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.


  1. Oh my, this was fabulous! And dreadful...but only because it brought back memories of my own 20-something novel which was set entirely in a coffee shop where the four characters dissected life in...wait,I had "Friends" on my hands, and didn't even know it?! Off now to lament my missing millions.

  2. I just wanted to briefly comment on the blanket statements you seem to be making about 20-somethings. I acquired an agent at age 19, and though at 21 I haven't sold a book yet (I'm about to go on subs again with a rewrite), I have several friends who have sold awesome books in their teens and twenties. Youth doesn't mean you have nothing to write about; some people start writing as soon as they hit double-digits and spend a decade seriously working at their craft, and in their twenties develop their publish-worthy book.

    Your post is a good anecdote, but I think it would be better addressed to 'new writers' instead of 'young people.'

  3. I came back to say something along the lines of Savannah -- I also know plenty of teen/young 20's writers who hit the mark with their first books. But, even some of them have stories that will never come out of "the drawer."

  4. Thanks both for your comments. Savannah - you're dead right of course. The target of this joke was my stoopid former self, not all writers in their twenties. Best of luck with those re-writes!