Sitting on the Edge

So it’s been over a month since I finally finished the first draft of my still untitled third novel.  I’ve found having an extended break before the re-write is essential, not only to recharge the batteries but to allow the story to become unfamiliar, almost as if it was written by somebody else. This allows me to approach the manuscript with a critical eye and be ruthless in my cutting, paring back scenes and chopping all that boring exposition that I’m sure litters the pages. I’m at that point now, having let the novel stew for long enough, written something else in the interim, and had a few weeks of writing nothing at all.

But there is a reluctance to go back to it. Why? Partly because it’s going to be a herculean task. Editing 220,000 words is more than laborious, it’s never-ending. And there’s always the ever-present fear that it will read terribly, and it will be a year and a half’s work for not much result. Same old, same old.  But it’s silly.  In contrast to these fears lies the much greater one that inflicts us all to varying degrees. That I’m running out of time. I’m 40 years old in 18 months. Plenty of writers had had a 20 year career by that stage. I’m still wading around in the shallow end. I’ve spent too many years worrying that I’m not good enough rather than getting down to knocking the words out. Time isn’t going to wait for me, like it won’t for anyone else. Sure, I have a hectic full-time job which leaves my writing window to a couple of hours a night. But only the very good have the luxury of a full-time writing career. The rest of us are down in the saltmines getting by.

I’m content when working on something, too. In this period of not working my sleep has suffered.  I’m restless in thought and deed. Writing helps keep me calm, more focused.  I’ve struggled with my mental health for a long time so I wouldn’t go as far as to say writing makes me happy, but I feel closer to the person I truly am in those moments when it all feels like it comes from somewhere deep inside. From my core being, if you will. And that is what really matters. I will probably not make a living from this. I won’t see my books on the shelves. I should be satisfied with what I have. And I am, mostly. I guess that tiny kernel of me that craves recognition tends to shout the loudest, that’s all. But it will pass, this contradiction of inertia. When the increasing fear of time slipping away draws me back in.

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One Night Rebellion

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with America.  I find some of its politics frightening and bordering on the absurd, but as a cultural influence, its had an enormous impact. Most of my favourite movies are American.  Bands, too. And when it comes to writers, I’d say the vast majority of those I can’t live without are from the States.

It was probably crime fiction that got me into the American writers. Starting with Chandler (technically a Brit but who’s counting), Hammett, James M. Cain, through to Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, James Crumley, and up to the present day greats like Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. It’s difficult to band this disparate group together, but I’d say they write with a dark, existential hardness that is unique to the American psyche. I’ve thought a lot about how to define this, and I think it partly comes from the vastness of the landscape and the themes of alienation, loneliness and desperation that can come from living an isolated life in the often forgotten heart of the American continent.

The images of the American interior, tumbleweed and hot desert air, run-down shacks and ramshackle bars, and the people who live in these places, hard-working but falling through the cracks, holding on to the remnants of the frontier spirit. This is what fascinates me.  I’ve read it in countless books set in opposite ends of the country, from Don Carpenter to the brilliant books of the underclass by Willy Vlautin. And it’s tradition is firmly set in American history, going back to Huckleberry Finn, the whole western genre, Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry, the Beat Generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg and reaching a nadir in the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S.Thompson. I’ve been enthralled and intimidated by these authors, and have always wanted to try and make an attempt to offer a take on the downside of the American dream.  The short story that follows is that effort.

The final push I needed to write this piece came from reading Norman Mailer’s brilliant The Executioner’s Song, one of my books of 2017. The book is based on the gruesome life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore, but at its heart it is an exploration of a man unable to live outside of prison, a highly disturbed, forgotten individual in a Utah town who turns to murder almost out of boredom. The backdrop of small-town America is brilliantly sketched by Mailer and the book discusses through the life of Gilmore some of the themes I’ve tried to sketch out above. The isolating, unstable figure of Gilmore seemed to encapsulate the negatives of rural American towns and set off a ton of thoughts in my head, trying to figure out how I could say something about this subject, one that I had wanted to for a long time.

