02 Be Kind To The Dog

This thing first appeared in Writers Bloc, 22 Nov 2016. 

 

It’s all very strange.

I’ve wanted nothing but to be a published novel writer since reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ when I was a mostly annoying child. It didn’t occur to me at the time that Adrian was supposed to be read as a prat. A decidedly loveable prat, but still, a prat. Adrian thought it a matter of destiny that if he plugged away at his writing, and plugged and plugged, that it would all somehow work out. His literary delusions and aspirations seemed entirely reasonable to me, and decades later, as a comprehensively annoying adult, they still do.

 

Pandora & Adrian. Image: The Ronald Grant Archive

Pandora & Adrian. Image: The Ronald Grant Archive

 

In the last two months a book that I have written, Keep The Lion Hungry, went from a state very close to abandonment, to finding an agent and then a publisher. As above, it’s all very strange. 

I’m not certain that the story of how this novel came to find a home is compelling, even less that it’s inspiring, but a brief study of its errors and frustratingly ponderous nature may prove beneficial.

 

The Rachel. A style strangely popular among late-era grunge Sunshine Coast teenage boys.  

The Rachel. A style strangely popular among late-era grunge Sunshine Coast teenage boys.  

It began in the summer of 1995. It was then – probably while wearing cargo pants, certainly while sporting a greasy male approximation of 'The Rachel'  – that I completed writing my first, truly diabolic, novel. Even whilst overflowing with the potent hyper-naivety of teenagehood, I knew that the manuscript was a dog. So it went, unshared, under the bed. Over the next year I wrote another novel, again dog, again under the bed. This pattern continued for the next 18 years. Around me a decidedly non-literary life unfolded: non-literary study followed by a non-literary job; I learned how to internalise a lack of bookish momentum, I learned how to do the Rubik’s cube. Perhaps I should have taken a creative writing course or joined a writing workshop or not spent quite so long on the Rubik’s cube. In essence I was clinging to a romantic notion, that if I devoted my every spare moment equally between reading and writing, if I plugged and plugged, I would become the writer I aspired to be and I would produce a novel of which I could be, if nothing else, satisfied.

 

The original time-suck. 

The original time-suck. 

 

In 2014 I finished yet another manuscript which, while far from brilliant, I thought finally of sufficient quality to send to an agent. Ignorant of the complex of anxieties I should have applied to this process, I thought it best to just send off one query letter, to the boss of the biggest literary agency in the country. That should work. And ridiculously, it kind of did. She said she would read it. She did.

We had a meeting – I went on a plane, I wore a tie and everything – and she very clearly, and rightly, told me that this manuscript wasn’t the one. You don’t get many chances with publishers, you can’t send them anything smelling even remotely of dog. So she directed me back to the airport with the mission that I should write something else, something better, more true – a novel of which I could be unapologetically proud.

So I did what I had always done, I wrote another one, though this time something was different. I decided to write from my guts. To forget (quite useful) ideas of audience or viability or competency – to work as if this were the last novel I was ever going write rather than just the next. I would be satisfied, published or not.

 

First draft. Tied with string for no good reason. 

First draft. Tied with string for no good reason. 

A year later, the thing finished, I sent the manuscript. Over the next 12 months it bounced between in-trays of every last employee at the agency, during which time I took another of my now trademark naïve punts and sent it, unsolicited and unadorned, to my dream publisher. Again, ridiculously, it percolated through the slush pile, was read, and I received an email from their Editor that the thing was going to be forwarded to the head Publisher with a suggestion that it was not entirely terrible.

The agent said yes, then the publisher said yes.

 

Make it quick. 

Make it quick. 

In the Hollywood version it would all have happened with a single phone call. The fantasy would become instant reality and fireworks would fire. In practice there were dozens of moments of minor victory spread so thinly they each amounted to just the steady burn of a birthday sparkler.

