Friday, 27 January 2012

Breaking up is so hard to do

I've been dismembering one of my books, painstakingly taking it apart, page by page, so that each comes away from the glue of the spine cleanly, a perfect rectangle. It's a strange, not entirely comfortable, feeling. The book in question is a paperback copy of The Witness, my post-Scottish-independence thriller. I'm doing it because I no longer have an electronic version and the only way I can get the book onto Kindle is to have the text scanned and create a new file from it.
As I remove the pages I can't help pausing when my eye is caught by a passage or turn of phrase I remember particularly well or am especially proud of. I find myself reliving the pleasure of writing it, and this throws into relief the dilemma I face at the moment: should I abandon the novel I've been writing for the last four years? I wrote here last year that 'the story demands to be finished. It’s a living, growing thing, and to let it wither on the vine would be tantamount to abortion. I feel morally obliged to it, such is the power and energy of story.'
Hmm ... now I'm not so sure. I think perhaps that this particular story has lost its energy. More than that, I wonder about its relevance to me in 2012. When I started it, in 2008, I had recently published two novels in quick succession, both of which had been critically well received. A third in the same general genre - the young adult thriller - seemed the obvious thing to do, especially for someone whose literary career to date had followed a random trajectory to say the least.
I had two ideas gnawing at me. One was to mine the diaries I had written nearly 40 years previously, during a year travelling on a shoestring through Latin America. The other was to examine the impulses that make someone steal. As a small boy at boarding school I had stolen sweets, sometimes from the large jar of favours that sat in the headmaster's study (fair game one might say), sometimes, much more shamefully, from other boys. I had been caught and beaten for it and it had troubled me, intermittently, ever since. What, at that moment in my life, had made me do something I had never done before and have never done since?
My story, The Artefact, concerns a precocious eight-year-old who is taken by his parents on a scientific expedition to Amazonia where the whole family suffers a trauma. Later, back in Scotland and growing up neglected by his work-obsessed parents, he starts to steal compulsively. This leads him into bad company and worse trouble. By the time he is about to leave school he is staring into the abyss. It comes to him that he has been cursed, that the only way to get out of trouble and rid himself of the compulsion is to return to South America and right a wrong he had committed there as a child, ten years earlier.
Although I’ve written around 70,000 words, hardly any of that has been over the last two years. Other commitments and interests have taken over, not least Room 121, the business book I co-wrote with John Simmons, and this blog. Dipping back into The Artefact now, some of it seems good, some less so, but - and this may just be the time of year, though I suspect not - it feels stale; the thought of returning to it does not make my pulse race. I know that to finish it is still several months' work. Then there's the thorny question of whether to find a publisher or self-publish. There’s promotion - can I face, indeed do I have the time for, touring the secondary schools again. And there’s the commitment to a follow-up, pretty much a given should I find a publisher.
  To some extent the project has already done its job. I’ve come to understand through the research and writing that in certain circumstances stealing can offer a form of comfort and a sense of self-connection - an explanation certainly, if not an exoneration. I’ve also discovered that my South American material bears revisiting, and there are other arenas in which I could re-work it, this blog for example. Yet a year ago a prominent children’s author for whom I have great respect, insisted that I finish it and paid me the compliment of saying that the kind of books I write are important to their audience.
So I’m stuck. Should I finish it simply because it's there? I need some other opinions – including yours, Dear Readers. I'm posting the first couple of chapters here to give a flavour of The Artefact. If you can spare a few moments, please read them and help me decide: carry on or let go?


Neil said...

Jamie, I will read those chapters and get back to you. What a dilema! It's such a commonly offered piece of advice that the writer must gird the loins and keep hammering away at the keyboard. But is it always valid?

I'd never tell anyone to give up a project; the spark that brings it all alive again for you may just be a matchbox away. But I will say this, having seen you talk through a drunken fug (mine, not yours) about your days on the road in South America, and having read your Spanish travelogue, I'd say you have a memoir that needs to be written.

Moreover, if your promotional tour involved you reading from the book and singing some of the songs you wrote on the road, that would be entertainment indeed. I'd buy a ticket.

Katrina Gordon said...

