WRESTLING WITH A GIANT SQUID aka FINISHING MY BOOK

I’ve been coming to the end of a piece of work. When I say ‘end’ I do not of course mean THE END. I mean my novel has to be prised from my limpet-like grip and handed over to the next stage of its development, being edited. For me my novels never really end. If I pick up one of my published ones, which I do from time to time out of a combination of curiosity and vanity, I usually immediately  find bits I want to change. Often it’s the first sentence! So basically for the last couple of weeks I’ve been in the death throes, as my partner drily calls it. Or, as I would put it, since I believe that melodrama is not useful at this stage, wrestling with a giant squid. When I have ripped one tentacle from around my waist, which is telling me I have never understood the basics of punctuation, I find another smacking me in the kisser and telling me shame and humiliation await.

I wonder if there’s a writer in the world who thinks of their work. It’s great. It’s finished. I’m happy to hand it over to my adoring agent/editor/public. If they do exist I would meet them with about the same enthusiasm that Dr Who would feel at meeting a Dalek. In fact my preference would be to feed such a writer immediately to that giant squid as a tasty apéritif.

Fortunately, I have managed to find lots of  juicy quotations by famous writers fed up to the back teeth with their work and filled with self-loathing. Why is it I wonder that other people’s self-loathing is always so much more entertaining than my own? So here are some to reassure you and make you laugh if you too are at the squid-wrestling phase of your work. I’ll tell you who they are at the end. First a very famous Frenchman on the subject of returning to his writing:

1.We are obliged to revive our suffering with the courage of a doctor who is about to give himself a dangerous injection.’

Well, he is French after all. And here is another famous French author:

2.‘My accursed ****** (name of book) torments and confounds me … I am utterly weary, utterly discouraged. You call me master – what a sorry master I am. There are moments when it all makes me want to die like a dog.’

Now a bored Russian:

3.’Now I am settling down again to dull commonplace **** ********, (name of book) with the sole desire to clear a space quickly and obtain leisure for other occupations.’

And here’s a self-loathing one:

4.My soul has wilted from the consciousness that I am working for money and that money is the centre of my activity. This gnawing feeling… makes my authorship a contemptible pursuit in my eyes; I do not respect what I write.’

Finally here is an extremely gloomy Englishman:

5.‘By comparison with the lyric poet’s or the painter’s, the novelist’s life is a despairing one. A work which takes him so long a time, a time that has to be measured in years rather than months, that has, therefore to be written against so many varying and warring moods, how can it ever attain the satisfactory unity of a poem or a picture? His passion may give him moments of contentment or even happiness, but he is aware all the time of how this love affair will close. This is not a marriage: this is a passion doomed sooner or later to end. It already contains the hatred and dryness of heart that will succeed it.’

Aren’t they a cheerful lot! Here we have a dangerous injection, torments, discouragement, boredom, a wilting soul, doomed passion and my personal favourite – dying like a dog. So, if you’re in difficulties and failing to achieve that elusive ‘satisfactory unity’  for your book, take heart because you are in very good company. My advice?  KBO of course. Surely, no one ever told you it was going to be easy?  If they did, now’s the time to sue.

After all that gloom and doom here’s a more philosophical quote to end on which always cheers me up:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

SAMUEL BECKETT

Are you at the squid-wrestling stage of a project? Any tips on prising those tentacles loose?

1. Proust on returning to you know what; 2. Flaubert on writing (Madame) Bovary; 3. Tolstoy on Anna Karenina; 4. Chekhov; 5. Graham Greene.

WRITING TIPS FROM A TROLLOPE!

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope

I’m reading the autobiography of Anthony Trollope. I should confess here that I am not a huge fan. Back in the day I ploughed through Can You Forgive Her and half of Phineas Finn but without a great deal of pleasure. However, like most writers,  I do like reading about other writers, so I thought I would give this a whirl. And I’m interested in Trollope because I know that he was both extraordinarily prolific and popular. I have to say it’s an unexpected scream of a book. The scream being more of the  ‘Halloween’ than the ‘ha ha’ variety. It was written seven years before he died and intended to be published posthumously and reads like the book of a man who has the most monstrous chip on his shoulder. Which is a little bit surprising because at that point he was so successful you’d have thought he might have lightened up a bit. It is also in some ways an utterly charmless book maybe because he knew it would be published after his death and therefore couldn’t be bothered to modify the tone of what he wrote.

In the introduction it is described as:

‘This queer bleak text-book of the mechanics and economics of novel writing.’

And that’s a pretty accurate description. However, I decided to read it as if it were a Victorian self-help book for writers, a sort of Writing Down The Bones, not that WDTB by Natalie Goldberg is in any way odd or bleak, quite the reverse, and it’s a book I absolutely love.

I read the last chapter (The Fruits of Diligence) first and in it he lists every book he ever wrote (45) and what he made from each one. The total amount was £70,000 which would be about £3,300,000 in today’s money.  He states he has not listed every book to be a show off but to encourage the young.

I’m not sure it has that effect on me but perhaps I’m not young enough!

Some of the most interesting material relates to his mother, who he obviously adored, although he comments of her she was “unable to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration.”   I know that feeling. A prolific writer herself, Frances Trollope, wrote like a demon getting up at four in the morning to do so and had taken up writing in her fifties to rescue the family from penury. Between the age of fifty and seventy-six she wrote 114 volumes. Trollope describes how even while she was nursing her husband and two children, who were to die of consumption, she kept writing.

‘The doctor’s vials and the ink bottle held equal places in my mother’s rooms.’