An email… vague interest… curiosity… a good, under-caffeinated conversation… an Agent… an Editor’s interest… an Editor’s recommendation… many, many emails… a Publisher’s curiosity… apparent interest… a phone call taken in the plastic pots aisle of Bunnings… a good, hyper-caffeinated conversation… an Acquisitions Committee… a commitment to offer… an offer… a contract negotiation… emails… emails… emails… a signed contract… a countersigned contract… the dim realisation that everything I have been working towards my whole life was turning somewhat true.

Now, things lie ahead: a year of editing and writing. Lots of poor decisions on my part. Hopefully a slightly more than equal number of decent ones.

And after it’s published, I have no idea. Adrian didn’t give me any clues on that one. When I think of it taking 20 years to travel from starting a novel to being on the brink of publishing one, I find it hard to feel regret. I could have made the journey easier. I could have been smarter, less stubborn about finding my own way in the dark. But I’m proud of enough to overpower the lamentation.

I’m proud of plugging and plugging; of this thing I’ve made. I’m proud of – if not the content, then at least the existence – of that rotting pile of 15 manuscripts under my bed.

There’s a joke buried in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: our prat borrows War and Peace out from the library on a Friday and on the Saturday casually notes, “Finished War and Peace. It was quite good.”

All I want of my writing life is that it last long enough, and that I get good enough, to write a line as perfect as that.

01 A novel in search of a home.

I finished a novel some time last year. Anything like detail or dates is lost in the fug of an El Niño summer kept at bay with lemonade Icy Poles in the absence of recognisable air-conditioning. And my first son came along in the middle of that, unimpressed by my confectionery-centred cooling strategy.

 

So a season of screaming, pacing, and seven series of minimum-volume West Wing consumed by nightlight.  

And during this the novel was making its characteristic, circumlocutory way between a succession of literary in- and out-trays:

·         Agent A was, as always, unreasonably generous and encouraging but unable to take on new business; kindly forwarded to

·         Agent B, who was likewise unnecessarily helpful and charitable with her time but transitioning into an offline-due-to-imminent-baby-arrival mode; thoughtfully recommended to

·         Agent C, who warned of having their dance card already well and truly full, and thus leading to

·         Agent D, who similarly was packed to the gills and so, again, with a streak of generosity that I’m beginning to suspect is rampant within the profession, recommended to

·         Agent E, who is – remarkably, almost unbelievably – right this moment reading the thing.

During the time of this genuinely charmed tête-à-tête, the novel saw fit to send itself to one other: Editor A. Editor A works for Dream Publisher A, and had been supportive and merciful with a previous novel of mine. Keep The Lion Hungry elbowed into his reading pile and, miraculously, surreally, Editor A dug it.

Editor A recommended it to Publisher A (boss banana of Dream Publisher A), with whom the novel currently sits for the bestowing of the green/red light.   

In the midst of this my house became home to a family of adorable but ultimately incompatible mice. I built a humane (mousane?) mousetrap out of sticky tape and broken pencils which has yet to yield results. 

I really can’t tell what will happen from here (with the novel or the mice). For quite a time after finishing the book I was convinced that I should put it in the drawer with the others and leave it be, for good. I love this novel, I’m proud of it, but it is also a peculiar thing. It was almost an exercise. I wrote on instinct; whenever I felt the pull towards writing with my head (plot, structure, intellect, audience – all that important jazz), I shook it off. I wanted to see what would happen if I just let it all unroll. The characters and the place and the mood dictated everything. This was all dumb heart.

If characters were stiff, or inexplicable, so be it.

If they were dull, they stayed dull, staring into walls.    

If they broke away crazily, they broke.

If the winter of the story had something to say, I gave it a voice.

I didn’t know if the novel, as it was, was anything another human could value. But just as in the spirit it was written, it seemed to find its own life and off it went. It went blundering off in search of a home.

I can’t tell what will happen from here, but I’m excited about something and I’m happy to follow my dumb, dumb heart.