Category Archives: Notes & Queries

Third Person or First?

Extract from a notebook entry made during the writing of The Find

Choices, choices: the writer’s life is full of  them. Current example: do I stick with the third person, limited omniscient point of view which should ideally offer me some flexibility in telling the story, or, since I don’t seem to be actually using that flexibility, rewrite the  pages I have in the first person, from Anna’s point of view?
She is in an extraordinary situation, so it would open things up immeasurably if I could get right inside her… And why stop there with one first person?  What about two ‘first people’?  What about Scott?  Could I filter one character’s take on things through the other’s first person point of view or – since they are sometimes not in the same place as each other – would it be better to separate them out? Probably. But how will I deal with that long gap when one of them is out of the story?  And suppose I find,  later on, when the  different strands of  the story come together and everyone including all the extras are on set,  that I want to  use  the view points of  yet further characters  in the same way?
Anything is possible, of course. To pick just a couple of examples:  Matthew Kneale in English Passengers makes use of a  huge succession  of  ‘first people’  to tell the story, each picking the baton up from the last;  Andrea Levy in Small Island works fluidly with a smaller cast of first person  narrators… But the question is, what do I need to do  in this novel?
The only way to discover whether a first person narrator(s)  will actually work,  is to try it out –  and that of course, does not mean simply substituting ‘I’ for ‘she’ in 120 pages of text. It means re-imagining the story as told by my character(s) and discovering her/their relationship(s) to it, which inevitably will affect the story itself and even its final outcome. It means an entirely different novel….

Sales Figures

From one surreal moment to the next…

The trip was part family, part business. Melatonin did not work and for several days we had walked in an exhausted, dreamlike state through the shade of galleries and museums taking in old favourites and seeing strange new things, such as the National Portrait Gallery’s video loop of David Beckham, sleeping. He was artfully lit and shot to emphasise the musculature of his shoulders; the image, poised midway between soft porn and religious icon, drew a steady stream of female voyeurs who settled themselves on the bench provided and watched the whole thing through. Teenage school-boys on a field trip blundered in now and then:
“Think he’s really asleep, Matt?’
’
“Na. Can’t be, not with that effing light shining right in his face.” Continue reading Sales Figures

The Reading

Maria hasn’t arrived.  I refuse to panic myself by checking my watch but I know it’s after 7pm, and I’m supposed to read at Pages at 7:30.  I peer out at the glitter of passing traffic; nothing even slows down, and finally I cave in and call her.
“Hi, Maria, how are you?”
“Kathy, I have a problem.” Her voice is subdued, unnaturally even. “The restaurant I was in threw away my glasses! I can’t see very much. I’m a bit flustered, but it’ll be all right.  Can you tell me again where you are?”  I repeat the address; all I know is that it’s somewhere in the southwest of the city, not far from downtown… Graham, the proprietor, steps in. I notice his forehead pucker as she explains to him about the glasses.
“Get on to Second.  You’ll see a large crematorium on your left, with yellow and gold neon signage. Turn left. Left again.  All our lights are on.  There’s a big sign. Some flags.  We’re the only low-rise in the street. You can’t miss it.”
Let’s say time passes. A vehicle pulls up. Continue reading The Reading

Notes & Queries

The Book Arrives (Alphabet)

Strawberries. Sunbathing snakes.  The first garden vegetables, the first swim in the lake, the last days of school, the long, golden evenings…  I write in the garden, lying in a hammock that’s shaded by an old cherry tree;  in a branch above me a robin pecks at the fruit, splattering my legs with  tiny drops of juice.

The house is sunk in shade. Someone has been to the mailbox: waiting on the kitchen table, along with a wad of junk mail, is  a padded envelope  that  I know must contain  a finished copy of Alphabet. I was told it was on its way but all the same the actual presence of it – the book, the final object, here in my house,  gives me a jolt. I feel it’s something to be handled with care: will it be the colour we discussed, as opposed to the anaemic hue that showed up on my computer screen some weeks ago? Will the text have survived the  printing process or will there  be some terrible mistake, such as a chapter upside down or an overlooked typo in the blurb? Will I look at it and want to run away?   After all, it’s over a year since I sent the manuscript to W&N and nine months since we finished editing it. And that’s just the recent history. It is also at least ten years since I  first conceived of the  book,   over three since I started it  for the second time…  And now this thing has arrived!
I’m about to put it back on the table and leave it for a while when Jim, four, appears and asks ‘Have you got a present, mummy?’ Becki, seven, is close behind: ‘Can I open it for you?’ she says, and Richard, following them both, laden with all the stuff they  can’t or won’t carry for themselves realizes straightaway what I’m holding: ‘That must be your book!’ They are all three staring at me, so I go for it, rip open the seal.

The colour is right (spooky, Becki says) – I can see that much straight away. A flick through shows that the layout changes were made, that nothing is upside down and all the chapters are there. It looks good. I can breathe again, but I’ll need to screw up a little more courage in order to actually read it. Before long, of course, other people will be doing that too. The story will have a life of its own. It’s wonderful, terrible. Both.

