My brain is borken

I think I know why this book is taking so long to write. This morning, I spent half an hour rewriting one sentence. The finished sentence is: “The hard ache of missing Rowan had intensified, day by day, since they’d parted.” Not really worth the time investment, as I’m sure you’ll notice. But it started out life as: “She missed Rowan terribly since they’d been apart.” Now I don’t hate adverbs, but the one in that sentence (“terribly”) was propping up a weak-ish verb (“missed”), so I was casting about for a good verb that meant “missed terribly” and couldn’t find one. So I sat here with my eyes closed and imagined missing my own daughter (picture lady in dressing gown, eyes screwed tight, trying to imagine child isn’t in next bedroom). Then I got the idea of an ache, but not a soft sort of bruising or tender ache. Kind of like swallowing around a stone. So I did the whole “stone in her heart” thing but it seemed a bit overused (by me), so then I just put the words “hard ache” together and liked them. So had to rearrange the sentence.

Then I realised I needed to signal to the reader (who hasn’t been in this character’s viewpoint for a while) that the reason she’s missing Rowan so much is that some time has passed. At first I wrote “in the week since…” But again, it was too literal or something. So I tried “moment by moment”. God help me, I’ll admit it, I even tried “moment by agonising moment” but that seemed to go against what I was really trying to say, which was that it hurt but she was getting by. Also, talking in moments meant I could have been suggesting only a few hours had passed. So then I came up with “day by day” and I liked that. It indicates enough time passing, and it has a lovely rhythm and a stoked energy without the hysteria of “day after day”. Also, the parenthetical commas make it sit just outside the sentence, and emphasise the idea and the rhythm neatly.

So then I just had to organise the parts of the sentence so that they fit together without being too complex, because I don’t want the reader to stumble on the sentence. That is, for all the work I put into it, the sentence should really be invisible, imparting a brief impression perhaps, then disappearing behind the next sentence. Finally, I changed “been apart” to “parted”, just on the old advice that if the verb “to be” is anywhere in a sentence you should see if you can get rid of it. I’m still not sure on that, though. “Apart” is actually a more elegant word, so I might change it back when I have another spare half hour.

I must stress that I don’t do this with every sentence, but I do like to nail the emotional lives of my characters. I guess I could just keep writing, finish the damn book, and fix it in the edit; but sometimes if the sentence works okay (“She missed Rowan terribly since they’d been apart”) you might not notice it in the edit. There’s nothing wrong with that sentence; there’s nothing missing from it. But if I hadn’t spent the time on it, there’d be a tiny sliver of shininess lost from the story forever.

So, yeah, expect the book no time soon.

My magic trick

It works like this. I get up in the early morning, while it’s still a little dark. I tiptoe past the kids’ room and shut myself in my study. Then I start wA family at the beach in 1930riting. And words come. They don’t sit dammed up in my brain behind that invisible forcefield. They come out of my head, down my arms, into my fingers, out onto the keyboard, and appear on the screen. They come in their hundreds and sometimes in their thousands. Then I stop at breakfast time and get on with my day.

I’ve always been an early-morning writer, and I’m so pleased to be back in this space. Having suffered horrifically through the editing process (see below) it’s such a wonderful feeling of liberty to be writing forward again. The settings and characters are coming alive in my imagination, seeming more real every day. I have certainly written my way back in to this story.

Next weekend I’m off on a research trip in Tasmania. This is the first time I’ve researched Australian history for a story, and I’ve surprised myself by how fascinated I am. I managed to get hold of a book called E. A. Hoppe’s Australia, which is a collection of photographs taken over one year (1930) by a German photographer, and I’ve spent many hours poring over the pictures, soaking up the feeling, looking for those little details that will add the feeling of “realness” to the story.  In most photos, there are people looking back at me, and I’m trying to imagine them in those moments. What they were thinking, feeling; how each of their senses were engaged in that split-second when the shutter-eye closed and opened again. Slowly, but surely, I am falling under this story’s spell. And it’s wonderful.

Adventures in first person

Have you tried first, second, and third? No, not bases. Persons? I’m talking viewpoint, not teenage sex (that should get me a few extra hits this week).

After feeling despondent about my first chapter of my new book, I had a 3am epiphany about what was wrong with it. I had written it in 3rd person (“she did this, she did that”) when I really should have written it in 1st person (“I did this, I did that”). All right, it wasn’t so much an epiphany as a strong suspicion, and the only way to test if I were right was to rewrite it. I balked at this of course. I am Dr Decisive when it comes to writing (usually, until book #20 stole my mojo), so it was very painful for me to have to go back to the drawing board over such a small mechanical thing.

But wait, not so fast. Not such a small mechanical thing at all. Not just changing the pronouns. Because I chose to rewrite rather than just edit, I found that the moment I switched into first person, good stuff started to happen.

You see, the usual argument over whether to choose first or third person is simple, and goes like this:
First person = direct & engaging, but limited access
Third person = great access, but loss of directness
Second person = only crazy people write this way

I’ve never had much trouble creating a direct, emotional connection in third person, so it’s my usual preference. But on this occasion, I found that using first person forced me to account more fully for the character’s feelings and motivations; that I couldn’t gloss over anything anymore; that I had to be specific. Compare for yourself:

Beattie Blaxland had dreams. Big dreams. Fashions and fabrics and fortune. In her hurley bed, rolled out on the floor of her parents’ room in their finger-chilling tenement flat, she imagined in vivid, yearning detail a future version of herself: poised, proud, almost regal. She had never imagined-nor believed it possible-that she would find herself pregnant to her married lover at the age of only eighteen.

I had dreams. Big dreams. Not the confused patchwork dreams that invade sleep. No, these were the dreams with which I comforted myself before sleep, in my hurley bed rolled out on the floor of my parents’ finger-chilling tenement flat. Vivid, yearning dreams. A life of fashion and fabrics; and fortune of course. A life where the dismal truth about my dismal family could never touch me again. One thing I never dreamed was that I would find myself pregnant to my married lover, just before my nineteenth birthday. All through February, I obsessively counted the weeks and counted them again, bending my mind backwards, trying to make sense of the dates. My stomach flipped at the smell of food, my breasts grew tender and, by the first of March, I had finally come to believe that  a child-that Henry MacConnell’s child-was growing inside me.

Please don’t take this to mean that I think all stories should be written in first person: far from it. First person has massive pitfalls, especially for the inexperienced writer (where every first person character winds up sounding exactly the same as the others). But this actual switch of perspective has me feeling like I’m inside the story well and truly now, that it’s possible to write it well and on time, and that I will enjoy the company of my latest imaginary friend.