As tends to happen with me, a couple of songs helped to crystallise these thoughts into something more tangible. I am a sucker for more modern country music, the Americana stuff of the Southern and Midwestern states, and loneliness, grief and pain are pretty much the default themes.  All of which helped me to find the tone and atmosphere I was searching for. I allowed the story to bubble and boil up in my imagination whilst working on my latest novel, and once that behemoth of a first draft was complete, this story came rushing out and was completed in less than a week.

So, here it is. It’s called ‘One Night Rebellion.’ Hope you enjoy it, and as always, any comments are most welcome. As an aside, I have entered this story in Booksie’s online short story competition for 2017/18. One of the finalists is chosen partly based on the number of reads their story chalks up, so if you fancy reading it on Booksie and helping my cause, I’d be grateful. Thanks. Otherwise, read on…

 

ONE NIGHT REBELLION

I clocked off and stepped into the entrails of the evening, following a steady trail of my co-workers as they streamed out to their cars. There were few conversations. Everyone had a purpose, places to be.

As cars started to pile out of the lot, I took a slow step forward and meandered towards my truck. There weren’t many cars left now. Beyond the lot, the red and green glare of the adjacent service station shone like a Christmas tree. The sky was a beautiful salmon pink colour, one of those long sunsets that made you feel small and ineffectual. Although the lot was virtually deserted, less than a mile away traffic sped up and down the interstate, a constant rush, day in, day out. Everyone was in an awful hurry.

I patted my shirt pocket for my cigarettes, then remembered I had chain smoked the last two at break. I was getting into the habit of doing that. Cursing, I vowed to pick some up on the drive home. Maybe get a six-pack, too. A cold beer to finish up the day. That sounded good.

The vehicle next to mine was also a pick-up. It was in a much worse state. I could see rust flaking off the undercarriage. There were dents all over the bodywork and the tyres didn’t look in great shape. A man was leaning against the truck smoking a cigarette. As I got closer he came up off the car and spoke to me.

‘You’re Gus, right?’ he said. He blew out a long stream of smoke. He had a large gap in his face where his middle teeth should have been. The teeth that remained were yellow, turning to brown in patches.

I shrugged. ‘Yeah. That’s me.’

The man nodded, then shook out a cigarette and offered it to me. I took it and bent forward to accept his light. There was a powerful odour coming off him, more than the sweat of a hard day’s graft. It made me want to throw up.

‘Heard a lot about you.’

I couldn’t think what. I didn’t even know where he’d seen me before. Must have been a new employee. The turnover was huge at that place. But I wasn’t a high flyer. There was no reason he should have picked me out. I forced a smile. ‘That’s nice.’

He returned the favour, showing more of those horrible teeth. ‘Hey listen, you want to grab a beer?’ He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘We can go in my car, if you want. She’s not much but she knows how to run.’

I didn’t think about it much. ‘OK, sure.’

He flicked the cigarette butt to the floor and ground it under his foot. ‘Gotta make a quick stop at mine first. You cool with that?’

‘Sure.’

He walked to the other side of the truck. I looked over my shoulder at my car. Fuck it. Would still be there in the morning. And sure as night followed day, I would be there too.

‘Good man,’ he was saying. He smiled over the top of the truck at me. ‘My name’s Corey,’ by the way. Pleasure.’

‘Likewise,’ I said, and got into the truck.

‘So, how long have you been working at that place?’ Corey asked. He lit another cigarette. I wasn’t offered one this time.

I shrugged. ‘Long enough.’ Truth of it, I was struggling to remember. I had only planned on it being a short-term thing, whilst I looked for something better. The days had kind of melted into one from then on. It was years, I knew that much. And since Charlene had given up work, there wasn’t any chance of a way out.

Charlene. ‘Hey, I’ve got to make a phone call, OK?’

Corey nodded. He cracked the window and a hot blast of air buffeted my face. We were heading away from the interstate, into the desert. towards the foothills. I flipped open my cell and stared at the screen. Battery running low. I scrolled to Charlene’s name. My fingers hovered over the call button. I stared at the mountains hovering in the distance. Then made the call.

It rang for an age. As I was about to hang up, she answered. ‘Hello?’ As if she didn’t know who it was.

‘Hi. It’s me.’