Snakes and Ladders

Snakes & Ladders.

The phone rings at 7.40 am: I’m easing the kids into raingear and out of the door along with their lunches, books, sports equipment and a recently discovered sheep skull for Show & Tell. Yes? I say, thinking it’s either a UK emergency, another cancelled soccer match or the dentist again – but no: it is the Canada Council telling me my novel Alphabet has been short-listed for a Governor General’s Award. The day – the month – is transformed into a mini roller coaster of interviews and trips. The kids bid for a float plane ride if I win; naturally, I agree – but sadly for them it doesn’t fall out that way. Even so, Alphabet and I have a good time.

There is a silver sticker on my book jacket to draw people’s attention to it and I can tell myself that I must, at least to some degree, be succeeding artistically if three of my respected peers, in a country I am new to, sat together for a day arguing over this and that point and agreed to put my book on a list of five.

So it’s very good. All the same time, this moment in the sun cannot but remind me how strange and difficult the writer’s life mostly is. Not long ago, I was talking with a talented, well-respected writer who, when I asked about her work, burst into a hurricane of tears because she had been suffering an unexpected rash of mid-career rejection letters. We hugged, and I commiserated and but there was nothing to say except that this can be a tough job, and that’s after you have written the book. Whilst writing itself can be difficult, most of us would agree that overall it is both a pleasure and a privilege. Being a writer is a different matter; it requires us to develop skills that have nothing to do with putting words on the page. The sad truth is that while some kind of verbal or story-telling talent is a prerequisite for writers, being able to cope with the psychological hazards inherent in being a writer is at least as important.

Success stories like JK Rowling’s haunt the public imagination but the reality is that most writers write into a void (no one knows or minds much what they are doing until, years later, it’s done) or even face outright discouragement (rejection letters, family disapproval, low sales). You have to be able to sustain yourself, emotionally and financially, under these conditions. You dedicate your time to what others may seem as an insane or lost cause; you must take the solitude you need to work, but at the same time you must not allow yourself to become utterly isolated or totally crazy (a little craziness is fine, even necessary). It’s important to generate ways of looking at the bizarre situation you are in which keep you going rather than stop you in your tracks. As John Gardner pointed out in his mordantly funny piece Do You Have What it Takes to Become a Novelist?, a writer needs to be “at once driven and indifferent” – passionate about the book, but also, I’d add, hard-nosed and realistic about his or her circumstances. This is not an easy combination.

Another difficulty is that in order to write, you must be sensitive, but to be a writer, you need rhinoceros hide or a good supply of bandages: rejection in all its nasty varieties is the biggest hazard of all, and spreads itself like Kudzu over the entire profession. Again, some rarely encounter it, but they are a tiny minority. Most writers must find a way to deal with constantly being judged, ranked and sometimes rejected or not even considered in the first place. Your name is not on the short list… a magazine editor declines your story… the year’s list of recommended books does not include yours… you receive a swingeingly bad review in a major publication just before you have to stand on a platform and read the damn thing aloud to 500 people…

Add to this that if you are so inclined, there is always some other book or writer to compare yourself with: a massive snake this, if you let it grow. You can feel either overwhelmed by his or her superior talent, or grow bitter and twisted because he or she has been rewarded for something that to your mind amounts to lesser achievement than yours. Prizes can have an especially infantilising effect: the chosen few step suddenly up into the limelight, leaving the rest behind. It can take a determined effort not to give in to this kind of thinking, even though anyone who has ever sat on the jury for an award will tell you that another five books could just as easily have been selected.

These are the snakes, and as you slide down their slimy gullets, it’s a good idea to remind yourself of the ladders, the biggest of which is having done what you wanted to do,  being pleased (even temporarily) with the result, and then having someone read it and sees/enjoy/be moved by what you have done. Or, better still, having many people read it and see/enjoy/be moved by what you have done.

Just as in the board game, it is possible to go for long periods where there is a chronic imbalance between snakes and ladders: far too much reptile. At other times, each inviting ladder is followed immediately by a pair of wide open jaws and you never seem to get anywhere at all: the editor loves it, the book is published, the jacket is great – but your book receives no reviews at all, or your book gets great reviews and wins a prize – but for mysterious reasons just doesn’t sell, and your publisher doesn’t want to put it out in paperback/won’t commit to your next.

Again, there is nothing to do but remember: you are writing because you think it is important, because it gives you pleasure, because you want a particular story to be told, because you want to make people laugh or make them think, because it is part of the way you relate to the world, because in the end you can’t not write (all or some of the above). Yes, working in an atmosphere of encouragement, feeling that readers actually want the results of your hours at the desk – basking, even, in their appreciation of your work, is far pleasanter than the opposite and will set you up for better few hours at the computer. Yes, being paid well helps too – and both together is brilliant, but it is only likely to happen some of the time. Meanwhile, find a way to keep on working: denial, distraction, and meditation, laughter, weeping fits, philosophy or simply writing itself… You do whatever works.