Well if that (yesterday's note) wasn't a case of muddled thinking, I don't what is! I must be carrying too many story notes around in my brain. Now that I think things over I realize I'd relocated my character to the other side of the water precisely because it made more sense for him to take the ferry from that direction. And thus do yesterday's tragedies become tomorrow's banana peels.
Aaargh!! A major plotline flaw, having to do with a ferry boat crossing. I need to coordinate a sighting of a missing person by the ferry boat captain with the later sighting of a second person. In an early draft, the misper originally lived on one side of the river, but I had to switch his location for technical reasons. It makes far more sense for him to live where he does now, except I've got him on the wrong side of the river! I'll have to think this one through very carefully.
Good news! I got the rights back to The P'Town Murders today. I also have an offer to reprint from a new publisher. I won't mention the name here till the contract is signed, but if all goes well it will be re-published in June, right before Pride and the award ceremonies for the Lambdas and the Arthur C Ellis Award. Wouldn't it be nice if...
Because the rewriting is slow, I don't have as much to dissect in the process, but I'm happy with the first half of the new book. The second half, which was much less polished, is bumpier than I'd thought. Nevertheless, the material is there. I just have to sort it and smooth it out a bit before I let anyone else have a look.
Today I started the second draft of Lake on the Mountain. I'm taking this one at a leisurely pace and don't expect to finish it too quickly. What I'm reading excites me, and I know much of it is good work, possibly the best I've done. Obviously I want it to be the best it can be, so I won't to rush it. I may end up doing much of the rewriting in Mexico next month. Marc Cote (the publisher at Cormorant Books who inspired me to write a serious thriller) is waiting to see the next draft. He asked me to let him see it while it's still in a formative state, before I put too much of a polish on it. Part of me is reluctant to do so, while another part is eager to get some input on the book at an early stage.
So this is what the real world looks like. Not writing is giving me time for other things. My dog is getting all the walks he needs and maybe more. He looks at me like I'm a little crazed whenever I pick up the leash. I've also started to gain weight from those afternoon trips to Demetre's for white chocolate mouse cake or walnut cake from the Korean Bakery at Manning and Bloor. On the other hand, I created an entire scene featuring a trip to the bakery. Even more telling, my mother has stopped sending me those little notes beginning, 'Hello, you may remember me...'
Still, I find it's as much work not writing as it is writing. Every day I have to resist going back to the new manuscript. As the ideas flow and the writing pours out, I scribble on napkins and envelopes and packaging material when I'm out. At home, I've filled a pad of paper with notes. I think it's nearly time to start the next draft.
I spent a couple of hours with John Scythes at Glad Day Books discussing the possibilities for having The P'Town Murders reprinted. He constantly has to turn down customers who come into the shop looking for the book only to be told it's not currently available. John is all for doing it myself, and he's right in saying I would make more money that way. I think the days when writers were penalized for self-publishing are quickly slipping into obscurity, though this is an issue of self-reprinting, which is an altogether different bird. What I stand to lose in sales by holding out for a publisher, however, I could make up for if that publisher takes on the entire series as long as the distribution is right for the book.
It's been some time since I made the decision to get out of the CanLit ghetto and write books that sell -- but not books I don't want associated with my name. I love the Bradford Fairfax series and have had more fun writing these than most of my other works so far. And with this series I made a conscious decision to write for the US market. For a writer this is not selling out, but a matter of survival. And really, who wants to write books no one will read? The evolution of the book industry over the past 30 years has been towards the Walmart type superstore that stocks up on bestsellers at a low price, though we know a bestseller mentality doesn't make for better books. Nor is it good for the smaller bookshops like Glad Day, who can't command the larger discounts that the bigger stores get. The ones that have survived till now have made it on reputation and sheer street smarts, I suspect, finding ways to get books in that maximize profit for their smaller retail floor space, without tossing out the quality books. The success of on-line distributors like Amazon will reverse the Think Big mentality of the larger chains, by offering literally any and everything that it's in print -- a remedy for the writers -- but once again the smaller bookstores will bear the brunt of the fight for territory as on-line bookstores offer even lower prices. Read globally, but buy locally.
OK, it's been three days since I finished the book and made a deliberate break from my keyboard and any serious writing attempts. And I am now officially bored.
The happy delirium of not writing for a few days has struck me. I'm free to wander about in the world as though I had no purpose other than to exist, and for once, this is exactly how I like it. It doesn't matter if I lose myself for an entire day shopping for somosas, flowers and books. And the world doesn't seem to miss me. Today I picked up Tamburlaine Must Die, the second book by acclaimed Glaswegian writer Louise Welsh who, for my money, is just about the best thing going right now. I was bowled over by her first novel, The Cutting Room, and pretty much equally impressed by her third, The Bullet Trick. It's time to add Tamburlaine to the list. One of a number of reasons why I love her writing is that she successfully combines dazzling literary prose with thriller-style plotting, which is what I'm attempting in Lake on the Mountain.
