Writing the Unconscious: What happened after I finished Novel 1

 

We are constantly telling stories. The unconscious wants coherence.  And so we fill the spaces with narrative.

Beginning, middle, end.

I have to stop myself, sometimes. I catch the writer in me wanting a midpoint. A moment of dramatic reversal. 

A year ago, with the help of a wonderful developmental editor, I finished writing my first novel. I remember her asking me afterwards if I missed my characters. How I felt about all that work and then the moving on.

In all honesty it was a relief. The novel had started to feel like a noose around my neck, preventing me from exploring other forms.

After I was done, I queried literary agents and came across tons of brilliant resources for querying writers,

like this video: 

and this blogpost

and this podcast.

I spoke to family and friends, I gathered my strength and sent out around 20 queries.

I waited.

But no one took the bait.

I did however receive some valuable feedback from one agency, the people who represent Damian Le Bas who wrote the The Stopping Places *

My novel is set in modern (and 1960s) Spain with a cast of almost entirely Spanish characters. 

The agency said they’d enjoyed my writing but didn’t think they could sell this book to a UK audience. They asked me to send them the next one once it’s written. Two other UK agencies responded similarly.  (Gimme a sec, I felt like saying, I’ll just whip it out from a drawer!)

So, I stopped waiting for agency replies and started experimenting with poetry and short fiction.

Short stories are a technical challenge. A person can tinker with them for days or weeks, sometimes getting stuck on a paragraph or sentence where nothing seems to work. But I’ve found that if I show up day after day – if I keep going – the story, eventually rights itself, like a ship heading back on course.

The waves of my subconscious are calmer when I write. As I start on novel 2, the bulk of the work seems to happen when I leave my desk. The body moves and the mind loosens its grip. Some problems are practical: How old are my characters? How do they speak? Chunks of imagery or dialogue present themselves when I’m out walking or in a downward-facing dog. Words seem to dance through the mind like a song. 

Short story writing has taught me to be tight about sentences but a novel first draft is an outpouring that I try to let spill as it will. Listening hard to how my characters want to tell it because if I plan too much, I might just quash their mood. (This is a great resource from writer Lauren Sapala about keeping things alive and not dampening our ideas with too much preparation…)

I’ve set myself the goal of a messy first draft by Christmas. Readers of my blog, family and friends: please keep me accountable. 🙂

With love, as always

Josephine

 

*(a memoir about growing up in the UK Gypsy community and the author’s revisiting of the ‘stopping places’ of his childhood. Incredible book! My stand-out read of the pandemic.)

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

Readers, writers, poets, actors, artists, what are you working on? Feel free to comment below…

 

If you enjoyed this post feel free to get in touch via Twitter here , and you can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  

 

Advertisement

When the Earth breathed

river

They say that creatures, usually shy and prone to verges, walked cock-sure into cities and sniffed the air

And birds circled above airports, painting journeys into empty streams of sky.

There was an opening,

despite the closures,

In every living room a bargaining with the self, a move towards the possible,

(beyond the tryings of the mind.)

They say that even as men and women lay frail, recognition flashed across their faces, as they absorbed the efforts of hospital-workers, taxi-drivers

Dedication reigned. In supermarkets, pharmacies, in ordinary apartments

People sat still and… zoomed,

reached o’er-washed hands across the void and remembered that touch is also metaphysical.

In every twitter feed and insta show, in all the whatsapp chats:

this new world unpicked, re-understood.

Trees swayed easy from the lack of traffic fume

As the readers and the listeners drank from this seclusion

like milk

A tiny virus, spikey as a medieval morning star

was harming and enjoining, harming and enjoining

Entreating all to only think of

It.

Rivers meandered, unpolluted

Children danced on their own, not immune but almost so, and the elderly took extra steps

One morning the caretaker of our apartment building said his mother died

the week before in Kerala.

I could not cry, he said. Could not go home to say goodbye.

Ocean galloped to shore.

Okay, it said, sonorous, and grey

Okay, said the spray

Leaders showed themselves in all colours

Rainbows drawn by children dried to crisps

in the sunshine of watched-through windows

Parks shone, un-littered emerald, their silence only pandered to by rain

And the streets housed an Edward Hopper Sunday glow,

all lines and light without much traffic, onward flight.

It was a time, they said, when the Earth began to breathe again

Released its ever outward prayer,

Received the purest inward air.

Developing Voice: How a singing teacher coached me into writing

bird

Yesterday I clicked on a Twitter post without reading the intro. I saw ‘Writing’ and ‘Advice’ and thought: This one’s for me. I must have been two paragraphs in when I realised I’d read this writer’s work before.

I glanced at his name and yes, I was reading the Internet’s Chuck Wendig. Instantly recognisable, his style mixes zany metaphors with random phrases. Like some kind of surrealist stand-up, it all feels crazy and at the same time serious and to the point.  If you want to get a sense of Wendig’s work, you can read his writing advice here.

One of the reasons I think his prose is popular is that he has mastered Voice. And Voice is one of those elusive things like Grace or the joy of two drops of rain in Muscat that almost defies description.

One Cambridge winter, before I’d started to sit down regularly to write, I saw an advert for a small adult choir based in one of the colleges. I was excited, a little apprehensive and went to the audition to sing my piece.

