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