The momentum of writing takes over even as I take a breather after having finished Lake on the Mountain. Of course it's not as simple as just walking away from the keyboard. My brain refuses to give up the job. Snippets of writing float through my head at unexpected moments, commanding my attention and making me stop and scribble whatever comes to mind. It's as though once I've done with pushing it through, the other stuff starts to float through more freely and things I hadn't thought about start to emerge. This is the time when I'm allowed to overhear conversations between the characters that will never take place in the book. (They never speak to me directly -- I'm not even in their world.) Maybe it's their way of letting me get to know them better, I suppose, so that I could tell you the type of toothpaste they prefer (if they have a preference, unlike me) or even the brand of condom that works best for them. A friend of my asked recently if I was able to click in and out of 'writing mode' quickly and thoroughly. I said yes, but perhaps the answer is that I'm never truly out of it.
At last! Despite the come-and-go 'flu I've been battling the last two weeks, I finished the first draft of Lake on the Mountain. And, I'm happy to say, I'm thrilled with much of it. A first draft for me is simply a version of the book completed from beginning to end. The rough draft, which I'd finished some time ago, had a number of chapters sketched out in point form, waiting to be filled in. Some of the final chapters gave me quite a bit of trouble, which isn't unusual as that's where a great deal of the sweat goes into rounding things up in way that agrees with the novel's beginning. The second draft, which I won't start just yet, will be an assessment of what works and what needs cutting or reshaping.
Drafts for me are fairly major revisions of a book, and I usually create between 6 and 8 drafts of every book, plus many smaller revisions, called 'passes.' The final polish comes only when I'm fully satisfied with the final draft. This particular draft weighed in at just over 78,000 words, a trifle long, but if the writing is strong it won't feel like a slow book. I'm guessing that by the time I've finished it will be closer to 75,000 words in length. Needless to say there's still a lot of work ahead.
For the first time since I was a teenager I've been writing about Sudbury, where I grew up. Back then I wrote about leaving it. Since then I'd decided it was too uninteresting to write about. But what I realized is that over the years it's become a mythic place, made resonant for me by its atrocities, both visual and social. What makes Sudbury unique -- being a northern mining town -- is also what makes it fascinating. In some ways it was a great place to grow up, but a horrible place to get stuck in if you didn't want to be there. In the current book I've made it sound like a cross between Auschwitz and the moon. No one who's a fan of Sudbury will be pleased, despite the accuracy of what I've written.
Well, today I learned there is such a thing as 'too sick to write.' Or nearly, anyway. I woke feeling like a truck had run over me in my sleep, and barely progressed from that state all day long. I kept at it, though, because I also found that I felt better -- or at least stopped thinking about how I felt -- when I was attempting to write than just sitting back doing nothing. My own little version of mind over matter. And somehow, I made progress with the book.
As I near the end of the official first draft of Lake on the Mountain, I find myself paring down more and more. What I had thought would be three chapters turns out to be one, as I examine the material to determine what really needs to be there. This is the quest -- to bring the story down to essentials. Which doesn't mean jettisoning the writing, because the trick lies in the telling and the telling lies in the voice. In this case, 'voice' doesn't refer to a particular character, but the tone of narration. In Lake on the Mountain the voice is cynical, detached, edgy -- but not without hope.
Years ago, when I was writing my second novel, Timothy Findley volunteered to read a portion of it. His conclusion: the voice was not right. (He'd already praised my short story 'Jerry Falwell Goes To The Promised Land' as having the 'right' voice.) Of course I didn't accept his judgement and concluded the book wasn't for him. Hindsight proved him right. The book I wrote then now lies buried under a much stronger, more powerful book ... because I finally got the voice right. It was that book that taught me the necessity of having the right voice. Not just with my books, but with any book. For instance -- to choose an obvious example -- it makes a great deal of difference to have Holden Caulfield narrate the story of his decline rather than his mother or sister. So much so that we probably wouldn't want to read their version of The Catcher In The Rye -- that's how important voice can be.
One of the worst things about being in the home stretch on any piece of work is the temptation to rush it. I really have to slow myself down to make sure I'm hitting all the high notes and the low notes and everything in between. The benefit of being sick, however, is that I really don't have the strength to go out and do normal things. That trip to the drug store? It can wait. Need to stock up on food? Nah, I'll just eat this bag of chips. Which means I can start work relatively early, as I did this morning at 8:30, and still be at it well into the evening, because there are no obligations that matter, apart from getting the work done.
