Untitled: The Finish

Finally, finally.  It’s over.  The first draft of my third novel is finally complete.  Given how long it’s taken to get here, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would never happen.  462 days.  Enough time to sail around the world and go back the other way to make sure you didn’t miss anything.  And somehow, 220,000 words have come of it.  Readers will know that I’ve been obsessing over the length of this novel for months, and I can believe the final word count less now than ever.   I don’t know where it has come from.  I’m surprised that I have that much inside I want to express.  I’m amazed the characters had so much they wanted to say.  I’m less surprised at my capacity for talking bullshit.  Somehow it’s all added up to the shambolic mess that makes up my still untitled, third novel.

It’s not even as if I had much to go on. I sat down that cold November afternoon with a vague idea tugging at the back of my mind. It had come from a song lyric.  Not one I’m going to reveal, for that would be a plot spoiler, but it planted the smallest of seeds. I did as I always do, started writing with no fully-formed characters, no idea of plot, only the very loosest ideas about what the story was going to be about, and went from there.  Writing in what some might call a reckless manner means you run the risk of flailing badly, especially at the beginning.  Down little back alleys that lead to nowhere, overwriting, emphasising aspects of character that turn out to be unimportant once the protagonists start to emerge from the shadows, and all that.  Only this time these problems seemed to rear their ugly heads throughout.  On a virtual daily basis, as it happens.  My great fear is that the re-write will bring all these flaws sharply into perspective, and the whole thing might be irretrievable.  So in a sense it’s over, but the real work is only just beginning.

It’s safe to say my emotions on having it finished are mixed.  I ploughed through the conclusion yesterday, smashing out 4,500 words over the course of an afternoon, but I never felt exhilarated by it.  It  is as the whole manuscript has been – a battle.  I’m relieved that I don’t have to devote hours of my life to it anymore (not for a while anyway) as quite frankly, it has consumed me whole for far too long. I got caught in the snake’s belly, that’s for sure.  There’s a certain amount of pride, and a sense of amazement that I have managed to sustain, for good or bad, an output that would run to about 800 pages in paperback.  I’ve read many a book of that length and often pondered how the author did it.  Well, now I know.

And yes, I do feel a bit sad that I won’t get to write about the characters every day anymore.  It’s always a privilege when they let me into their lives (this is genuinely the way I feel it works, no matter how stupid it sounds) and I just try to run and keep up.  They surprised me along the way, angered me, and made me laugh.  Yeah, it feels bereft without them.  Already they are starting to retreat into the distance, but I’ve just got to let them go.  They’ve got lives to lead, and so have I. I wish they’d bothered to help me with a title, though.  Would have saved me a few nights laying in bed thinking about it.

But the show must go on, as they say.  Besides, there are always more tales, right?

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Achilles and the Tortoise

That title is, or course, based on the paradox of Achilles never being able to catch up with the pondering tortoise.   Which is a pretty apt metaphor for the never-ending state of my still untitled, third novel.

As you will know from the plethora of posts I have made on this subject, this novel has turned into something of a behemoth.  Deadlines have been trampled on, any attempt to reign in the characters a bit has been firmly resisted, and the whole thing has turned into what might be called with some understatement, a bit of a mess.

For the trouble is, when I feel I’m about to hit the last yards and ready myself to breach the tape, something happens and the line moves a little further off.  I don’t want this to happen.  The over 200,000 words already written are unwieldy enough as it is.  I worry constantly about keeping all the strands coherent and realistic.  I’m certain there’s continuity errors piling up by the hundreds.  And behind it all, a great fear that the whole project will turn out to be a waste of time.

How so, you might say.  It’s a big achievement, writing that much.  I guess it is.  But what will come of it? A difficult re-write which will show up all the deficiencies, then probably a couple of rounds of rejections, than thrown in the online dustbin never to be seen again. And I’ve garnered less enjoyment of it than my previous novel.  I remember smashing out the last 5,000 words of that in a single afternoon, and that was the closest I’ve ever felt to the sheer magic of it, when there really is a muse fluttering on your shoulder and whispering sweet nothings in your ear. That feeling has been sadly extinct this time around. And my output has never got anywhere near those dizzy heights. Hence the interminable slog, and the finish line always out of reach.

I realise this all sounds horribly whiny and self-indulgent, and I can only hold my hands up. It does.  I wish I felt more positive about the whole thing, rather than allow myself to become frustrated.  Writing is like any other job, and most days in any career can be pretty ordinary.  You have to show up and get your head down, regardless of how you feel.  The work may be tentative and flat, but at least it’s there. It would be nice to be swept away by it every once in a while, though. Because if that did happen more often, I might be able to smash the paradox and leave the tortoise trailing in my wake.

