Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Novels I Wrote my Twenties

There were two. Both petered out at around 40,000 words. Let’s put aside ‘Bearded Killers’ for the moment and focus instead on the other, which was called ‘An Easy Read’, and its title – Wry! Ironic! Look at me, everyone, I’m arching an eyebrow! – pretty much said it all.
Being twenty-two I had nothing of consequence to write about. I mistakenly thought, and many others have made the same mistake I’m sure, that drinking and goofing around with friends had enough consequence to constitute a plot. After all my favourite movie of the time was ‘Swingers’.
So; my protagonist, Kerby Swales, was a wannabe writer. (‘Write what you know’ was the kind of advice you took literally in your twenties, this being a decade in which useful advice was generally pretty hard to come by.) His friends, Lewis Beechey and Gurnam Haire, were wastrels. One of them was a poet. I forget which.
One night, during a boozy party – and there were plenty in this particular tale – Swales comes across a cache of unfinished work by his poet friend composed during a drug-fuelled purple patch now long-forgotten. ‘Hmm’, Swales wonders. ‘If I pass these poems off as my own will the local hottie, Bonny Day, fancy me?’
Being the work of someone who hadn’t yet read enough let alone written enough, ‘An Easy Read’ suffers terribly from that disease of lurching from style-to-style depending upon what I was into at the time. It has a breezy, foul-mouthed Martin Amis voice, borrowed from ‘Money’ and ‘The Rachel Papers’ then really badly mangled. It goes faux-Dickensian in parts as I hopelessly try a bit of Victorian character study. And worst of all it has a post-modern prologue stolen directly from Dave Eggers (‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’) in which I point out the various ways in which the novel can be read. The prologue’s called ‘Easy Reader.’ Do you see what I did there, people?! Do you see??
I also made the clear-thinking and farsighted decision to fill the novel with poems and include sections where our hero redrafted poems in preparation for various showdowns with the female lead during which he would hope to woo her with the power of his (borrowed) words. That meant writing a bunch of deliberately bad poems – but hey, I was twenty-two; I had plenty of time on my hands, and the outcome would surely be genius, yes?
I worked slowly. But I did come up with ‘The Passionate Fever of Saint Sophie Celeste’, a long and dreadful Keatsian narrative poem; ‘If my Arse’, a scathing critique of Kipling; and ’T Stephen Shallot’, which was about small onions and the solar system. (Look at the title – it’s an anagram of ‘Holst: The Planets’. Do you see what I did there?! Etc etc.)
Looking back, I was a very slow learner.
I was slow to let go of the notion that ‘An Easy Read’ was going to set the world alight. The principle of continual and gradual improvement was anathema to me; I wanted it finished and brilliant and I wanted it now. I thought I was the exception to the rule that said you had to practice, practice practice. I wasn’t the exception to the rule. I wasn’t even disciplined enough to follow the damn rule.
As it turns out, I spent three years on it, dipping in and out between all the other stuff you do in your twenties before you realise writing is really hard.
I'm sure I'm not unusual in admitting that most of the three years was consumed in
a) devising the soundtrack for the inevitable movie version of the book,
b) working out a scene in which I could appear alongside my brothers in the movie version of the book, and
c) drafting and redrafting the speech I would give when my screenplay of the movie version of the book won an Oscar.
Three years, 40,000 dreadful words. And I'm not even going to go near 'Bearded Killers', a contestant for the 'worst idea for a book of all time' award. 
If you’re twenty-something and you’re reading this – take notes, my friend – take notes.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Every City is Political

J’s got this saying: “Every purchase is political.” It’s particularly effective at stopping me in my tracks when intent upon buying – I dunno, a new suit for example, or anything made of plastic. Or hiring a cleaner, investing in private health care or expanding my portfolio of stocks and shares. OK I’m kidding. But as a mantra it’s as good as any and it helps keep things firmly in perspective in a world obsessed with consumption.
Now - over the last week I’ve been dipping in and out of 'City of Dreams and Nightmare' by Ian Whates. In it, a fantasy city called ‘The City of a Hundred Rows’ is brilliantly rendered. As the blurb puts it, the city is “a vast, multi-tiered metropolis. The poor live in the City Below and demons are said to dwell in the Upper Heights.”
Now that’s a bit of a bummer for an unpublished writer like me.
Because my WIP is set in a fantasy city called Highlions. And it’s a vast, multi-tiered metropolis, funnily enough. The poor scrape a living in the Lower Circle, the rich breathe the sweeter, cleaner air of the Upper Circle.
Why, I ask myself, are these two imaginary cities so similar? Because like every purchase, every city is political. When we create a fictional society within which our characters operate, we build a political statement whether we intend to or not. As two characters converse for the first time the reader makes a million subtle judgements about relative status and power. Take those characters into the streets and describe the houses, the drainage system, the traffic, the smell, and there’s your political statement as clear as if it were your very own bullet-pointed, glossy manifesto.
My three-tiered city is nothing more than a feebly-veiled attack on a class system which punishes the poor; and my boys Sleepwell and Fly – victims of this inequitable regime, naturally – will fight their way upwards to ‘stick it to the man’. It’s lazily done on my behalf, I think – and stands no chance of being a fresh and interesting world for a pair of jaded eyes trawling a slush-pile.
It’s time to tear it up and design it again.
Before I start, though, I’ll need a new drawing board. And some really smart new pens – a nice desklamp, a bottle of good wine... Hmm. Political purchases, all of them.