I am presently two thirds of my way through the editing of The Reformation, my SF/Romance novel. It deals with the differences between living and merely surviving. Rather than create a dystopia, I have created a dystopic world and characters who find utopia by falling in love. They come to the realsiation that beauty, that living is worth even in the worst of worlds, that they have always meant to be together. You can all go ‘Awwww’ now and reach for hankies or the bucket. I don’t care either way, I have written a novel I want to read and know that others will want to read. I will put this to the test soon, when I will call on others to read it and give feedback (no relations need apply).
Novel writing is always a long haul process from those who can turn a novel around in 4 months (still long hours) to those who take a year (I fall into that camp because I want to live some of my life away from a computer). At the age of 21, I won an award for a novel called Tomorrowland, another SF novel, not a bad first attempt but lousy when I look back on it now. Surprisingly this lousy novel got picked up (many lousy novels get published every year and hats off to them). My lousy novel was picked up by a big publisher, who was promptly bought out by a bigger publisher (it was the 90s and this was happening all over the place). The upshot was all contracts for new books were scrapped, my agent dropped me and I got too old for marketing. It’s a fine line between 21 and 22. It happens. It sucks. It’s life and so it goes. I then won an Arvon place, tackled my second novel with help of Michele Roberts and Sara Le Fanu and got nominated for the Jerwood-Arvon. Alot to take on when you’re that age. My first novel was dead and lousy, my second was long. Tentatively entitle, Just All the Americans, it was a road trip novel dealing with Devil. It never got finished because I ran out of steam and ideas, it became convoluted. It became every writers worst nightmare, the never ending novel. You know something is wrong when you’re 345,000 words in and you’re nowhere near the middle of your story. I tinkered with it, telling people that it was on the back burner, except to burn it took eight years of my life. In between the tinkering I wrote, plays (won some awards), poetry (which has done well), screen stuff (not the greatest stuff), radio sketches (some of which many of you may have heard over the years) and short fiction (which has always got published). In that time I forgot how it felt to write a novel.
When I first started I used to write at night from midnight to four in the morning, I was the lonely man in the subway or the garden, smoking, muttering and avoiding social interaction. I had a full time job and I wanted to write, so the only solution was to write at night, get some sleep and earn money, so I could carry on writing. I still find it hard to drift off at night and still get my best ideas then. My wife is used to me leaping up, going to the bathroom and returning several hours later, only to find in the morning there is no toilet roll because I have written on all of it. There is something about silence, the dark, the peace that means my brain goes nuts, I write to fill the silence and I write all those voices down that come to me in my sleep (no, I’m not nuts, I have an imagination). I forgot how great it felt to get into the rhythm of a character’s voice. How you would write something and be surprised that that had happened.
Sure, in this second draft the story is all there (and the core idea is the same as it was at the start) but the characters aren’t, their voices have grown, their desires, their rhythm and I find myself cutting plot for the sake of character. I know from script writing that this is a good thing!
I only came back to the novel because I took up the challenge of National Novel Writing Month. I wrote the first draft in 30 days, around 60,000 words in November 2008, just through sheer bloody mindedness. Then I left it until April 2009 in a drawer, and in that time I rewrote the novel in my head, key scenes, built up characters, deleted others and merged old and new together. I call this tidying, my wife calls it something else, but it is too rude to write here and really reflects on what I am like to live with when I do this.
Then in June 2009, I started on the second draft (even took it on holiday with me in August – that went down like a lead balloon). I’ll be honest, for all those wannabe writers, no one ever pays you to write your first novel unless you are famous (that comes with its own problems), some days have been hard going, some have been bloody fun.
I love writing fiction, I love writing novels. The word ‘novel’ just makes me sigh. It’s just me and this whole world that I some over mind, some collective consciousness and me have created, all the textures, feelings, emotions, the whole landscape, the whole predicament, comes in a flash and that flash takes time to decode. I forgot that feeling, I forgot that joy. Short stories do that for me too, but not to the same extent, short stories are a snapshot, novels are a life.
So, you think you have a novel in you? Do the National Novel Writing Month and if you fail, don’t worry, just do it again, the good thing about flashes is that you can have more than one in a lifetime. My only advice, keep it simple and go where the characters go.
Andrew Oldham (17th September 2009)