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

Patience rewarded in “Reservoir 13”

I do like a book that shatters the rule bound splodge of too much current creative writing advice. I especially like it when it’s by a Professor of Creative Writing (at Nottingham University, where the course doesn’t sound splodgy at all).

The professor is Jon McGregor, whose If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) I admired in my post on beautiful writing. You must devote time and space to his books, so I waited until nearly a year after publication to read Reservoir 1333283659

The Goodreads reviewer who wrote: “Lovely descriptions of nature are insufficient compensation for an uneventful plot and a slew of forgettable characters” missed the point. There’s a whole village worth of plots, the stories of many families and their members. A creative writing mantra broken: multiple characters, no clear main protagonist. But what’s to stop the reader following and embroidering those that interest her most? Or you could tease out each plot strand horizontally.

Jessica in peak district 1984
Hills above Sheffield, 1982

I may have been especially drawn in because I once lived on the edge of the Peak District, so nostalgia was an added factor. In descriptive prose like painted brushstrokes, at least sixty familiar seeming  individuals move to the foreground, retreat, are glimpsed in the distance, pass by as we’re engaged with someone else, disappear… Nature is a character too, or several: the badgers who thrive as the book progresses, the vulnerable foxes, the endangered butterflies. Man-made structures take on personality: the locked butcher shop still with chopping boards and knives used by generations of the same family; the footbridge that may collapse or hold in times of flood; the school boiler room where distasteful things occur (or do they?), and even the boiler itself. It’s all enmeshed. (Les Thompson) nodded when people spoke to him, and his handshakes were heavy and warm. The snowdrops were up and the crows flew overhead and the wind moved through the trees. Jane had to keep herself from smiling.

The hook goes behind the clouds, so the reader must find their own motivation. After two chapters, I asked my partner: Does it continue like this right through? Yes, he said, it does, and once I knew that, it was comfortable to ride with it rather than await something different. The book starts with a disturbing incident. A teenage girl has disappeared in the countryside around the Peak District village and reservoirs where her parents have a holiday let. Cue the blurb of every other book on Waterstone’s front table. I yawned. Abducted child, missing girl, sinister holiday… If I’d submitted this – in my dreams! – the editors would have said, “I already have something similar on my list”.

Peak District 1982 by Steve
Cooper explained there had once been villages down there, that all the reservoirs had been made by flooding the valleys. They looked at him, waiting to see if he was joking. The world didn’t always sound right when it was first explained.” Ladybower reservoir, near Sheffield, 1983

The villagers turn out to search and we hear snippets of their interweaving stories, garnished with the local flora and fauna and changing with the seasons. In the conifers above Reservoir no 5, a buzzard sat warmly on her eggs while the wind pulled through the trees. The narrator goes inside the villagers’ heads and informs us of their back stories, up to a point. Then we’re free to fill in from our own imaginations, should we wish to. The occasional dialogue is embedded, unsignalled by speech marks, within long paragraphs echoing previous paragraphs. POVs swing back and forth. Goodness knows how many rules that breaks. The Show-not-tellers must have hit the tequila by now.

Martin, she said. This has to stop now. I’m not here to be won back. He was shaking his head. I’m telling you, he said, I didn’t send that. There was a softening in his expression. He felt as if he had the upper hand for once. She looked at him and she didn’t know what to believe.

The tequila drinkers had better buy another bottle because so many passages like those above contain words from the list often banned to creative writers. There were/there was/he felt/it seemed/they looked/she understood/he said/they went… Too much distance between the reader and characters, swig, glug. But to me, stretched on my sofa in the muffled quiet of last week’s snow, the banned words provided space to consider setting and characters. Such writing gives time to digest. There was something of the prison yard about him. Paradoxically, understatement goes a long way; space and silence provide proportion. There was weather, and branches from the allotment sycamores flew onto the roof of the Tucker house. I nearly overstated my case by putting the simplest opening clause ever in bold print. Peak disrict

The ragged robin was still in flower, but this isn’t some idyllic dreamtime: farmers can’t sustain a livelihood; arson, theft and alcohol are problems. There’s domestic violence and mental illness among the wheatsheaves and elderflower cordial. The place had been empty now for seven years. There was a dispute to be settled before it could be sold, but no-one seemed to know what it was or who might be involved. Jones went up a ladder and took the branches down.

I was lost in details of lambing and growing courgettes and barely aware of the Show-and-tellers slumped by the empty tequila crate. Already assaulted by banned words, they’d now been subjected to a deluge of passive voice. At the school the lights were seen on early…. The decision was made to pack up…At the heronry the nests were rebuilt.

So there are no cliffhangers, no five or three act structure, no thwarted will or protagonist struggling desperately through an apparently unsurvivable crisis! Yet several stories are told. Each chapter covers a year. The first sentence mentions New Year fireworks; then there’s Shrove Tuesday and the May well dressing (now I understand this local craft, thank you, Professor McGregor). The chapter ends with carol singing and life goes on: births, marriages, divorces, deaths. The narrative weaves through time at the same tempo. Time, calendar events, weather are the stationary, longitudinal warp threads; the characters are the weft, drawn through and inserted over-and-under them, to be kept even or the fabric wouldn’t hold together. I rooted for some, disliked the randy farmer, hoped the wild twins would calm down and longed to lift the spliffs from teenage lips. (You can forget deep POV: the narrator tells us exactly what their parents don’t know they’re doing in that car, in a sympathetic depiction of teenage friendships, uncertainties and mistakes).5172rqnad5l-_sx347_bo1204203200_And what of the missing girl, and the thirteenth reservoir? You’d have to read the book to find out, but you may become more interested in those left behind. For more books set in villages, see the Guardian article by Xan Brooks here.

