Sunday, December 22, 2013

Starts of Novels

Between 1995 and 2002 I completed seven novels. Along the way, I've started quite a few more: and more recently, around 2008, I finished an 8th, though at under 30,000 words I guess that's a novella.

I just discovered the manuscript of my first one - written when  I was 23-24. I didn't know how to write a novel (who does?) but I'd got an idea, and reckoned that if I wrote 12 chapters, 5000 words each I'd be close to finishing one. It ended up around 75,000 words, pretty much the longest thing I've ever written.

There's was a prologue that I added later - and I hate prologues - but it began simply, with an old man, Joshua Cathar (I've always been one for names that are a bit "leading") walking out one morning from his home (which we soon find out is a caravan.) At the same time, a younger man is opening up the newsagents, taking in the papers and organising the paper boys. It was all written in a slightly convoluted third person.

My second novel had a slightly different structure. A man wakes up, and misses something. His old dog, who usually sleeps beside him, has sloped off. It turns out not to be a good sign. Its again early morning, and he drives down to where he grew up. The novel then alternates between past and present - third person past, first person present. This book was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize in 1995 and made me think I should take this writing seriously.

However, the next book took on board the "readers report" from the 1995 prize which criticised, I think, the dual narrative as being unecessary. I tried to write something very straight. Its an awful book, little shy of 50,000 words, but with nothing to recommend it other than some competent writing. It begins in as nondescript a way as possible in the office of a Midlands' engineering firm.

I knew I wanted to write something longer, more serious, wider ranging - and had applied to do an M.A. The novel I wrote on that course starts in a particular time and place - on Hungerford Bridge across the Thames on the afternoon of the election in 1997. The novel ebbs and flows like the river, and ends on the riverbank six months later. (Structure's always been important to me.) Another leading name -: the lead character, Adam Challis, and though its 3rd person its a localised one, as we rarely stray from his point of vision.

Whilst I waited for that to get published or rejected (the latter), I entered - and was shortlisted for - the Lichfield Prize again. This time with a sort of comedy. This, my fifth novel, had a first person female narrator, but actually had several different sections that were in different styles and tenses.

Around the same time - but I think afterwards - I wrote what was probably my first non-realistic novel, again a short one - and this was done in best part of three months - and all takes place on a single day (as my debut had.) In this case, a man arrives in a particular environment and his arrival upsets the balance, leading to a day of escalating chaos.

Number 7, and the last one for a few years, was an experimental montage - 250 individually titled sections, almost like a non-fiction miscellany - and not obviously connected to each other. Was it even a novel? Perhaps, perhaps not....  I'd reached the end of something I think.

The eighth novel - a novella, like my second, began, as you are never supposed to, with a man waking up. This time the missing body in his room isn't his beloved dog, but his wife who has gone to American for a conference. In the week that follows his life unravels. A dark comedy, I guess, and again 3rd person.

So I'm not sure what any of this proves - other than that I go back to my old tropes (maybe if any had been published I'd have tried harder to differentiate.). I think, though you can start a novel with a good line, (my 6h begins: "There were two deaths on Badger Farm that Tuesday, not including the dog"), I've seen beginnings as just that, a chance to set out time and place, and character. Though my stories have sometimes been elliptical my longer works rarely have. Thinking about them I can't help but notice that I do like structure. Two take place in a single day; one over a specific week. All are in the present, (or the present at the time of writing), though several have flashbacks of sorts.  

I'm trying to write something new; after a few false starts. I'm not sure the beginning matters that much, though its what sticks with you. It helps if the writing is good of course; and maybe the first chapter rather than the first line is what matters. And as I've been singularly unsuccessful in publishing any of them, perhaps I'm just getting it all hopelessly wrong anyway. 

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