She didn’t respond. I just listened to her breathing, slow and ragged. She’d probably fallen asleep in front of the TV again, plate of cookies resting on her belly.

‘I’m going to be late,’ I said. ‘A couple of the night shift failed to show, so they asked if I’d stay on. I’ll be home soon, I’m sure.’

‘Fine,’ she replied. I started to respond, but she was already gone. Corey was staring at me as I placed the cell back in my pocket.

‘Nicely done,’ he said, and grinned. Like we were kindred spirits. I wanted to wring his scrawny little neck. Instead he leaned forward and switched on the radio. An old, miserable country song was playing. But at least I didn’t have to talk. I turned to the window and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains, the road turning from tarmac to dirt track, wondering where the hell we were fucking going.

After ten minutes of driving we came upon a small adobe building set back from the road. There was no driveway to speak of, just a more worn patch of dirt that we pulled into. A child’s tricycle lay overturned in front of the porch, its red wheels spinning in the wind. I got out and wished I had a cap with me. The heat was dry and stifling, even at dusk. Corey walked to the porch, opened the screen door and went inside without inviting me in. He disappeared into the back of the house as I stepped through into a long corridor, rooms branching off left and right. I could hear voices in the nearest room to the left, so went in there.

It was only the TV, turned up far too loud. A woman lay on the couch, taking turns flipping through a magazine and looking up at the screen. An ashtray by her elbow was full of roach butts, and she had one on the go. The room reeked of marijuana smoke. I coughed politely.

‘Hi,’ I said.

She raised a hand, then went back to her magazine, blinking with bloodshot eyes as she turned the pages. Jeopardy was on TV, but she wasn’t paying any attention to the questions. I had a feeling she might struggle to find the answers. I heard a yell and looked beyond the room to see two small boys in the back yard. One of them had a model aeroplane and was running around the tiny garden with it. His brother was jumping for the plane, trying to get his turn, and failing. He yelled, loud enough to be heard through the glass of the back door. The boy with the plane laughed and pushed him away. He sat down on the grass and began to cry. I turned my attention back to his mother. She was oblivious.

Corey came back in. He’d changed into a fresh shirt but hadn’t managed to rid himself of that stink. He carried a six-pack of Schlitz under one arm. ‘Shall we?’ he said, and we left the room and headed back to the truck.

We drove away, Corey spinning the tyres, shrouding the house in a cloud of dust. He laughed and popped the tab on a beer, taking two long swallows, then threw me the six pack. I took a can and did the same, feeling the cold beer hit my throat. I already felt settled, relaxed. Corey was drinking like a fish, the first can already gone and out the window of the truck. I drained mine shortly after. He handed me another and I opened it and placed the can between my legs. I hadn’t done that for years. I had a flash of a memory, Charlene and I headed to the drive-thru when we first started dating. Planning to watch a movie but getting too distracted by each other. Getting a buzz on from slow beers, when we had the invincibility of youth and whole world stretched out ahead of us like a delicious promise. It made me crestfallen, to think of it. And how different it was now. How much I dreaded going home. I took a long drink, trying to drown the memories in booze. Dusk had fallen and the lights of the truck bobbed and weaved as we headed back to the highway.

‘Hey,’ Corey said. He lit a cigarette. Without asking, I took one when he replaced the pack on the dashboard. He frowned at me. ‘Gus. You have anything against tits?’

‘Excuse me?’

He grinned. ‘You know, tits.’ He took both hands of the wheel and made that awful grabbing gesture. ‘You into ’em or what?’

I looked at him, face in shadow in the gathering dark. ‘Sure,’ I said. As far as I could remember. ‘Who isn’t?’

Corey smiled, the cigarette glowing red as he inhaled. ‘Exactly, my man.’ We went past a sign for the interstate, one mile away. ‘That’s what I figured.’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Why do you think?’ He shook his head as we approached the turn-off. ‘What else is there to do in this town?’

I didn’t have an answer to that.

