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Mistakes I’ve Made As A Novelist, by Bernard Beckett

The spark for a particular novel can come from many places and arrive in many forms. For me, sometimes it’s an idea that’s puzzling me and the writing of the novel is a working through of my own confusion. Other times there’s a plot element, a particular ending perhaps or an opening that intrigues me. Other times it’s a character. The trick is taking this starting point and weaving it into a successful and satisfying story. The trouble is that the path from starting point to finished product is not at all clear. There are any number of paths to take and the great majority of them will end in failure. This, by way of illumination, is a story or one of those failures – my novel Home Boys.

The starting point was unusual for me, it began with my father telling me the story of a man who lived in the same small town as him. The man in question had been sent out to New Zealand post World War Two, as part of the scheme meant to offer new starts to children whose lives had been ripped apart by the war. Like so many of the children, this man’s story was not a happy one. He was signed up to the scheme by an older brother and didn’t know he was on anything other than a day trip until the boat was out to sea. He ended up on a farm where he was essentially used as slave labour. I went and interviewed the chap and was captivated by his story, and by his resilience. In the way of his generation, he seemed to have simply shrugged and got on with it, and looking back, held no bitterness or regret.

My plan was to use the first half of his story (being put on the boat, ending up on the farm, then running away) and then fictionalise the rest. The trouble was, I didn’t exactly know what that rest was. And because I had such a solid start, there was an opportunity to start writing without really thinking about it. The first bits came easily, the character developed, along with the sense of place, and I figured I could probably just follow my nose from there and something would work out.

As I approached the point of departure into pure fiction, I began playing around with new ideas. Another runaway down the road becomes a mate and suddenly we’re into Huckleberry Finn territory. Feeling confident, I threw in some disturbing dreams (always a mistake) that hinted at the possibility of the supernatural. I brought back an Italian prisoner of war, who by strange coincidence (no worries, I’ll solve it later) reappeared and then, following my nose, ended up at a small fishing village and a love triangle at its apex. I think there was even mention of a mysterious cave in the bush from whence no man had returned. I was, it was fair to say, having fun. And the writing, for me, wasn’t half bad. I was enjoying getting the sense of time and place. It was the geography of my own childhood, I knew it well, and loved the challenge of getting that landscape into the paper.

In hindsight, I can see that I was absolutely seduced by the process of putting more and more balls in the air. The idea was that somehow I’d nail the catching as well, that they’d land in my hand one by one in a satisfying succession of plops, and I would bow to the standing ovation. I was caught up in the feeling the reader would also have, that somehow this mad mix of myth, dream, history, lust and coincidence was going to weave itself into an astonishing ending.

The trouble, clearly, was that I had no ending. I didn’t even have a feel for the what the ending should do, what the satisfactory completion of Colin’s character arc would look like. The book was coming to an end, the options were closing in, but there was no place to jump to that would tie it all up. At that point, what I should have done is taken a deep breath, gone back to the beginning and tried to work out what it was I was really trying to achieve. Instead I cheated and threw in a non-ending with the two boys sitting on the back of a truck, having hitched a ride, heading into the city. It was supposed to be symbolic, I suppose, but it was no such thing. It was just a case of not knowing how else to end the story, because this particular story didn’t have an ending, making it not a story at all, but rather a collection of ideas and events and people and places that I really loved writing about. Less a novel, more an extended creative writing exercise.

Looking back on it now, I still love reading from Home Boys, for exactly the same reason I enjoyed writing it. In my head, it’s hugely alive, maybe more than any other piece of my writing. As such it must be filed under ‘ones that got away’, a book where I got caught up in the telling and lost sight of the story.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Why Write Novels? by Bernard Beckett

My first five novel manuscripts were unpublished. Written over three years, they represented an apprenticeship of sorts, as I ploughed naively through the field of beginners’ errors. Sometime during that process of write, submit, hope, be rejected, repeat, I asked myself, why I am doing this? Initially the motivation had been simple enough. I thought it might be quite fun to write a novel. And then, as I committed to the task, I entertained the usual fantasies of success, acclaim and fortune. Of course, I understood just how fanciful these notions were, and the metranomic regularity of rejection rather reinforced that point. At this moment, when you realise that in all likelihood your stories are not bound for the world stage, the question of why write takes on a slightly different hue. It becomes – even if I believe I will never be published, will I keep writing? In other words, is writing one of those things worth doing for its own sake?