No wonder the days slip by and it starts to seem like I haven't seen the real world for days and sometimes weeks. I just realized I've been writing full time, more or less, for about 20 years, starting with A Cage of Bones in 1986, A Simple Song (unpublished) in 1990, The Honey Locust (TBP next year) starting around 1994, as well as three years of plays and three more of filmscripts, followed by the first three Bradford books (2005, 2006, 2007), and now Lake on the Mountain. I may have to re-title this blog 'A Writer's Half-Life.'
I'm really paying for that outing in the cold yesterday. I thought I might not be able to get out of bed, but after several rounds of medication and two warm baths, the old engine finally turned over. Suprisingly, I was able to accomplish something that had been eluding me for some time -- today I finished the wedding scene, probably the most crucial scene in the book. It takes place on a boat, and has a number of important consequences, including a death of one of the guests, all of which propel the second half of the story. Despite having to lie down every hour or two to do it, I still managed to get through what till now has been my biggest hurdle.
The best thing, and the worst thing, about being a writer working from home is that you can still work even when you're sick. Especially when you're so enthused about what you're working on that you just can't put it aside. I've been battling a horrible 'flu since just before New Year's. Today it hit pretty hard, though I still managed to put in a good day's work, the only interruption being a trek to the chiropractor. That in itself was a bit of a disaster, as I ended up walking twenty minutes in very cold (-13) weather, and arriving at the office in a full sweat. No doubt I'll pay for it tomorrow, but today I'm still working.
One of my New Year’s traditions is to catch a film every January 1st. Last night, Shane and I saw Atonement, a choice made largely due to the presence of James McAvoy, star of The Last King of Scotland. I was so impressed with his performance in that film that I wanted to see what he’d do in this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel.
I’m not a McEwan fan, though I’ve enjoyed him occasionally. Some years ago, after seeing the film version of The Comfort of Strangers, I dubbed him a writer of horror stories for yuppies. Since then I’ve had a fairly ambivalent (meaning ‘having conflicting views’ rather than ‘neither here nor there’) response to everything of his I’ve read. I admire some of his writing a lot and much not at all. Apart from the opening story in the collection ‘First Love, Last Rites,’ I’ve never enjoyed a work of his in its entirety.
To me, his writing feels academic, as though he’s writing a thesis—cold, calculating and occasionally brilliant, but seldom moving. It’s more than just that emotionally repressed Anglo nature. At some point, I always feel that characters and events are being manipulated to support a premise or frame an idea, and I stop believing in the story. Martin Amis has the same effect on me.
While I haven’t read the book, it seemed odd that the film’s beginning and ending are told from the POV of the younger sister, Briony, while the middle is about Briony’s older sister Cecilia and Cecilia’s lover, Robbie. The story of the couple—separated when Robbie is accused by Briony of a crime he didn’t commit—is powerful, but has an intrusive post-modern twist (Vanessa Redgrave, as the older Briony, returns half a century later to “explain” what happened) that’s both distancing and unconvincing.
I might also say that stories about heterosexual coupling often don’t appeal to me unless they’re exceptional (think Casablanca, Chinatown, Moulin Rouge, Old Yeller—ok, the latter isn’t really about coupling), while I find myself far more tolerant of gay stories. For one thing, I’m inclined to share their perspective on life and, for another, there are fewer gay stories, so I’m less easily bored by them.
Having said that, however, I found the relationship between Cecilia and Robbie quite engrossing, but I suspect I was responding to what most people who claim to love this film are responding to: Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, two of the world’s most beautiful people, in close-up. It’s intoxicating.
The added value of having McAvoy is in seeing what appears to be the emergence of a colossal talent. There are few movie stars today who have real acting chops: Sean Penn, Heath Ledger, Leonardo DiCaprio, Philip Seymour Hoffman—and only a few from the past: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave. OK, I’m picky… But so few stars have what it takes to deliver a subtle, stunning performance film after film. Let’s add McAvoy to the list.
I guess it's inevitable that I'd spend part of New Year's Day looking back over the previous year's accomplishments. It was a year that saw the publication of my second book, The P'Town Murders, ten years after the first. And I'm glad to say I am very happy with that book. The promotional tour was fun, though with the publisher selling and the book not being given a second printing, it all seemed to come to an abrupt end. Now there is hope for a new publisher, however, and I'm looking forward to seeing it reprinted.
In fact, over the past year-and-a-half I seem to have made quite a bit of headway, having polished and sold a third book, The Honey Locust, due to be published in spring 2009. I also finished Death In Key West, the second in the Bradford Fairdfax series, and wrote a first draft of the third Bradford book, Vanished In Vallarta. I now sit on the verge of finishing another book, Lake on the Mountain. All because I've had the luxury of time, not having held a real job for more than a year. The coffers are looking slim and Mother Hubbard is clucking in admonishment, but look what I've done, Ma!