We took the first exit off the interstate. Corey took a few turns as we headed deeper into the rougher end of town. I just had time to finish my beer before we pulled into the sparsely lit car park of the Chameleon Club. From somewhere near the entrance I heard the sound of breaking glass, and beyond that, the low thumping bass of music. An empty takeway carton blew in front of me as we got out of the car and headed for the club. The neon chameleon sign had the reptile outlined in garish green, with its flicking tongue blood red. A big guy in an ill-fitting suit and white shirt stepped out to greet us.

‘Corey,’ the doorman said. ‘Must be Friday, seeing as you’re here.’ His massive frame dwarfed Corey, who was grinning up at him.

‘I like to be regular,’ Corey replied.

‘Brought a friend along,’ the bouncer said, holding the door open for us. The noise level went up a notch. That’s new.’

‘Gotta keep you guys in business somehow.’

The doorman looked me up and down. ‘Well, you know the drill. Keep your hands to yourself, don’t have too much to drink, and we’ll get along fine. You got that?’

I nodded. ‘Yessir.’

‘You know me,’ Corey said, laughing nervously. ‘Always on my best behaviour.’

‘OK,’ the doorman said, turning away. ‘Enjoy your evening.’

We made our way inside. The noise was deafening. Corey went directly to the bar, which ran in a C shape to the right of the club. In back, under a blue glitterball, a girl went through the motions of dancing, clutching the pole and throwing her head back as men grouped around tables looked on with gaping eyes. To the left of the stage was a velvet red curtain which presumably led to the private area. As I took stock the curtains parted and a woman wearing not very much escorted a man back to the bar. Up close I could see she was barely out of her teens. She whispered something to a barman and a glass of clear liquid appeared in front of her. She drank it in one swallow and before she had time to turn round a man had settled in beside her. After a few seconds of conversation they disappeared behind the curtain. On stage, the girl had finished her performance and there was cursory applause as she exited the stage. The glitterball continued to spin forlornly. I felt a twist in my gut and closed my eyes. I opened them to find Corey gesturing at me from the bar.

‘This place is great, isn’t it?’ he said, sliding a bottle of Bud down the bar to me. I took a sip. There was an accompanying shot of whisky with fingerprints on the glass. Corey held his up in a toast and we drank. I shuddered getting it down. The knot in my stomach ratcheted tighter.

‘And the women!’ Corey said, ogling a blonde as she worked a table close by. ‘More tail than you could shake a stick at.’ He showed me the hole in his face again. ‘So, you wanna get a little private action?’

I was about to shake my head when the blonde poked her face in. She was wearing enormous heels and a short dress that left nothing to the imagination. She was even younger. The thought of her dancing for a leering idiot like Corey sent bile to my throat.

‘Either of you fine young men interested in a little dance?’ she drawled. Her accent was fake and embarrassing.

‘I could be tempted, sugar lips,’ Corey said. ‘You gonna make it worth my while?’

She did an exaggarated twirl. Her dress was so short I noticed a vaccination scar on her inner thigh. Corey was eyeing her small breasts. ‘You like what you see?’ she said.

Corey reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of notes. ‘You betcha, darling. How about it?’

She smiled and took his hand. ‘You’re my type of guy,’ she said, and led him away. He grinned as he brushed past me. I turned back to the bar and stared straight ahead, waiting for the disgust and self-loathing to subside. When it didn’t, I picked up my Bud and drained it in one. Corey had left his drinks behind, so I had them too. Then I turned and walked out.

The alcohol had gone straight to my head. But I needed more. Enough to forget. There was a liquor store on the next corner, where I bought a fifth of Four Roses. Outside, I unscrewed the cap and drank until I started to cough. I stumbled crossing the street, but kept going, and kept drinking. The bottle was half empty went I careered into a shop doorway and stood, trying to catch my breath. I took out my phone and stared at the lit up screen. Battery at 12%. Still enough life to call Charlene. But I knew I couldn’t.

I managed to walk another block before it all hit me at once and I slumped down in an alleyway next to the bank. The world was starting to spin, big time. Perhaps lying flat would make it stop. I did and it had no effect. I looked up at the stars, willing it to go away, thinking that there had to be more than this, that this couldn’t be all that life had to offer. I imagined Charlene asleep, a wide space in the bed where I was supposed to be. A woman whose bed I shared but whose life I no longer did.