2017: The Reading Year

After my attempt in 2016 to read a century of books, I decided this year to reduce the target to a more manageable 80. Still over a book a week, but with a little more breathing space to wade into some longer books. And I failed, coming in at 71 for the year.  Not sure how this happened really – I had a couple of unintentional breaks during the year when I got a bit burnt out, but I finished the year strongly and have regained that enthusiasm for reading again. Still, it’s a decent enough haul. So, without further ado, here’s the Top 10 books I read in 2017…

Norman Mailer – The Executioner’s Song.  An extraordinary, 1000 page ‘non-fiction’ novel (as Truman Capote put it) detailing the crimes and execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah in the 1970s. Mailer gets into the skin of Gilmore, and the detailing of the loneliness and desolation of small-town America surely makes this a Great American Novel.  He writes such compact, brutal, yet beautiful prose that takes your breath away.

William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury.  I’ve tried to read more classics this year and this is the best of those. The stream of consciousness prose will not be for same but I found this novel amazingly powerful and very brave in its subject matter for a book written in the 1930s. Worth persevering with.

Patrick Dewitt – Undermajordomo Minor. Sisters Brothers is one of my all-time favourite novels and this follow up is also exceptional. It has that strange, hypnotic fantastical element that marks a Dewitt novel, plus the brilliant, sometimes hilarious, other times poignant prose that is his trademark.  Just a superb writer who always does something unusual and captivating with every new work.

Herman Koch – Summer House with Swimming Pool.  I got into Herman Koch through his brilliant novel The Dinner. He has a great knack of making controversial, almost repulsive characters both believable and compelling. This book is perfectly paced and keeps the tension at fever pitch throughout. A sense of dread runs through his novels which is unsettling but brilliantly addictive and this novel is no exception.

Daphne Du Maurier – Rebecca. Another classic to tick off the list and one that lived up to all the positive reviews I’d seen and read beforehand. A masterpiece of Gothic literature with all elements expertly woven – mystery, drama, psychological suspense, and some knockout twists and turns.  A stunner.

John Williams – Stoner. This book’s pitch is that it is a novel about nothing at all, and that is it’s great strength, bizarrely. The Everyman quality of its hero draws you in and suddenly you are feeling every emotion of this simple man’s journey through life. A very clever piece of writing and one that deserves to be more widely read and acclaimed than it currently is.

Jane Harper – The Dry. I don’t read much contemporary crime fiction, but this one I did pick up on a whim, and it’s great. A proper page turner set in the Australian outback, which gathers pace from page one and never lets up. And for a debut novel, really a masterful achievement.

Graham Swift – Waterland.  I wouldn’t read this type of book ordinarily, but my sister raved about it and I thought I’d give it a go. Very glad I did. Part of history lesson, part family saga, Swift tells a tale of eels and incest (and a lot of other things too!) that is both enchanting and thrilling. A great book.

Ray Bradbury – Dandelion Wine.  Bradbury writes about childhood and the power of nostalgia in a magical, dreamlike way which no toher writer can match. This novel is almost a series of interlinked vignettes, which some readers may find lack a coherent plot, but the poetic prose sweeps you along and some of the sentences really do break your heart with their pure power.

Lawrence Block – A Long Line of Dead Men.  Read a lot of Block again this year, he’s my go-to when I’ve nothing else in the pipeline. Got through a number of the Matt Scudder series and this is one of the best. It’s theme of coming to terms with  mortality lingers in the memory long after completion. Add in all of Block’s usual compelling prose and pitch-perfect dialogue and you’re onto a winner.

Before writing my Top 10 I had the feeling that the books of 2017 hadn’t hit the heights of last year, but looking at this year’s list, I’ve read some exceptional books. For 2018 I’m looking to read more contemporary stuff, continue to fill in some more crime gaps (I read a number of 87th Precinct novels this year and I’m going to try and boost my McBain collection), and branch out into some neglected genres. I think my reading target will come down again, and I hope I can finally complete one! But as long as I’m reading, I’ll be happy.

