Not every idea you have flowers, not every book you start to write is finished and not every book you finish ends up being published, or even submitted. If you write, it’s almost certain a significant amount of your time will be spent working on projects that ultimately come to nothing. It’s never a total loss: you are learning from your mistakes and exercising the writing muscles, so to speak. Occasionally, you only get to the novel you should write by way of the one you shouldn’t. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to be able to identify failures-in-waiting earlier rather than later, and, perhaps more importantly, to be able to differentiate between a piece of writing that is difficult to pull into shape and one that is impossible. If we become too sensitive to the signs of nascent disaster, we may lose the courage to see any project through.
I don’t claim to be an expert in this. Having just abandoned a novel after working on it for two years, I may be the very worst example, but here, for what it’s worth, are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
First, don’t abandon a novel just because it isn’t turning out the way you hoped. Woody Allen once said that he arrives on the first day of every film shoot carrying in his mind a picture of the masterpiece he is about to make. Then, compromise by compromise, the actual film takes shape. The thing we are aiming at is a feeling rather than a product. Its fleshy imitation is sure to disappoint, especially on first draft. The danger is that in order to develop the mental toughness required, you can become insensitive to crucial warning signs.
The next thing is the importance of being able to distil the idea that brought you to the novel. I think the cliché of being able to reduce a story to one or two sentences is absolutely as valuable as its ubiquity suggests. If you have a vague feeling that you find highly exciting but you’re unable to find a succinct expression for it, then it might not be a story-in-waiting at all but rather one of those phantoms that will always dissolve under scrutiny. I once had the idea of a story where a boy receives a letter in the mail from God. He assumes it’s a hoax but can’t quite let it go… I could never pull any more out of it than that, even though, whenever I think of it I have an ill defined yet compelling feeling that there’s something there. Until I can say what, there’s nothing to be gained from exploring it further, or so I see it.
Another point I have to remind myself of constantly is that openings aren’t stories. Openings are fabulous ways into stories, but just having a great opening is not in itself a reason to believe a great story (or indeed any story) will follow. I struggle with this one a lot, simply because I find openings so seductive. ‘A middle aged journalist at a concert is called away to cover the location of a murder victim’s body. He is meant to be taking his teenage daughter home at the end of the concert, so accepts the offer of a man he has bonded with during the show to drive her home. Only, of course, this stranger is the murderer, seeking to groom his next victim…’ I really wanted to write that, so I did. The opening ran to five thousand words, I was excited by it, I liked the voice, there was a great sense of momentum, then a screeching halt because the opening was all I had. I didn’t actually have a story I wanted to tell that went beyond what was in fact a slightly macabre little short story. Novels aren’t quite in the plant-and-wait-for-it-to-grow category of things.
Finally, and this is the one that caught me recently: is the story you are telling an authentic expression of you? That sounds waffly. Let me see if I can sharpen it. There’s a very great difference, I think, between trying to be the sort of writer you would like to see yourself as and trying to be the best version of the writer you actually are. Sometimes I will read a book and immediately be seduced by the idea of ‘wanting to write like that’. Yet, when I examine it more closely, I realise the thing I have loved about the book is the insight it has given me into a world and personality that isn’t my own. Much as I admire and am jealous of so much great literature, it is very often shot through with a sort of existential angst that, were I to try it on for myself, would play as nothing but self absorption.
I’m not in the end a deeply serious person. I maintain a certain lightness in my life. I struggle to take myself seriously and when others do there’s always a part of me that wants to slap them. Where others are able to draw upon the depths of their fears and sufferings, I find the hole has been filled in with a truckload of cheap gags and irony. That means, on the occasions that I have tried to imitate the writers of serious literature, there’s been a fake quality to the writing that I’ve quickly become self conscious of (but haven’t angsted over, you understand). The writing I’ve most wasted time over is the writing where I’ve been trying to be something or somebody I’m not.
Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org
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