So, it’s not shocking to me that I only got to Day 8 with my Daily Writes series. I had great intentions, but not a huge amount of time or headspace, given that I’m working a full-time job that’s all about writing, and writing a novel in my spare time. Writing about writing every day on top of that was too much, so I went in the other direction and put my blog out of my mind altogether, mostly so I could concentrate on what was turning out to be a very difficult third book to write. Not that any book is easy to write, but I was facing different challenges and fears with this one than I did with the previous two novels.
Essentially my big worry was story. Having written two novels that had strong concepts as the narrative driving force, I’m now writing a book that doesn’t have a concept and is essentially about a relationship between two people and how forces beyond them affect it. My big fear was (and is) that I won’t be able to get the reader to keep turning the pages. In my previous books, literally every 1,000 words, I posed some sort of question so the reader would want to see what happens next, and in writing this one I felt I didn’t have enough action for those questions to pop up.
I’m trying to let go of having to rely action – the desire for big things to happen and obstacles to propel my protagonist’s story forward. This is a quiet story, and I have to trust that my reader will be so invested in my characters that they will want to see what happens to them without being prodded along with the ‘what happens next?’ structure. I am two-thirds way through my first draft, and in the process am getting to know and deeply care about my characters, and I want to see what happens to them (at this point, I don’t know how this book is going to end). I’m hoping this will translate to my editor, and after a couple more drafts, to my readers.
THE FIRST PERSON DILEMMA
The poet and novelist Mary Dorcey was chatting to me today about writing in the first person, as opposed to the third person. She said, ‘Writing in the third person, you get width. Writing in the first person, you sacrifice width for intensity.”
It’s true. My first novels, the published and unpublished ones, were all in the third person. They were all ensemble novels, with groups of characters, so it made sense to tell their stories from the outside looking in (third person), rather than from the inside looking out (first person).
I wanted to do something different with my new book, to challenge myself and tell story in a new (for me) way, so I’ve chosen a first person narrative. This comes with a set of problems, not least of which is that I can’t reveal the inner workings or points of view of the other characters in the book. They all have to be filtered through my narrator.
Part of me is scared that by writing in the first person, I might not have enough story to stretch over 100,000 compelling words. But then I think of Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch, which is a first person narrative stretched over 771 mostly compelling pages (dare I break with the critical cabal and say that it got annoyingly repetitive in the endless middle section?), and I think I can maybe stretch to 400. I certainly have a strong concept with plenty of conflict to keep it rolling along.
What I’m loving about writing in the first person is how I’m getting to know my narrator, Michael Ryan, so quickly. With the other books, it wasn’t really until I was writing the final chapters that I fell in love with my gangs of third-person characters. I’d done all the character work (more of which later, I promise!), I knew their likes, dislikes, contradictions, paradoxes and what they had in their fridges, but it took a long time of writing them from the outside looking in to make me really get under their skins.
Writing in the first person, you are under you character’s skin from the outset. In a way that character is you, and you are him, or her. Michael Ryan is nothing like me, but he is me, and I am him. I’m liking the process of revealing him, to myself, and the world.
If you haven’t read Mary Dorcey, you should. She’s up there with Colm Toíbín and Emma Donoghue as one of Ireland’s foremost LGBT writers.
Write What You Know
Before I started this book, I was writing another one. I’d got about 20,000 words in when I admitted to myself it wasn’t working. My publisher liked the idea, and my editor was encouraging, but I found myself putting off writing it even more than usual. It was the story of a two sisters and a brother in crisis, after a sibling they never knew about turns up out of the blue, revealing a secret history of their now-deceased, beloved mother. A good idea, but no matter how I tried to make myself excited about it, I couldn’t.
My previous two books are also ensemble novels – telling the stories of groups of people, with one of them getting more chapters than the others, thereby becoming the main protagonist. The characters in them were nothing like me, and came entirely from my imagination, as were the sisters and brothers of my untitled book. I didn’t follow the ‘write what you know’ advice often given to first time writers. Instead I wrote what I didn’t know, and it worked.
But this time, when I decided to give up the manuscript I was working on, I came to the conclusion that it is time to write what I know. Perhaps I wasn’t doing it because I was afraid of delving into myself too much, afraid that what I knew wasn’t enough to flesh out a whole story over 100,000 words.
During radio, television and print interviews for my second book, Knowing Me Knowing You, I was repeatedly asked about being a gay father, to tell the story of how I had my son, my relationship with his mother, how I came out to him, and other details. There were no stories about gay parenthood in the book, and I was uncomfortable about the interviews. I wanted to talk about the book, not me.
When I discarded the 20K words I’d already written, I was casting around for an idea, getting freaked out because I had nothing to work on. I met my editor for coffee and she said to me, what about being a gay dad. You know about that, and maybe it will bring something new to the table if you explore it.
That night I woke at 3am out of a dream and the idea for this book, perfectly rounded, with a beginning middle and end, came to me. So, I’m writing about what I know, and even if it’s as hard as writing any other book, I’m sure I’m on the right track.
All was not lost with the first attempt. I’ve been able to salvage some of the character work I did in advance of writing (I’ll talk about this in a later blog entry), to flesh out the supporting cast for my pair of gay dads, negotiating parenthood in a world that doesn’t fully understand them. I know all about that.
An email from my editor today, in response to a needy, insecure one from me: “Once you find the truth of this book – what it is you want to risk saying – it will come, but it’s a horrible process to get there. So, consider emulating someone you think does it well until you find your feet…”
This is good advice. For my first novel, I began by emulating Armistead Maupin (author of the ‘Tales of the City’ books), with lots of snappy dialogue to describe action, and quick brushstrokes to describe place and atmosphere. But the final book didn’t end up reading like Armistead Maupin (although he remained a large influence on both my first books).
I know exactly the moment I found my own voice for it, in a scene when one of my character’s fathers was having a stroke. It was a slightly comedic scene (if you can believe it), but the emotional core of it rang absolutely true to me.
I realised that the book, although ostensibly about a group of friends who form a film club, was about parents, and at the heart of it were my feelings about my own parents. This allowed me to clarify who I was in the context of writing, and when I went back to reshape the second and third drafts, I was much more confident in and grounded in that voice.
So, the first draft of this book, as in any other book, is about finding the truth. It’s also about writing forward and trusting that the truth will come.