Thursday, September 13, 2007

Goodbye to all that

My first novel has just gone out of print. I didn't know books went out of print any more, what with print on demand publishing, and I it's left me feeling rather stumped.
The Drink and Dream Teahouse, because that is her name, was my first literary love affair: an intense and passionate love affair. I threw everything I had into her. When I was away from the computer, I couldn't stop thinking about the story and the characters, and what they were going to do next. I became tense and cranky. I wanted to get home and touch her again, I recited her opening paragraphs to myself and laughed out loud, and if she could have spoken I would have called her late at night on the phone. When I was writing her she made my life a mix of extremes.
When I had sat and written something that I knew was great, I could run a marathon; drink a case of wine; go find a woman. Sometimes I combined all three. And when she was finished, I plunged into depression and despair, and missed the excitement of creating. When she went out into the world alone, I probably sang 'Wild World' and thought of her and cried.
But now she's out of print. It's a personal thing for me. It makes me feel sad, like autumn, the scent of jasmine and walking along the playing fields I used to play in as a child.
Make no mistake: The Drink and Dream Teahouse was a great novel. The Washington Post picked her as one of the Top Reads of 2001. She won a Betty Trask Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; was translated into 13 languages, and she was so profound that the Mainland Chinese government even banned her! But she was charming too, and was good at attracting attention for me at parties: and it was because of her that I sat and shared a cup of tea with Valerie Eliot, TS Eliot's widow.
But also a lot of things happened which weren't great, like they do to all doomed relationships. My editor and I both left the publishing house before the paperback launched, so I guess she was launched somewhat half-heatedly. In the US she launched a month after September 11th, and disappeared, like so many people, into that great pile of rubble.
When I got the email last night, my first reaction was to go onto Amazon and search for new copies of her I could buy. I need new copies for my children, and their children, if life blesses me with those. But I also felt relief: despite the great memories. I left her behind a long time ago, went onto other novels and other stories, and now I feel that she has finally left me alone. The door is closed. She is that nagging ex-girlfriend who has finally got a life of her own, and has moved away from town.
She lives on of course, on living room bookshelves and in second hand bookshops, and when a reader opens that first page she blooms effortlessly into full flower, without regret or hesitation or remorse. Unlike real girlfriends, who age or sag or loose too much weight or hang around with dorks, or harbour bitter memories, she is still as beautiful as the day she left me. As the day we left each other, I should say.
You know, if I were you I'd go and find yourself a copy. Get a hardback and protect the dust jacket in a slip-case. Get a good bookcase to sit her on, and surround her with great books.
Cherish her - don't leave her there to dust and fade in the sun! Bring her down occasionally, open her wide on your lap, pick a page at random, or a favourite scene, and she will sing arias, as she sang to me that summer I created her.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Tolkien, writing, and raising the stakes

I had the toughest week getting the chapter I was working on right. Writing is a funny business: you get one chapter spot on, and then you try to do the same again, and suddenly you find yourself overwhelmed with the fear that the novel is becoming too generic: that the plot is repeating itself: in my case, the main character returns home, finds something from his father, someone arrives, and that arrival forces the main character to act.

I remember reading somewhere that the stakes should keep increasing for the main character, till the crescendo of the story is reached. If you think of Lord of the Rings, this process follows nicely for Frodo. He gets a ring. The ring must be hidden, then it must be taken to Rivendel, then it must be destroyed: and at each point the task becomes more and more difficult and the ring goes from a clever ring to a symbol of terrible power, then to a source of corrupting power in itself. In this way the stakes are ratcheted up. Imagine if Frodo had got to Rivendel and someone took the ring off him, or if someone said, oh - this ring is not so dangerous - then the story would have ended there. What could have happened next? Where could the story have gone?

Think of the Hobbit, for example: the majority of the book is about a journey ('There' in which the plot structure repeats itself even more obviously) where there is danger. The same journey is taken at the end of the book ('...and back again') but there is little danger after the defeat of Smaug and the goblins, and so this journey is dealt with in a much more succinct manner.

The Lord of the Rings, especially The Fellowship of the Ring is surprisingly generic: the plot repeats itself almost chapter by chapter. The hobbits face a challenge (black riders, the Old Forest, more black riders [who get increasingly close to the hobbits - till they break into their bedroom], the barrow downs, black riders again - and then the black riders stab Frodo with a magical knife that starts to burrow through his flesh to his heart.

If you go through this chapter by chapter, Tolkien was re-using a similar chapter structure of increasingly difficult challenges. And I think that it's important to realise as a writer that the reader will accept a certain amount of repetition, as long as that is interesting and exciting and informative. And repetition in that manner will not seem so apparent. The key is to getting the events that happen to the characters interesting and exciting.

Sometime on Friday afternoon I created a new character, who seemed to solve my problems. Not because he did anything particularly special, just that he allowed me to take some of the pressure off the main character by switching between their view-points and story lines, and I altered the timing of some of the scenes, and a chapter that had me tense and cranky suddenly seemed to work.

There's a lesson in here for me: that a problem that appears as difficult and impossible to cross as a brick wall can actually have an easy solution. I spent the week getting scratched knees and sore fingers, only to find a secret doorway that allowed me through to the other side.

When I finish a chapter I set myself a signpost to head to for the next chapter. It's like looking at a sea of mist, and seeing a tree in the distance, and walking towards it. These signposts often come to me just after I finish my writing on Friday, and I scribble them down and come back to them on Monday morning, and set off towards them. I'm reminding myself that I have to raise the stakes for my character: so that the forces against him grow in strength and threat. It's a hard balance to strike.