My hands fluttered as I battled through my chosen tune, trying to project my voice, only having sung for fun, I felt unsure of what I was doing.

You sang quite nicely,’ said the choir director,  ‘But I could hardly hear you. Work with me and you’ll be fit for the choir in no time.’

For the following few weeks she gave me terrifying private lessons. She taught me like the opera singer that she was, correcting my posture, the shape of my mouth, my pronunciation, stopping the piano and starting again, giving me homeworks of repeated trills which I feared might alienate my housemates forever.

But by the end of the month something had shifted. I didn’t join the choir although I had learnt a few skills, and I didn’t continue with the teacher. What changed is that I no longer felt afraid to sing in front of others.

When I consider written Voice, I think, of this. The willingness to show who you are.

It comes through in the words we choose, how we order sentences, the topics we want to explore, our humour, the rhythm of our prose and like singing, we can only control the sound we make up to a point. Half of it is in the ear of the reader.

Even if I disagree with him and Stephen King about adverbs (another blog post entirely), I think people like to read Chuck Wendig because he is being who he is without apology and that comes through in his Voice.  Becoming acquainted with, practising, and enjoying, one’s own writing Voice fulfills an important function for the reader.

When I lived in Greece, I shared an apartment with a couple. One evening they invited a friend over. I sat with them but my limited Greek made conversation difficult. The friend had a beautiful speaking voice. The kind of voice you can sit and listen to and never get tired, like the rush of bird’s wings when they take off all at once. I kept thinking, I’ll go back to my part of the apartment soon but I kept stalling and it was 1am by the time I retired to my room.

A well-modulated voice is pleasing to the ear. It’s much easier to capture what a person is trying to say when the tone is regular, the diction coherent.

Most writers I speak to have something burning to convey in their work. When I first started writing my novel in 2015, I too had an idea for a story but my message was weak. It’s only as I figured out the themes behind the action -what mattered to me most -that I felt able to start working on a suitable Voice for my novel.

Voice grows as we use it, shedding the fear again and again that how we come across is somehow not okay. Too this, or not enough that.

And it’s vital in allowing us to convey the thing we want to say.

When I think of my favourite novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Disgrace by J.M Coetzee, they are filled with great stories and memorable characters but without a carrying Voice in each of these, I would not have got past page one.

Advice-givers often tell writers to ‘fake it till you make it’; ‘if you haven’t found your own voice, just copy another writer’. Reading widely is undoubtedly a good idea but if we look outside ourselves for who we are, we’re liable to focus so hard on another’s melody we end up writing out of tune.

That evening in Greece, the thing I enjoyed about the way my friend spoke is that it was unique. I had never heard another person sound like this. Speaking from our authentic selves is powerful because it gives everyone else permission to do the same. The writer who is centred in Voice is trusting us with who they are. Without copying or hiding or feigning.

Voice takes practice, reading aloud if that’s your thing, confidence that the energy coming from  inside is more real than what others think about it. This is the paradox, for the closer we get to expressing our truth, the more it resonates with others. And the beautiful thing about writing is that no one needs to hear it till you’re ready.

If we imagine a conversation with someone we know, how do we know when they’re being truthful, genuine, real? What are the ways in which they speak which make us want to listen?  Or ‘read on’? My guess is that the answer to all of these is when our friends or writers or any folk are being most themselves.

If we listen hard enough we will hear this unmistakably in their Voice.

Dear readers, I’m going to be giving this blog a rest for a few weeks while I do an editing job on draft two of my novel. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch via Twitter here , and you can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  That way you’ll be notified when the blog’s up and running again 🙂

The stories only you can tell

M Mahal

Writing a novel is hard. I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky. It’s hard because it asks for everything you’ve got. Like trying to catch the world with a net: a lovely idea but daunting to know where to begin.

18 months ago I began writing a mystery set in Madrid. In January, I thought I’d done it. I closed the program, wrote a synopsis and sent it all to a publisher who had shown interest in my work at a Writer’s Festival .

I waited a month. No answer. I scanned through blogs which said ‘don’t nag editors and agents’ so I didn’t. Unwilling to take the rejection personally,  I thought, ‘Oh well, editors are  busy’, or ‘perhaps my novel isn’t up to much’. I worked elsewhere, convinced myself that once done, my book shouldn’t be revisited, after all I’d given it my best shot.

And then something strange started happening. Driving, teaching, chatting with friends, I couldn’t stop thinking about my story.  Not the plot (that’s a different problem!) but the thing I wanted to say, what’s mine.

I remembered the author Neil Gaiman said:

‘Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.’

And then I twigged. As much as I didn’t relish revisiting the novel I had put months of work into, I had no choice but to return to it if I wanted to air its story.

‘I’ve always felt you unearth story, like you’re on an archaeological dig’ wrote Stephen King in his seminal work, ‘On Writing’.

My story kept glinting from the earth, would not leave me alone. I couldn’t not write it.

So one morning last week, into my kindle,  like a kind of miracle arrived ‘Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel’ by Roz Morris, a guide so comprehensive that by the end of it I knew technically what I needed to do. I had a plan, a decision to go back to ground level, unearth the fossil of my tale and make it matter to a reader.

Writing a novel is hard, I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky, but the alternative is keeping something inside that only I am in a position to share. My story.

What would you do?