Depending on one’s point of view, this is chilling or admirable. What I find interesting is that he had a rôle model who would allow absolutely nothing to come in the way of her writing.

So what lessons can we glean from him? Has he got any tips? There must be some, mustn’t there? Surely this isn’t just a case of a grumpy old man settling scores? Incidentally, his assessment of Disraeli’s novels, (Disraeli was Prime Minister at the time he wrote the book), is absolutely poisonous.

Trollope had an absolutely ferocious work ethic. For each book he kept a diary and noted down the number of pages he wrote every week. The reason being that “if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour…”

He writes 250 words to a page. The number of pages he sets himself to write a week  is  between 20 (5000 words) and 40 (10000 words) but sometimes rises as high as 112 (28000 words). So this is a man who is spectacularly industrious, never misses a deadline and always delivers to the right length. In other words he is highly professional. He is not interested in the glamour of the hare, he is the tortoise who plods away and knows he will win in the end. He is also completely scornful of the idea of “waiting for inspiration.”

ON WAITING FOR THE MUSE: To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.

What else does he have to tell us?

ON CRITICS: Now I well know where I may look for a little instruction, where I may expect only greasy adulation, where I shall be cut up into mince-meat for the delight of those who love sharp invective.

Well, my own experience of being reviewed is that I could do with a bit more greasy adulation! Bring it on, in fact. Fortunately I’ve not experienced the mince-meat variety although one reviewer did, completely legitimately, point out that she thought it unlikely that Sam Falconer, my PI, would be willing to risk her life for another person’s chihuahua. The flaw in my plot was thus horribly exposed!

ON THE BITTERNESS OF FAILURE: The career (of a novelist) when success has been achieved, is certainly very pleasant; but the agonies which are endured in the search for success are often terrible. 

Oh dear, well that has a vaguely familiar ring to it. Trollope does also state that in the first ten years of his writing career he didn’t earn enough to buy the pens, inks and paper that he was using. Given that he ended up a multi-millionaire that is quite encouraging, isn’t it?

His best tips come in the form of Latin quotations:

ON WRITING PRACTICE: ‘Nulla dies sine linea’ – Let no day pass without a line being written.

ON PERSISTENCE: ‘Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo’  – A water drop hollows a stone not by force but by falling often.

So, there we have it. Write every day. Keep at it. And you too might turn into a grumpy old multi-millionaire just like Trollope.

Finally what does he have to say on plot and dialogue?

ON PLOTS: I am not sure that the construction of a perfected plot has been at any period within my power.

That’s a bit of a surprise. I’d have thought someone like Trollope would have been big on plot but he’s actually rather dismissive of them and in the process rather dismissive of poor Wilkie Collins!

ON DIALOGUE: No character should utter much above a dozen words at a breath.

Well, I’m sorry Anthony but that would be a bit bloody hard (my 12 words are up) to stick to so I’m definitely not doing that…

By the end of the book I actually felt quite sorry for him. He had a vile childhood in which he was mercilessly bullied at school. His father was hopeless and of him he said, “the touch of his hand seemed to create failure.” Yes, the book lacks charm but it is also quite bracing. A bit like a walk along the Norfolk coast on Boxing Day. You may lose all sensation in your face but you know you’re alive. This isn’t a man to wait for the muse to descend or to offer much sympathy to a stuck writer. His response would probably be to thrust a pen and ink bottle into your hand, place some paper in front of you and lock you in a room. Probably between five and seven in the morning. I can’t help feeling that he would thoroughly have approved of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because that was how he wrote all the time. This is how he ends:

Now I stretch out my hand, and from the further shore I bid adieu to all who have cared to read any among the many words I have written.

It’s actually made me curious to go back and read his novels. So which one shall I start with? Any advice gratefully received but I’d prefer one without too much hunting.

ON BECOMING A WRITER: PART ONE

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Truman Capote (above) said:

‘I started to write when I was eight years old. I mean really seriously. So seriously that I dared never mention it to anybody.’ CONVERSATIONS WITH CAPOTE: LAWRENCE GROBEL (NAL BOOKS 1985).

Good for Truman!

He certainly had a head start on me. I came to writing much later. Many writers, like Capote, start making up stories from a young age but I wasn’t one of them. The only story I can remember writing as a child was for a competition set by The Puffin Club. For which I received a notebook with ‘The Posh Puffin Pad’ emblazoned on it in gold letters. I think they gave them to everyone who entered.

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I was well into my twenties before I began writing seriously.  For a long time my dream of becoming a writer absolutely terrified me. And yet in answer to the question: What do you really want to be?  it was always writing that came up and specifically writing fiction.

Why the terror?

Having a respected writer for a father probably had something to do with it. I remember reading a review of his highly acclaimed biography of Disraeli. Harold Macmillan had written of the book:

‘It is outstanding. Robert Blake is a great historian – sympathetic, exhaustive, and with a light touch withal. He has not attacked; he has defended. He has portrayed, with delicacy and penetration, the most exciting and, in a curious way, the most modern of all Victorian statesmen. A great book.’

I felt tremendously proud but also rather alarmed; it seemed like a lot to live up to. It also made me think there must be hidden depths to the shy, courteous man who sent up smoke signals of burnt toast every morning.

I did not enjoy my degree and reading out essays in tutorials was always an embarrassing form of torture.  By the time I left university I was right off writing. I was right off everything.

And so, uncertain how to pursue my dream of writing fiction, I decided to make myself as miserable as possible by training to be a solicitor.

To be continued…