Monday, 23 January 2012

Vikram Seth and the Anti-Rapid Prototype

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m coming off the back of a fifty-five hour working week. My weekly word count total stands at 650, done on Thursday night. I’m knackered. Amongst everything else I have to do during the course of the weekend, I happen to hear a snippet of Desert Island Discs – I’ve only got time for a snippet  – and I hear Vikram Seth talking about the writing of A Suitable Boy. The story goes something like this. Seth is in his early thirties. Faber aren’t sure whether to keep him after The Golden Gate. He’s out of money, but compelled by a strong desire to write a book “about India.” He goes home, and his parents agree to put him up for a spell. He stays at home and writes for ten years. For ten years. At home, with his parents.
It didn’t sink in at first. But later, I began to think of what a novel of mine might look like if I had ten years writing time at my parents’ house. Don’t misunderstand me – I wouldn’t dream of swapping my life with that of a thirty-something homeboy. No way. But it’s an interesting thought nevertheless. Here is a list of some of the longest novels written. Seth’s clocks in at just over 592,000 words. It looks like a paperback breeze block. (An aside; I once went on holiday with a group of pals – let’s call them all Argyle for the purposes of this piece; the same crew of Argyles, in fact, who feature in a post entitled ‘How to Spot a Really Bad Idea’ – and one of them brought ‘A Suitable Boy’ along to read. She started with vim and energy on the first sunny afternoon, propped in a deck chair on the veranda with a beer. Evening drew in and the book got left outside. That night it rained. The next morning, ‘A Suitable Boy’ had nigh on doubled in size. Swollen and filthy, flooded, bulging and straining at its spine, it looked like a David Cronenburg movie. Pages had stuck together in great sogging clots, so that turning a section meant skipping chapters and chapters – probably upwards of a year of Seth’s efforts – all at once. None of us ever got round to trying to read it.)
So anyway folks, my question is this: do novels – like jobs – expand to fill the time you have to give them?
Many modern writers’ manuals urge a bias towards action. Get going, they sensibly tell you. Put pen to paper. ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’, and so on. It’s a product of the times we live in, perhaps. Scott Belsky uses the phrase ‘rapid prototyping’, a term borrowed from the world of computer aided design, to describe the process of getting an early version of a project ‘out there’ so you can take feedback and learn the lessons of failure. He even argues that the most successful projects are deliberately constrained. “It is my responsibility” he says, “to impose constraint when none is given to me.” Writers rapid-prototype all the time and it’s completely understandable. I can sympathise totally with the e-publish ethos, the urge to serialise online, to submit submit submit. Why? Because many of those I follow on Twitter are, like me, eking out a hundred words here and there on their lunch breaks, fitting in a thou or so between 5 and 6 in the morning, building a story a paragraph at a time in between all the other things they have to do. Writing in these conditions doesn’t lend itself to the epic. If I thought my 650 words were a drop in a 600,000 word ocean, I couldn’t carry on. Knowing my target is going be somewhere around 67,000 makes it about 1% of the total. I can live with that. I’ll have it finished in maybe a year-and-a-half, maybe two.
And yet. Gimme ten years and a room of my own... who knows what kind of novel might come out. Something tells me I wouldn’t churn-out a 67,000 word YA adventure and then take eight years off.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Projecting Certainties

In her splendid book Write to be Published, Nicola Morgan has some very straightforward and sensible advice about characterisation and character development. In the section ‘Cardboard Villains and Saccharine Heroes’, she writes; “A bad character sometimes benefits from some soft edges that test our judgement of them.” Similarly, she says, “Avoid the too-good... give your angels a touch of hell’s fire.”
Nicely put. My antagonist, I figured after mulling this over in the bath, has no soft edges to test the reader’s judgement of him. He’s a black-hearted misanthropist bearing all the hallmarks you’d expect of a top-draw scumbag. He’s murderous, filthy, hateful and, just in case you’re tempted fancy him, he has half his face missing after a nasty encounter with a wild dog. In summary - so two-dimensional he could double for a fireside rug.
I had an interesting conversation with a six-year-old Harry Potter fan – not yet old enough to read the books himself but currently having them read to him before bed and watching the movies as he goes. He’d had a tough night, his dad explained, plagued by bad dreams. The little feller was terrified and confused, having discovered that Tom Riddle and Voldemort were the same person. So it seems that denying readers the clear moral certainties of the cardboard cut-out villain – even by the introduction of limited backstory like this – makes bad guys more frightening; more real, somehow.
On New Year’s Eve, the punk musician Billy Childish was being interviewed on the Today Programme by the comedian and guest-editor for the day Stuart Lee. Childish, disdainfully assessing Oasis, said that the problem with stadium bands churning out power-ballads was that they did nothing but “project certainties” to mass audiences.
I suppose that’s what we do when we create these flat-pack bad guys; project cosy certainties about morality rather than give readers anything genuinely arresting or thought-provoking – anything that might give us nightmares.
So, a new year’s project will be to go back through ‘Sleepwell and Fly’ and get to know my antagonist a little better. See what makes him tick.
Who knows, I might give him his face back while I’m at it.