Browsing Tag

The Breaking

Bushfires and the mess of novel writing

17 February 2020

What a start to the year it’s been. Summer is my favourite season, but this year we have just survived it. In Canberra we suffered months of smoke from the South Coast and Braidwood fires, which meant my three kids — like all of Canberra’s kids — were confined indoors and didn’t get a proper holiday. After a brief but glorious break at Jervis Bay over the long weekend we returned to fires threatening Canberra’s south, where we live. Our suburb was on notice to potentially evacuate — we could see the fire from our home, and it was terrifying. So we packed up our most precious belongings and temporarily moved to my parents’ place.

 

On the fire went, chewing through over 80,000 hectares. We returned to our home and grew used to living with a fire that was permanently in our field of vision. I constantly switched between the ESA website and Fires Near Me app. Eventually cooler weather came, and then rain. Thanks to the phenomenal efforts of the firies and their support team, no homes were damaged during the worst conditions of 42-degree days and ferocious winds. The fire is still burning but its perimeters have been contained and the anxiety that we were living with is gone. But we lost our whole summer holiday to the effects of climate change. And this is only the beginning.

 

Amidst all this I was working on the edits for my debut novel, due out in March 2021. This was a lovely distraction. I love the editing process, which is probably not surprising given that I am an editor myself. I’ve turned in the first round to my publisher and am looking forward to the next.

In the meantime I have also been working on a new novel. Whereas my debut just flowed out of me, this one has been more challenging. My freelance editing work overwhelmed me at the end of last year and I didn’t work on the manuscript after August. In truth, I was also stuck. I had 50,000 words but it felt like one big hot mess and I wasn’t sure how to progress it. Then this month I received an email to say that my manuscript had been longlisted for a British manuscript award based on the first 5000 words. Suddenly I had nine days in which to submit the finished manuscript. That I didn’t have.

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I knew when I submitted to the competition that I would have to deliver the full manuscript in February and I had planned to use the deadline as a driving force. But I didn’t bank on getting stuck, and in any case I never really believed that I would be longlisted for an international manuscript award. It didn’t seem like something that would happen.

I remember Inga Simpson talking about being in a similar position with the manuscript that became her debut novel, Mr Wigg. She had submitted the first 50 pages to a competition and then received a phone call to say that she had 36 hours to submit the full manuscript. It was 5000 words short of the minimum word count. She joked that the only reason  she named her main protagonist Mr Wigg was because it was two words, instead of one. She made the deadline and has since published another three novels. So it can be done.

But could I do it? I had nine days and at least 20,000 words to write. But it wasn’t just a case of just adding words, the whole draft needed careful shaping. I’m a slow writer, and a dear author friend cautioned me against cobbling something together. There is a danger that once the words are on the page it can be harder to remove them, or undo a narrative path that doesn’t work. And in any case a substandard draft won’t make the shortlist.

Nevertheless, I opened the manuscript, which had been untouched for five months, just to see what was there. I was pleasantly surprised. I haven’t written this book in a linear way, as I did with my debut, so there were gaping holes in the narrative and sections that weren’t working, but it wasn’t as much of a mess as I had thought it was. I concluded that back in August it was really a mess in my mind. In the intervening months, although I hadn’t been writing, I had been thinking, trying to figure out where the heart of the book lay. And now it seemed so much clearer to me. So I started cutting, reworking and writing new sections. Better yet, I rediscovered the energy that had made me start writing the book in the first place.

There are now just a few days until the deadline. Will I meet it? I’m almost certain that I won’t. I’m annoyed at myself that I’ve missed the opportunity to get my work in front of the prestigious line-up of judges, but I couldn’t have done the process differently. Back in August I wasn’t ready to finish the first draft. Now I am. And I’m grateful for the boost of confidence that the award has given me.

During the early stages of a writing a novel it’s just you and the page and it’s so easy to be overtaken by doubt. One of my favourite quotes is from Zadie Smith who once said, ‘It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. And the main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. This is hard to do alone.’ It’s the truth. So the longlisting has helped me get my mind back in the right place, and it’s also helped reignite the kind of energy that drives a book, for me at least.

The word count is rising again, and in April I’m heading to the Iceland Writers Retreat to work on the novel. I’m particularly looking forward to a workshop with Nigerian writer Elnathan John on ‘Fiction in a world of fiction: writing that matters’. Wish me luck, or at least the continuing ability to trick myself into confidence.