 

The Mysterious

 

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Even the sign looks cool…

As everyone knows, there are few greater things in life than spending time in a good bookshop. And whilst I’m a huge fan of Waterstones, and very happy that they are showing a profit, for me there is no greater pleasure than spending time and some hard-earned than in an independent bookshop.  Readers of this blog will know that I am something of a crime fiction fiend.  I try to pick up crime novels whenever I can (especially older, rare tomes) and have spent many an hour rummaging through bookshelves looking for yellowed copies of the books of my pulp heroes. I’m on the constant lookout for independent bookshops to go to, and thanks to following a number of American crime writers on Twitter, my attention was drawn to The Mysterious Bookshop, a crime hangout in New York and the oldest crime and mystery-specific bookstore on the planet.  Luckily I recently had a family occasion in that very city, so what better way to wile away an afternoon than with a visit…

A fantasy of mine, whenever I get my own house, is to indulge in some decent bookshelves.  Something like the ones in the Mysterious, if dreams could come true. Floor-to-ceiling shelves covering three walls of the shop. Man oh man.  And to navigate them, those ladders that run on wheels that scooted across the carpet as I spotted a high-up section of Jim Thompson paperbacks.  I think I probably died and went to heaven within seconds of stepping through the door. The breadth of their inventory was better than anything I’ve ever seen. The complete Travis McGee novels of John D. Macdonald.  Extensive copies of his namesake Ross’s Lew Archer novels.  The aforementioned Thompson.   A massive section devoted to Sherlock Holmes. Reams of used and vintage titles, too.  Plus plenty of rare editions and signed copies, including a signed copy of Elmore Leonard’s Freaky Deaky (probably my favourite of the great man’s works) for $35. I debated buying it for ages, picking the book off the shelf and putting it back again more than once.  In the end I decided not to. It’s a decision I’m still not sure was the right one.

So what did I purchase in the end? Even after turning down the Leonard, I’m still really happy with my choices. I’m on a mission to purchase all the Matt Scudder novels of Lawrence Block, and I picked up a signed copy of A Long Line Of Dead Men for the scarcely believable price of $5. I didn’t actually know it was signed until I left the shop either so that was a nice surprise! I also filled a gap in my James Crumley collection with Bordersnakes, which brings his two protagonists Sughrue and Milodragovitch together for one wild ride. Lastly I bought a biography of Raymond Chandler which I am halfway through and very much enjoying.

Now I could probably have bought all these books on Amazon or eBay.  But the experience of spending time in a great bookshop, with knowledgeable staff and no pressure to leave, is one of the great joys in life.  Its these important touches that make the Mysterious so good.  You feel amongst like-minded friends as soon as you walk in the door.  And they are a big player in the scene, too. Tons of authors do readings and book launches there (including Block, the day after I flew home…sob!) and some writers produce exclusive material directly for the store.  Indeed, they give a free short story away to customers every Christmas, with the store having to feature in the story somehow.  A bit of extra publicity, and a unique tale to read on the subway home. This years story was by Laura Lippman and it’s great. Seriously, what more could you want?

I know this sounds like I’ve been paid by them to say all this, so I’ll just say that if you’re a book lover and find yourself in Manhattan, go there and experience it for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

Nanowrimo and the Opposite Extreme

The National Novel Writing Month, or #Nanowrimo to use the modern parlance, is an event I’ve seen all over social media this month.  Essentially – write a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November.  I hadn’t heard of this before, but it’s quite a nice idea.  Having a daily word count tracker to see how much you’ve done, personalised badges along the way, and most importantly, access to forums and other writers for inspiration and to motivate you as you go along. This is all good stuff.  But I don’t think it’s something I could ever be a part of.

Why? 50,000 words in a month works out at just under 2,000 words a day.  Which is manageable if you get on a good run.  But sustaining that output for 30 days would be beyond me.  And even if I could do it, the quality of my writing would be abysmal.  I guess the point of the event is to overcome the fear of being able to write that number of words in the first place, and have somewhere to turn when it all seems impossible.  I get that.

However that fear isn’t one I possess anymore.  My problem is the opposite.  As soon as I think that a story is running into novel territory (over 30,000 words is my benchmark) the story seems to expand and expand until the finishing line is an every distant mirage.  And trying to get wrapped up by a certain date is beyond me.  With my current novel, I gave myself a loose date of my birthday to get the first draft finished.  Well that’s been and gone.  Then it was before I go to New York on holiday.  That’s in about three hours time, so that’s out the window as well. So now we’re looking at Christmas, which will be about 400 days since I started on the damn thing.  Even then I’m fairly sure I will overrun into 2018, which means I will have spent the entire calendar year working on this novel.  Beggars belief.

Have I lost the ability to write concise prose?  That’s the question I ask myself.  I shuffle along at 500 words a day like the tortoise rather than the hare.  And will still be going long after everyone else has packed up and gone home. 50,000 words in a month? No chance.  I’m lucky to write a third of that in 30 days. 180,000 words and counting in just over a year? I’m your man.

New Territory

I’m starting to wonder if the first draft of this novel is ever going to be finished. To say that progress is going at a snails pace would be an insult to snails. In a previous post I predicted that the novel would end up overshooting 150,000 words. Well we’re a fair way beyond that and still the finishing line shimmers in the distance and each step closer turns out be a mirage.

