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Novel writing: Learning the hard way

by Gary Kemble

There are writers who hone their skills writing short stories, attend a few workshops to network and learn a few tricks, and then sit down and tackle the biggie, the novel-length manuscript.

Then there's people like me. Compulsive novelists. Over the past 10 years I've written or co-written five novel-length manuscripts, all but one rejected. I've had a lot of fun, but if I had my decade over again I might do things a bit differently.

Think there's nothing worth knowing from a failed novelist? Think again.

 

1. The Bane of Monkeys' Bladders: In the mid-to-late 90s I had the brainwave of turning a pile of letters between myself and two close friends (Derek Lane and David Beutel) into a novel. If you've read Zigzag Street and He Died With a Felafel in His Hand you know the territory. There's babes, heartbroken losers, cabs plummeting off the Great Australian Bight.

When it was done, we figured we would pique the interest of publishers with a postcard campaign. A series of riddles, based on the book's cryptic title. Duffy and Snellgrove was the only one that bit, and after taking a look at the ms they passed.

Lessons: Gimmicks don't seal book deals. In fact, anecdotal evidence I've come across since then suggests all gimmicks do is piss off busy people. Chances are, Duffy and Snellgrove would have responded in much the same way to a well-crafted pitch.

The most important thing I took from Bane was that writing a novel isn't something other people do, it's something I can do. One hundred and twenty thousand words, and the only bits that hurt were the hangovers after our "editing" sessions.

(Speaking of gimmicks, you can check out the remains of a promotional website -- as far as I know the only promotional website for a book never published -- here.)

 

2. Joe's Bazaar: After amassing about 30-or-so rejection letters for Bane and its numerous incarnations, Derek and I teamed up to write a collection of tales of the bizarre. Set in a dingy second-hand shop, each story is about an item for sale. But, like The X-Files, there were bigger story arcs, detailing Joe's conflict with corrupt cops and the Melbourne underworld.

By this stage few publishers were accepting unsolicited manuscripts, so we decided we'd sweeten the odds by paying for a manuscript assessment. In the bravado of youth we expected Driftwood to tell us it was the best thing they'd ever read. Instead they pointed out numerous problems standing between Joe's Bazaar and commercial success. We weren't prepared to compromise on our artistic vision. Further down the track, I paid for a QWC editorial consultation, which highlighted more issues with the ms and how I was pitching it. Again, I chose to ignore this advice.

Lessons: Don't ask for advice when you're not prepared to take it. (It's even worse when you've paid for the advice!) You have to accept that most publishers exist to make money. They want books that will sell, and reputable manuscript appraisers and editorial consultants are in the business of knowing what sells.

But I also learnt the joy of pulling out the stops and letting my imagination run wild - possessed Rastafarian hats, the truth behind the disappearance of Harold Holt, zombies on Lygon St - nothing was off limits. It was a truly invigorating experience.

(Check out the East Brunswick News for more info! Alternatively, you can try picked up a back issue of Borderlands, which features my short story "Black", which was originally intended for JB.)

 

3. Drift: While living in the UK I wrote a science fiction novel set during a future ice age, in a London buried beneath a massive slab of permafrost.

Around the same time, I'd read Stephen King's On Writing. King doesn't plan. He figures if the writer knows what's going to happen, the reader will too. In this spirit, I powered through an average of 7,000 words a week for about four months, wrangling time-travelling British submariners from World War II, a ruthless minions of a totalitarian future world government, and of course the gun-toting, fast-talking heroes.

About halfway through it really started to hurt. I was trying to keep track of a cast of thousands, and I had no idea where I was going. I finished it, and over the course of many, many months I completed two serious rewrites. But the structural problems remain.

Lessons: I'm not Stephen King. Not even close. I would have been better off putting the brakes on in the early days and figuring the whole thing out, doing the necessary research, before continuing.

But I also gained the confidence to know I can write a novel-length manuscript by myself. Even if the words aren't combined in that skilful a manner, it still gives you this warm glow inside to know you've churned out 140,000 of them!

 

4. Not Even Brisbane: I'd been complaining to my wife that Andrew McGahan's Praise is brilliant, but the suffering he details is still trendy in a grungy kind of way. What about the skull-cracking, beige Formica-ed boredom of growing up in the ‘burbs? My wife said I should write that book, so I tried.

It was about 10 weeks out from the Vogel Award deadline, and I recalled reading that McGahan had written Praise in eight weeks. So I planned my chapters, did my research, and set about chronicling suburban entropy.

Lessons: I can do 10k a week, if I have too. But I'm not Andrew McGahan either. I didn't have the audacity or flagrant disregard for postage costs to enter Not Even Brisbane into the Vogel Award. It's still sitting 'in the bottom drawer'. I'm kind of scared to look.

 

5. The Devil Men: Derek and I had been talking about how Aboriginal myths and legends had not really entered into Australian popular culture in the same way as European folklore had. Derek had previously written a novel putting a modern spin on the story of the Bunyip, and I thought it was a great idea. So we took an Aboriginal myth and re-worked it into a horror novel.

It wasn't until we finished that we considered the implications of what we had done. In the meantime, Derek especially had done a lot of research into the plight of Australia's Indigenous people. He had reservations about the book and when I sat down and distanced myself from the 120,000 words we'd just written, I did too.

Lessons: There are protocols you can follow if you want to incorporate aspects of Indigenous culture into your writing (but that is an article in itself). In discussions with Derek, I also realised that stereotypes may exist in real life - for example, The Devil Men features an elderly Aboriginal man who is an alcoholic - but when the media is saturated with negative stereotypes of Indigenous Australians, do we really need more added to the pool?

I also learnt the joy of seeing a story through someone else's eyes and, if you know someone who you think you could write with, I thoroughly recommend it.

 

So, will I ever write a novel again? Yes. But I'm not going to rush into it. I'm going to plan, research, write, polish it until it shines, get some advice, listen to that advice and, when it's ready, send it out into the world with my best wishes!

 


First published in Writing Queensland, April 2007, and re-printed on the news blog Horror on the Vine (April, 2007).

Gary Kemble is a Brisbane-based writer and journalist, who is also founded Horror on the Vine. For more information, check out his web blog.

Document Created: 27th April, 2007 | Last Updated: 1st May, 2007