But I’m a novelist, damn it!

So, Beat. Sigh. I’ve let it sit, untouched, for six months. I haven’t thought about it (the actual book, not the getting published thing, that I’ve thought about, and how) at all. I haven’t wanted to. I’ve deliberately avoided any musings about the plot, the structure, the characters, all of it. I have, however, recently sent it to an editor in Perth whom I greatly respect and asked her to look at it for me. I sent her various chunks of feedback I’ve received in several rejections, most of which say the same thing:

It’s well written but hasn’t reached its potential. It doesn’t know what it is, one publisher told me.

So I packed it off to this editor, asked for her opinion, got back to my short stories, and forgot all about it until this weekend when I opened her email. And what she had to say is very interesting indeed. Firstly she concurred with the other professionals who’ve been interested enough to give me feedback:

You write extremely well.  Each sentence and paragraph and page and section is beautifully conceived, balanced and executed.  Your pacing, style, dialogue and characterisation are good.  You know how to handle transitions, flash backs and shifts between different narrative focalisations, rarely falling into the trap of leaking one focalisation into another as is so often the case with even experienced novelists…

Jeez, I needed to hear that! Of course what follows is several pages of what’s not working:

There’s not enough conflict. Can what I’ve set up really happen in real life? (It can, I researched it with an emergency doctor’s help, but if the reader doubts it then who cares, right?) Are the loose ends all tied up rather too neatly? Will the ending put off half my readership?

This editor also concurred with the other feedback I’ve received that what I have is quite unique, but that it needs a different dramatic arc. She also said that changing what I have is very very tricky and that in giving me guidance it’s the first time she’s been at a bit of a loss. And you know, even though it’d be great to get a concrete solution to all these problems, it kind of made me feel good. It means that what I have is different and that’s a good thing. Now I just have to make it better!

One of E’s suggestions was to turn it into a film script. This is not the first time I’ve heard this about my manuscript. Peter Bishop, from Varuna, also commented on how filmic it is, as did my sister, and CJ. I suppose coming from a theatre background like I do, it’s hardly surprising that I write long prose in this sort of style. I certainly did break down the chapters into very short scenes. And although I think this is one of the strengths of the book, I’m not ready to turn it into a film yet. Sure, if it gets published, becomes a huge hit, Hollywood buys the rights for 1.1 million dollars, why not? But until then…

Another suggestion that I read and immediately dismissed was that I turn it into a novella and add some short stories that fit with it and submit that. My mind immediately set itself to whine mode. But I want to be a novelist. I wrote a novel, damn it. I’M A NOVELIST! Once I subdued whine mode with several glasses of cheap wine, however, I began to see the wisdom in this suggestion. Beat is already very short (just under 70,000 words) and was always intended to be a short, punchy novel. It spans an hour and ideally the reader should be able to read it in an hour, but at the moment it’s too long for that. There is much I can remove from it and still keep the story.

I was recently longlisted for the Olvar Wood Fellowship and in their feedback they wrote: Beat is an immediate and engaging story… Ultimately we felt Beat did not quite deliver on its promising set-up. The beginning of the book has received nothing but praise from everyone who has read it. I do manage to keep up the pace for quite some time, and then I get into trouble and meander off into a rather unsatisfying ending. So why not chop it? Maybe that’s me trying to wheedle out of a great deal of hard work in restructuring the entire book, but I don’t think so. I really did want to write a novel – so much so that I’m prepared to put in many many more hours, months, years of hard work. But I also want to be true to the story, and the story really is there, it’s just surrounded by stuff that isn’t the story. See? I guess I better ponder ‘pon it some more.

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16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Love, My Book, Reading, Review, Short Stories, Submission, Theatre, Writing

16 responses to “But I’m a novelist, damn it!

  1. Simonne, I am having exactly the same problem with my book. Only there is a publisher (Overland) waiting over there at the end of the month for a finished copy. I’ve taken three months off, chopped the book in half & tried to revive it but it’s still beating me…isn’t it fu*king heartbreaking? Anyway, I enjoyed reading Desert Rain, and wonder if you might be interested in swapping manuscripts over the weekend…maybe the first few chapters?

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  2. Oh to have a publisher waiting at the other end!!!! (Although I have managed to convince one publisher to accept a new draft, so that’s something I suppose.)

    I’m glad you liked Desert Rain, despite its problems, thanks :).

    Yes, I’d love to swap manuscripts, or chapters, of course. New eyes are fresh eyes! Shall we bring in a few chapters for each other?

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  3. Simonne, a short novel with one or two stories, as in Delia Falconer’s Lost Thoughts of Soldiers? (140 pp. for the main title) – just a thought.

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    • Yep, that’s the suggestion that appeals the most. Malouf has a collection like that too. And, because I’ve spent the last 6 months or so writing short stories, I have quite a few now that really do go with the novel.

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  4. Hooray for the fabulous feedback and well done on being prepared to do the work. It sounds like you know exactly what Beat needs.

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  5. sandybarker

    What wonderful musings…this is all part of the re-draft…it will come to you – trust that – when you least expect it. The answer has been mulling away in the back of your mind and will work its way forward…get on with the stuff that you do know how to approach right now…let all this new feedback churn…wow…exciting times for you…

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  6. I am glad I’m not a novelist. It must be strange having so many people telling you what you are doing wrong and so few people going, “It is perfect, Simonne. Exactly the book you wanted to write and I wanted to read.” Which it is and you are fretting too much.

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    • Your faith in me is so very wonderful, Paul. Very few writers ever hear “it’s perfect”, and that’s so very far from what I expect to hear about this book! I don’t think I’m fretting too much, which isn’t to say that the whole thing isn’t fraught with a measure of terror! The thing is, it isn’t the book I wanted to write, not yet. That’s the thing about first drafts, they’re never what you think they are and you have to leave them for a while to be able to see it. 6 months has been a very healthy and helpful break!

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  7. I didn’t think 70,000 words was so very short… plenty of novellas are much shorter than that, honey. Hell, I lob off my first 80 pages and I’ll be right there in novella territory with you!! I also completely understand your attachment to the idea of The Novel. I think we all have it. It’s the Everest. But that’s a trap of sorts, too, and I’m glad you’re at least open to this other idea, even if you ultimately stick to your guns. Maybe just concentrate on your rewrite. If your redrafting is anything like mine, it’ll be so different after that you’ll wonder how you ever thought you could make a decision about it now. You may end up with a novella, you may end up with a novel. All that really matters is that you end up with a piece of work that one day says to you, ‘Yes, this is what I was always meant to be.’

    Love the excerpt, by the way. And congratulations – you’ve got great feedback, lots of approbation, a shortlisting and a resubmission agreement – awesome!

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  8. Ah, right. I missed that, I thought you were saying as a novella it was 70K and I thought, wha’?!

    My encouragement is one thing, and I’m so happy to think it helps, but look at all the encouragement from The Other Side – you’re rolling in it!!

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  9. Hi Simonne, I’m at a similar stage with Smoke+Dancing, the one I got into Varuna on. After a little bit of feedback I completely restructured it (and yes, it’s HARD). And I am happy to have gotten the ‘unique’ tag as well, it’s just – I have to make it work and be accessible and memorable… And I’m aware now that it probably still needs more work. It’s in someone else’s hands at the moment. Guess all we can do is absorb the feedback, mull it over, try different things. See you and Maxine tomorrow! x

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  10. The feedback is, indeed, promising, and more than that, really. As is the dilemma of whether to restructure/improve what you have or lop off the second half and do a total do-over on that section. I don’t know. The second option sounds a bit freeing to me, but then again, I hate to restructure. Not good at that at all.

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