Anyway, hurray for the rule breaker. This is a wonderful book. When he finished, I hope McGregor broke the mould: the last thing we need is a slew of formulaic imitations.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Suspending disbelief – in a Nutshell

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell was on my Christmas list in 2016. In 2017 one of my own nutshells noticed and as soon as there was a lull after New Year, I cracked it open and relished every morsel.

I wrote here about adopting the point of view (POV) of someone quite different to oneself and referred to Nutshell as an audacious attempt which would require a writer of McEwan’s calibre to bring off. I think he succeeds. The story is told from inside his mother by an 8½ month foetus. Our hero’s name doesn’t appear to have been discussed yet (although there’s a clue in Uncle Claude and mum Trudy) so I’ll call him U for Unborn. Some practicalities are deftly dealt with: U expresses the readers’ doubts for them by explaining that he has a good command of language and ideas because he overhears his insomniac mother listen to so many podcasts. Anyone who’s spent a day with the randomness of Radio 4 will attest to the vocabulary building properties of such a pastime. He’s also a budding oenophile who can distinguish with appreciation between “a good burgundy (her favourite) and a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta”.

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I can’t see how this foetus will ever be a toddler, so sophisticated is his knowledge already, but as far as I know no one other than authors for toddlers (whom I applaud) has ever tried to write in a toddler’s voice. I’m currently trying to write in the voice of a bright seven year old and even that poses huge limitations on vocab and conceptual understanding. U can discuss the Middle East, modern warfare, the advantages of Norwegian tax arrangements, and he’s an accomplished poetry critic. He can provide a convincingly visual picture of his father’s “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Square”, market value included, but he can’t yet envisage the colour green, although it crops up frequently in his imagery. This may be because the men in Trudy’s life adore her green eyes, and McEwan makes it achingly clear that U loves his mother even through her many faults.

It’s true that young babies, especially before they learn to make much noise other than crying, can often look wise and reflective, fixing their stares, their expressions ciphers. They lose this as soon as they become mobile or verbal, so McEwan hedged his bets correctly in opting for an unborn.

U is going to need all his brains because he has unfortunate parents and his parents have unfortunate lovers. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.” (Surely this generation would talk in centimetres?) Obviously U has little physical strength, but he does find he can manipulate the action of both the penis and the novel with a well timed kick. He has plenty of chances to practise; there’s a lot of sex. In this nutshell of a novel, under 200 pages, McEwan fits the universals of birth, love and death into a tight plot and timescale – there’s no spoiler in noting it’s all got to happen within four weeks at the maximum, before U is born either still or kicking. I apologise for insensitivity but the way his adults behave he should clearly have been on the “at risk” register since conception. “Anxiously, I finger my cord. It serves for worry beads.”

Anne Corlett's scan
34 weeks gestation, with thanks to Anne Corlett. See below for links to Anne’s writing.

Of course, we have all been foetuses, and who’s to say we don’t remember the experience? McEwan is drawing on universals here, and as far as one can tell he succeeds – Nutshell is an exciting, funny, violent, shocking read although curiously unemotional, and the audacity of the author makes him self-conscious: “All the sources agree, the house is filthy. Only clichés serve it well: peeling, crumbling, dilapidated.”

Through U’s eyes – no, through U’s hearing, taste and touch which are so far his most active senses – McEwan describes the piqued poet father and the slimy brother. He’s poignant and perceptive on the pathos of a pleading man no longer loved, and has fun with U’s irritation with Claude, for example his ponderous reading of a menu. The supporting roles – young woman poet, detective – are well evoked from within the stomach wall and McEwan plays with stereotypes: “The sergeant thinks she’s a stickler. Bound for promotion out of his league.”

But McEwan hasn’t been a pregnant woman, and he’s least successful with mother Trudy. I was able to suspend (almost) all disbelief and root for U all the way but this POV of a first time heavily pregnant woman was unbelievable and not in the way tennis players use the word as high praise. Surely no woman at 38 weeks could sink so much drink, endure bags of rotting rubbish in her own hallway or appear so oblivious to the limits on action imposed by her near confinement.

Otherwise, a brilliant book. Now to try an even less comfortable POV, perhaps McEwan could venture out of the professional classes? (To be fair, he goes into this himself, in the Guardian, August 2016.)

Writing this, I’ve remembered another, lovelier, even sadder unborn POV, in “Prayer Before Birth” by Louis Mac Neice (1944). It’s read here by Mark Rylance Actor, director and writer at an Anti-War Mass Assembly in Trafalgar Square on 8 October 2011. (For light relief see the high vis jacketed soundman who arrives on stage just as Rylance is being introduced!)

The scan photo is the baby of Anne Corlett at 34 weeks. Anne, previously shortlisted for the Bristol and Bath short story awards, released her novel The Space Between the Stars in 2017. She offered the photo after I posted a request in Book Connectors, proving you can make some impressive literary connections through Facebook (I refer to the association with Ian McEwan and MacNeice rather than myself).

Below are my own nutshells in December 1993:

nutshell 1993

From next week I’ll be blogging monthly on books and literature for Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord. My posts there will appear on Saturdays, repeated here afterwards, but most weeks I’ll still be here on Fridays. Comments are always welcome wherever you read the posts!

©Jessica Norrie 2018