whole lot and move it around physically. I’m sure it would reveal both structural weaknesses and restructuring answers. The only reason I don’t is my moody printer, which bears a grudge against me worthy of any Greek god. It rattles out union rules if I so much as change the settings and 350 pages would end our negotiations for good.

I joined a writing course, currently throwing up more questions. Professional wisdom advised NN3 wouldn’t sell with the subject I’d got and a man narrating in first person. So I changed the narrator to an omniscient female, in third. (For some reading platforms, there follows an unchosen paragraph break imposed by WordPress, whose editing quirks are a known blogger problem. Please excuse the interruption to your service. )

Sisyphus 4
A book I really should finish reading

Changing narrator involved lots of cumbersome changing of tenses and pronouns, and rewriting chunks of plot that really wouldn’t work in a female voice (see below). Once I’d beaten the POV confusion into order, it seemed to work. Then someone I respect said: “I’d like to hear more from the men. Have you considered a male narrator?” I think, as of last night, we’re agreed on which narration works best, meaning there are only about 40K words to cut and replace, now. Sisyphus can take a breather, half way up, or down, depending how you look at it.

Then there’s the content. Since I’ve been working on NN3, I’ve happened to read The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, The North Water by Ian McGuire, and John Boyne’s wonderful The Heart’s Invisible Furies. In the evenings I watched A Very English Scandal, an excellent BBC drama about homosexual Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. Suddenly I found myself writing scenes of male gay sex, mostly consensual. They do say you should write about what you know, but I have form in the art of bluffing. Years ago in the midst of a World Cup, I went to a party given by a policeman, and managed to convince his colleagues I was an expert pundit on the strength of three football related remarks I’d learned off pat.* I wonder if my male gay sex scenes will be as convincing. But then any sex scene is hell to write, ripe for ridicule and reliant on a finite set of possible moves – (more than three? Discuss.) It does pose problems for a female narrator, though, omniscient or not. Maybe she should transition – again.

I do have the theme, which is unarguably resonant at present. But I’m fighting a rearguard action to defend my style against the gods of marketing. Words are like wild flowers in an endangered ecosystem. We need to recognise and protect them or they’ll disappear. I don’t mean deliberately shoving in obscure vocabulary in cleverdick Will Self style. But I do mean active, precise verbs that mean exactly what they say: “clamour/  suggest/ yell/ murmur” as required, in preference to “said” (not every time, obvs). And sentences that just occasionally have the subject at the end and the passive voice permitted once per chapter if the author’s been good.

Perhaps I should give up and just plug away with sales for NN1 – the good old Infinity Pool, a manual of carefree optimistic mistakes of the sort made by a debut novelist who’d barely heard the term “creative writing”. Did I tell you it’s on offer on Amazon.uk until the end of this month? Jump in, but please be kind.

Sisyphus 6

Update – The Magic Carpet was published in July 2019. See below. 

*I still know the three gems of football punditry but they’re no longer convincing. If I mention Paul Gascoigne those of you over a certain age will know why.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

You say what you have to say; it takes as long as it takes.

Sometimes a high quality experience crops up unexpectedly to enhance my life. One afternoon last week, when I was wasting time or so I thought on Facebook, up popped an advert. Julian Barnes would be in conversation with Hermione Lee, starting in four hours.

(Lucky me, to live in London and be free at short notice, with £11.50 to spare for a ticket plus the fare into Piccadilly. This is the sort of event many writers and would be writers are not able to attend. See Kit de Waal on the subject, here.)

I’ve always admired Julian Barnes’ writing. It was inspiring to see him in the flesh. Tall, spare, sardonic, dignified. He can do a lot with one raised eyebrow or a glance along his nose (not down his nose, I think). The hour began with Barnes reading from The Only Story, published on 1st February. (A similar reading is available here.) I’d read the first pages before the talk, and if I’m honest been underwhelmed by comparison with the opening to his last book, The Noise of Time. Now here were the necessary cadences to bring the prose alive, a helpful oral guide to approaching the text.

 

I’ve not been to many such events. I once saw Fay Weldon taking questions after a play at the Rosemary Branch in Islington. She was rumbustious, hearty and undeterred by whatever was thrown at her but I remember little of what she said.Then, not long before she died, I saw Doris Lessing take sole command of the wide National Theatre stage, unexpectedly elegiac and mild, reflecting with conviction and humour on a life interestingly lived. The Barnes event was more elegant, in the pretty little lecture theatre of the Royal Institution. It seemed more scripted, fittingly for Barnes who famously considers his choice of words so carefully and takes Flaubert as a model. There were no questions. Professor Hermione Lee has worked extensively with Barnes before. Even so, some of the observations she made took bravery, as this patrician man makes it clear when he doesn’t agree. His joke about a young man who for some reason had to walk out mid talk caused laughter that must have rung loud in the embarrassed departing ears.