I shuffled onto my side and vomited, a steady stream that was all liquid and singed my throat. I watched it trickle into a storm drain. Then I passed out.

I woke up with an axe splitting my forehead. The sunlight hurt my eyes as I checked my watch and groaned. Only an hour until the next shift started. I inspected myself and found that miraculously I hadn’t benn sick on my clothes. Standing up took guts. It took everything I had. I wished for a pair of sunglasses to shield my eyes from the penetrating sun. My mouth was dry, my body crying out to be rehydrated. Sharp pain hit my kidneys with every breath. Putting one foot in front of the other was difficult, but I made it to the mouth of the alleyway. Somehow, I was only a ten minute walk from work. Wherever I went I felt its pull, a job that meant nothing yet took forty hours a week from my life. Nuts for Donuts was en-route. I had time. I stepped into the day and got out of there.

‘Jesus, Gus,’ Brenda said when I reached the counter. ‘Rough night?’

I just nodded. I didn’t feel up to conversation.

‘What can I get you? You could do with an aspirin, if you ask me.’ She tittered and tapped her pencil on the pad in front of her.

‘Coffee. Black. That’s all. I’m going to use the bathroom, OK?’

Brenda frowned. ‘Sure, Gus. I’ll bring it to your usual booth.’

In the bathroom I took a leak, then drank long and hard from the cold tap. I splashed my face and inspected it in the mirror above the sink. Dark lines around my eyes. Little scratches on my forehead from sleeping on the rough ground. Angry purple veins prominent across the bridge of my nose. A middle aged man, drunk in a cheap bathroom. For an act of rebellion, it didn’t seem like much. Felt like a drag, to be truthful. A weight around my neck that wasn’t heavy enough to pull me down, but was always present. And had been for a long time.

Brenda shoved the coffee in front of me as I sat down. ‘Sure I can’t get you anything else?’

I nodded. I was incapable of food at this juncture.

‘All right, then.’ She hovered by the table. ‘Charlene was in here yesterday morning. How’s she doin’?

‘She’s fine,’ I said. I could tell Brenda was keen to say something more, but a sharp glare put paid to that. She forced a smile and left me to it. The coffee was hot and strong, burning my insides as I drank it down. I finished the cup and left a couple of bills under the saucer. I didn’t leave a tip. It was even hotter outside. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day. I staggered the last few blocks to work and punched in two minutes before my shift was due to start. Almost like clockwork.

The truck was where I’d left it when I clocked off. As it should be. The shift had passed without incident. I got some strange looks and was avoided by just about everyone. Which made it a normal day. I didn’t see Corey. He’d probably called in sick. Whatever. I didn’t want to be around him, anyway. I got in the truck and crawled home as slow as I could, the hangover fully kicked in now, and it was punishing. Sweat poured down my forehead as I finally pulled in at home and parked up. I sat in the truck and smoked a cigarette. There wouldn’t be any row. That would mean she cared. More likely silence, or worse still, pretending it had never happened. I smoked the butt all the way down to the nub, then went inside.

She wasn’t in the lounge or kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled up in the sink. I found a beer in the fridge and twisted off the cap. Took a swallow and grimaced. Then slowly climbed the stairs.

Charlene was in bed, facing away from me as I sat down and placed a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t turn around or do anything. I whispered her name. Still nothing. I looked over and saw that her eyes were closed. I didn’t think she was asleep. I said her name louder, and again there was no reaction. So I gave up. As I stood up a tear escaped from beneath her eyelids. Or maybe it was a trick of the light. I killed the lights and went back downstairs.

I took the beer out to the porch. The view was spectacular of the desert plain and the grand swirl of the mountains. We had fallen in love with it on our first viewing of the house, just after we were married. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d enjoyed it together.

I thought back over the night’s events, thinking of that girl bathed in blue, dancing with the world’s weight on her young shoulders, already wondering where it had all gone wrong, how her life had been snatched away before it had even started. And it brought back another memory, one I’d long forgotten. Charlene and I, in the early months as a married couple, in the honeymoon period. Driving back from a weekend in Austin. Somewhere just before the Texas border, she spotted a bar doing karaoke. She urged me to pull over.