You should most definitely NOT finish the book "just because it's there", but I think you should finish it because you want to... But only if YOU want to.
I've read three of your books, Jamie - one for kiddies, one for teens and one for adults. Without exception, they were spell-bindingly good. If you want to finish your book, you will. And if you do choose to finish it, I have no doubt that it will be a great read.
If you decide not to finish it, you'll do something else instead, and that will be equally successful, because that's the type of person you are. Good luck! Toss a coin if you're still not sure... ;) Kx

Row said...

You write beautifully that much is fact, my gut feeling though is if your heart isn't truly in it, then perhaps it's not the time to tell that story just yet.

Why not try what Katrina suggested, with regards to her tossing a coin to decide what to do. If you don't like the answer and decide to give it a best of three chance then you know that you disagree with whatever answer it gave you in the first place.

I should point out many of my decisions are based on the tossing of a coin, and I once met a man whose entire train journey was spent for want of a better word, stalking me, all on the basis of the toss. You never know where it might lead you ...

Row x

Moira Munro said...

Here's my take on it for now, though I look forward to reading your draft chapters.
Doing anything from "oughts" or "shoulds" is constraining. It strangles any sense of drive, passion - the racing pulse thing. It may be that you actually do have a passion for this project but you can't access it because there's all these veils of obligation and duty between you and it. At least that's what I see in the words you use in this blog post. It may be you have a passion for the story but there's a really thick veil representing some need for school visits and the obligation to write a sequel: if so, how true is that? You also seem to treat your stories as entities with feelings: you feel bad about tearing the pages off one book, abandoning another. You could go down two roads: a) reflect on the truth that your story is NOT a person, and you are free to do what you like with it, with no moral obligations, or b) if your story was a woman, would you give her your commitment if you felt for her as blank, or negative, as you do for this story? Or would you part ways, acknowledging the good times you've had together (because you say this story has already done its job for you). I suggest the way forward is to try and catch all your constraining thoughts, including any not very pretty ones, and see how they will inevitably point to what's important to you deep down, and this may bring you clarity and make the heart race one way or another.
Hope this doesn't sound to bull-shitty, but you may not be surprised if people don't want to give you straight answers!

silli gilli said...

Well that's just great isn't it, tease us with enough that we want to know the story but sounds like there's a chance we never hear the ending? Whit's hodding ye back? Sounds like excuses tae me. It's true that if yer heart isny in it, it might no be yer best work, but if ye canny find a way to forgive yer own sel for not finishing it and freeing yersel wholeheartedly tae spread yer Jamie magic in other ways, it will remain a wee niggle til the end of time! Yer heart doesny always get it right, neither does yer head, i find yer tummy always tells ye whit tae dae. Listen tae yer tummy. You will feel what is right for you.

Stuart Delves said...

Jamie, you sure write a great adventure story. I want to know what happens next. I want to know what happens to Adam and his family. But I quite understand your dilemma and of course you must do what you really want to do, not what you feel duty-bound to. The energy has to be racing. There are ways of helping that of course - by introducing a new element to the story that effectively puts you the writer in the dark; that gives you the excitement of making the discovery of where the story is going. I remember Alexander Stuart (writer of that remarkable novel The War Zone) telling me how Graham Greene knew the peaks he needed to reach but didn't know what was in the valleys of his stories (and therein lay the excitement). When I was working on the stage adaptation of Riddley Walker with the late great Russell Hoban he told me that not only had it taken him five years to write the story and god knows how many drafts but that he'd actually ripped the whole thing up at one point. And then he discovered that remarkable broke down richer than anything language. And then Philip Pullman at Merton on last year's Dark Angels Master Class telling us how it took 17 drafts before the idea of the daemon emerged and Pantalaimon joined Lyra in the hall of Jordan College. Both Riddley's language and Pullman's daemons are devices that took the stories in new directions that the authors didn't know where they might lead. Hoban had this view of all his novels and stories which I found really illuminating and exciting. So maybe you know your story too well, know where it's heading and maybe that's part of the problem (it's too mapped out). What about if Adam had an impediment, fits say? Or the gift of second sight? A missing finger? Something that you don't know the answer to (yet) or that will take you somewhere you don't know where (yet). Hope that's of help! All best, Stuart

Phil Brammer said...

I am currently absorbed in the movie. Even as an outsider I'm finding it surreal. A great find, Jamie. Thanks for the link!