My answer was yes, and I remember explicitly stating this to a friend at the time. Writing, it turned out, was just something I enjoyed doing. I loved the process of creating characters and situation, of playing with sentences, of pushing on through the difficult bits and yahooing through the pages that flowed, the genuine joy of living for a moment in a world of your own creation, the satisfaction of pushing print, and then sitting back and rediscovering your story as the reader. Telling stories even when there’s no one listening.

As a high school drama teacher, this is something I often discuss with students. Very few of those I teach will go on to study full-time as actors, and even fewer of those will join that tiny elite able to make a living from it. Yet, most of the students I teach love acting. They love being on stage, that moment of beautiful tension when the lights go down and the audience turns silent makes for an addictive rush. Yet, all too easily, we buy into a societal structure that tells us unless we are the very best, we have no business to be playing at all. So, while some of my students who get the acting bug will find ways of keeping it as part of their life, through amateur dramatic societies and the like. Mostly they’ll look back on it as something they loved but weren’t really good enough to do. That’s a tremendous shame.

So it is in sport, where the drop off rate out of high school is tragic. It’s not that they don’t still love the activity, it’s just they don’t believe they’re good enough, and that consequently their urge to play is a childish thing to be ignored. In some ways the rise of lifestyle sports like mountain biking, rock climbing or skateboarding can be seen as a healthy response to this teleological tyranny. I love to run, but will never be fast enough to win a race. In fact I don’t even enjoy races much. So I hit the trails for the pure pleasure of it, but still there’s that tendency for people to ask what you’re training for, and to look slightly surprised when the answer is nothing, I’m just having fun.

Initially, writing was the same. It was a hobby, a thing I did in my spare time, a great way to fill in an hour in the sunshine. In lots of ways that was the most enjoyable writing I ever did and, by extension, the most worthwhile. But a strange thing happens when you get published. Some part of your hobby becomes public property. You can’t possibly object; you submitted the manuscript and it’s what you hoped would happen, but it’s worth being aware of the way this intrusion can end up messing with your fun. Fun is clearly not the only valid motivation for the writer. One might seek fame, fortune, critical acclaim, artistic expression, human insight or political change. None of these are unworthy, but they each come with their own costs.

At the point where the value of your hobby is measured in an external currency, you have lost a degree of control. Human psychology being what it is, it’s not something you necessarily have much choice about. The bigger your profile, the more you will be subjected to the responses of others, and it’s almost impossible not to be affected by those responses. You hand over to the reader the right to define you as a writer, and then your writing becomes the business of responding to those definitions, possibly seeking to overthrow them, maybe chasing further endorsement. This isn’t entirely negative, the outside eye brings a perspective you can’t gain yourself, and you can use it to improve your writing. But the danger is the obvious one, at some point you end up taking yourself too seriously.

I write this in part because I recently took a novel I’d been working on for two years, of which I had finished a second draft, and threw it away. It wasn’t a terrible novel, it was publishable, and with a little bit of work and some outside guidance, might have even been quite good. But as soon as I threw it out, I understood why getting rid of it was such a smart move. Somewhere in amongst the writing, I’d lost the joy for it. It wasn’t fun any more. It was a struggle. Specifically, I was struggling to be something I wasn’t, the type of writer that I’d managed to get into my head I was meant to be. As soon as I did it I launched into the project I was meant to be writing. The joy returned, and I realised how long it had been missing. Maybe three books, or five years ago, was the last time writing felt like this: felt like it felt when I was unpublished and perhaps unpublishable, writing for the sheer joy of it. It’s awfully good to be back.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

GenesisAugustNo AlarmsRed Cliff     Winter TownAcross the UniverseAngel Dust

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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