It’s extraordinary, in a way.  A common fear that puts many people off trying to write a novel is a lack of confidence that they can produce the requisite number of words. You can say it’s a word at a time, and everyone starts with a blank page, but it’s easy to believe that the great writers can reel off a book without too much trouble while the rest of us struggle to remember how to structure a passable sentence, let alone a paragraph.  Indeed, I used to have this fear.  Part of the reason I wrote my first novel in my early twenties was to prove that I could have the discipline to sit down every day and and write, and not be overawed by the dreaded word count.

Now though, I seem to have gone to the opposite extreme.  I can’t fucking stop.  This is not to say that I’m not afflicted with self-doubt and paranoia and is this all just a waste of time syndrome, because those foibles speak louder than ever. But thinking 80,000 words was a daunting prospect?  Well those days are over, my friend. 80,000 words seems nice and cosy and comfortable.  500 words a day and you’re there in less than six months. That would be lovely.  In a couple of weeks time I will have been working on this for a year and written over double that.  And at risk of getting it totally wrong again, I could be looking at 200,000 words on completion.  Which would run to about an 800 page paperback. That makes Tolstoy look concise. I’m quite embarrassed by it, genuinely.  It’s absurd.  I’m in new territory, alright.  A whole different universe. 200,000 words that will probably only be read by a handful of people.  I’ll probably break my arm just carrying a copy of the manuscript around.

So how did it get this way? I really don’t know.  I think it’s fear, as most things are when deep in a first draft.  Maybe I’ve lost the ability to construct a concise sentence. Or be able to show emotion with a look or a line of dialogue rather than reams of obvious exposition. Simply, that I’ve lost my touch.  That whatever tiny spark of competency I had has been swallowed up by pretentious waffling. But now I’m hacking through the jungle, it’s persevere or be consumed by the shadows. I just hope that the daylight will break through soon.

The Road Home

This weekend saw my occasional visit to my sister’s book club in the wonderful city of Cologne, Germany. It was my third appearance and since my last, at the beginning of this year, the makeup of the group has changed somewhat, with a couple of long-running members leaving for various reasons.  Book clubs can contain some friction between members, primarily over choices for forthcoming meetings, which sounds fickle but can result in some real arguments over the direction of the club. Anyway, ths turbulent passage has passed for the Cologne club and the core group is the same, so there were plenty of familiar faces to catch up with and an interesting book to discuss.

Rose Tremain is probably most famous for her novel The Gustav Sonata, which I believe was a Man Booker winner. Our choice was The Road Home, her tale of immigrant Lev, who comes to London from an unnamed European country (a stylistic decision which I found a little grating) to try to provide a better life for his family back home. In the current political climate this topic is something of a hot potato, so I was looking forward to a warts-and-all story of hardship and toil which sunk its teeth into the issues surrounding those who seek a better life in a faraway country.

Unfortunately I came away from reading the book a little disappointed. Whilst Lev does go through many travails as he attempts to carve out a niche for himself, the narrative never gave an impression that these problems would prove unable to  solve. Indeed, Lev’s rise from humble sawmill worker to leading chef required an enormous suspension of disbelief to get your head around. The plot was unrealistic to me. On a number of occasions I thought Tremain relied on a perfect coincidence or a vast gesture of goodwill from a fellow character to propel Lev’s journey along. The right person tended to pop up at exactly the right moment, either with financial help when he most needed it or the offer of a roof or employment.  I wanted to enjoy the kindness of the strangers he met, but I’m afraid my possibly world-weary cynicism prevented me from doing so.

There were some very jarring episodes in the story that felt completely out of place, too. Lev gets into a relationship with fellow kitchen worker Sophie, a woman many years his junior, and after it breaks down, there is a bizarre, borderline rape scene which is explicit in detail and is glossed over with very little explanation or fallout. Later on, Lev goes to work picking fruit on an East Anglian farm and there is another peculiar scene where two Chinese workers seduce Lev after a night out.  Again, it’s as if Tremain forgets this ever took place, for it is barely mentioned the next morning. The flow of the story is interrupted by such acts and just added confusion and a hint of ugliness that is completely at odds with the charm and romanticism of the rest of the narrative.

I wanted to like this book more than I did, for I admired some of the minor characters greatly and Tremain skeched them with a lot of skill. And I liked the positive theme of human kindness that threads through the book. We could all be more empathetic to our fellow human beings, after all. But the narrative flaws were too much for me to get over and as such I’d have to say that the book is an gallant, but flawed exploration of the immigrant experience.