Barnes lecture 1
Before the event

The Only Story is about love going right and love going wrong. The epigraph is Dr Johnson’s definition in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. “A novel: a small tale, normally of love.” The beginning poses the question: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less?” As Barnes said “The first love becomes a template for all subsequent loves – either as what not to do, or as an ideal.”

Barnes spoke of memory, age, time, and autobiography in his fiction. Memory becomes less reliable as you age, more dependent on the imagination. He can’t use his own memories in his writing for at least five or six years after the event; they have to undergo some sort of internal process first, which he likened to composting. Some memories beg to be used in fiction, but the writer must shoehorn them in carefully or they’ll jar. He asks academics who study his books to alert him if he’s used an anecdote before.

Barnes lecture 7

He thought (though didn’t specifically advise) younger writers need to write chronologically at first, within a short time frame, or much of their narrative can only be guesswork. The writer over seventy has the privileged capacity to handle extended time periods. But, although Barnes often sets his fiction in the “neutral” suburbia of his youth, and prefers to write about inner emotions, the reader shouldn’t assume everything is autobiographical. A reader of The Only Story had cast him as the hero, and written: “I didn’t know you had two hip replacements!” His reply, eyebrow raised, sardonic smile: “One can make things up, you know. This is fiction.”

Many in the audience nodded vigorously at the points he made, but they were mostly much younger. Some took frantic notes and others were recording Barnes on their phones – was I mistaken or was he not wholly pleased? If they were creative writing students looking for specific recipes for planning novels, his answers were slippery but amusing. I think I’ve deciphered these quotes correctly from my jottings on the Evening Standard in the tube – I was less well equipped than the creative writing students and wanted simply to listen.

Lee: Why are your books so short?

Barnes: (purses lips, picks up book and leafs through): 213 pages? Then he quoted a favourite of his, the French writer Jules Renard who in a journal of some 1000 pages said: “All novels are too long”.

Lee: Well, I mean, “compressed”, then.

Barnes: Well, you say what you have to say, and it takes as long as it takes.

(Although I wondered if some of his writing is “compressed” because he’s been honing his craft for so long he now needs fewer words to express what he means.)

45369He sidestepped a question about planning with an anecdote about his friend Michèle Roberts and how she develops a novel. For his part, he strolls about until ideas come (“mooching and mulching”.) But he did discuss taking care with “balance”. For example, in Arthur and George, Arthur (Conan Doyle) could have become weighted down with research material whereas George ( a young man he championed in a court case) had only an ephemeral presence in the archives. It was a challenge not to reflect this contrast in how the text showed the characters.

Lee asked how he felt about the use of his name as an adjective “Barnesian”. He said he didn’t know what it meant, partly because he doesn’t read reviews. He doesn’t object to “Dickensian” or “Larkinesque” but wouldn’t want to explore such an interpretation of his own work because it might make his writing “self conscious and limited”. Then she approached writing in the first, second or third person, but again Barnes signposted books other than his own. All I can tell you is Julian Barnes recommends Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney as the best example of second person narration he knows. Here’s The Only Story‘s narrator (possibly a mouthpiece for JB, more probably not) on settings: “The time, the place, the social milieu. I’m not sure how important they are, in stories about love…and one other thing: don’t ask me about the weather.

Barnes lecture 4If I am making Barnes sound ungenerous or exclusive, I don’t mean to. He must enjoy talking about his work because there are several interviews available online for anyone not lucky enough to be able to attend such events. But his presentation finds a subtle, precise middle ground between publicity and dignity – much like his writing style – not giving too much away, tickling the audience’s interest, retaining his own privacy. Diffidence, form, subtlety are underrated in our screeching age, and this compressed event was perfect in its understatement.

There’s been much recent discussion of diversity in publishing. Here was a white, middle class, able bodied (the hips, anyway) European male in amusing conversation, before a mainly white audience of (presumably) Londoners. No barricades will be stormed by audiences attending events like this. Yet the decorous dialogue between two establishment figures reflected the style, wit, poignancy and insight into the human condition of Barnes’ writing, with lessons for all. I enjoyed it immensely.

©Jessica Norrie 2018