‘Sounds like fun, huh?’ she said. Late afternoon sun flashed through her sunglasses, her teeth bright white as she smiled. ‘Whaddya think?’

‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘If you want to.’ I never said no to her, back then. It was a time when I would have done anything.

She clapped her palms together, then leant across and kissed me. ‘Let’s do it, then.’

The air-conditioning in the bar was a godsend. We ordered beers as Charlene flipped through the songbook. ‘Here’s a good one,’ she said.

‘I don’t think you’ll have much time to wait,’ I said. It was still early, and the bar was deserted.

‘Well, wish me luck.’

‘Knock em’ dead,’ I said, and moved to a nearby table, clambering onto a stool. For an empty bar, the stage was big and imposing. Charlene grabbed a microphone, and as the lyrics began to scroll across the screen, started to sing.

It doesn’t matter what the song was. It’s a personal thing I’d like to keep to myself. But she was amazing. For its duration I stared at her, transfixed. She kept her eyes on me too, smiling, making me feel like the luckiest man this side of the Gulf of Mexico. How she revelled in the spotlight. When the song ended, rapturous applause broke out. I turned and saw to my astonishment that the bar had filled up whilst she sang, and they were on their feet. I put my fingers to my mouth and whistled. Charlene did a theatrical curtsey and laughed, and all eyes were on her as she jumped off the stage and strode to my side. I put an arm around her and she kissed me, her eyes shining bright. She pulled back and held her hands either side of my face.

‘You and me,’ she said. ‘Always you and me.’

And we smiled and laughed and held each other tight as the applause thundered in our ears.

 

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?

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.

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.

Down the Rabbit Hole

One of the things about being deeply immersed in the first draft of a novel is how it is virtually impossible to get a grip on the overarching theme that holds everything together.  I begin every day’s writing with a sense of what is going to happen in the immediate scene that is approaching, but for anything further down the line, it starts to get a little hazy.

This is good in a way, but causes problems in another.  As I’ve written many times before, not knowing with complete certainty what is going to happen is exciting.  I’m as eager to find out as anyone else.  And you would hope that if I can’t work it out, when the novel comes to be read by someone else, they will react in the same manner.

The downside of this method is twofold.  Firstly, it’s very easy to overwrite.  As the characters start to come alive and make decisions on their own, I find that most of my job at that point is simply running to keep up.  I’m taking down as much as I can of their actions, but in the moment, I have no idea whether what they are doing is important or not.  Some of it surely will be, but a vast swathe will not. Good editing will eradicate most of the superflous stuff, if you have a sturdy mind and the ability to get rid of something even if it’s the best paragraph you’ve ever written. The length of my latest novel is already getting out of control, heading for 150,000 words with no end in sight, but if I can be disciplined, that will be substantially cut in the first edit.  Applying the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle to its core will do a lot of the work.

So far then, so good. But the second risk is that the manuscript disappears so far down the rabbit hole it’s impossible to see the way out.  My manuscript is written from three characters perspectives, in overlapping time and with a substantial amount of back story to refer to. The pitfalls are enormous – not just making sure that character motivation is realistic, but also that their actions are based on what they know.  All the protaganists have turned out more devious, secretive and opportunistic than I envisaged, so it’s a constant struggle trying to remember the secrets they have and what has and hasn’t been revealed in their interactions with others.

This tangled thicket is one that would be easy to become trapped in, and I fear that I’m vulnerable to its grip. I feel I am juggling so many balls in the air already, and I’m sure they will be further unseen twists to come that will make my job all the more difficult.  And this trap is one that is so much harder to deal with in a re-write.  Not only will the novel need paring, but substantial scenes will need to be completely rewritten to ensure the threads all tie up.  Which could lead to a maze of deadends, like trying to work out a sudoku when you’ve added a wrong number somewhere along the way.

For now though it’s a case of full steam ahead.  The clock has ticked up to nearly ten months on this novel, and I need it finished. WIth the right mindset, and a careful analysis of back story, I can hopefully avoid mistakes of motivation and emerge from the rabbit hole with a coherent story intact.