While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Finding The Clovis Point

A while ago I watched a documentary about the Clovis point. It wasn’t this one, but it covers the necessary points:

Basically, you start with a piece of flint and begin striking it in such a way as to break off flakes that can themselves be used as tools. In the end, you have whittled a slab of rock to a spearhead: the difference between survival and starvation for the first recorded human inhabitants of North America.

This image resurfaces in my head every time I return to novel A, which is a rewrite of the novel which was excerpted here, but never fully published. At the beginning of the year, I decided to take a quarter of the original novel, focus on that and make it a novel in its own right. Since then, I have been working away (in fits and starts), to find the Clovis point embedded in my previous manuscript.

Every time I return to this novel, I find the need to chip off something else.

And just like with Clovis, when I chip something off, these fragments become useful too. I have already written a short story based on a scene in Cambodia in the original manuscript (a country Novel A does not visit). There is also a scene in the original manuscript which was lifted from my first attempt at a novel, and is once more free to be picked up whenever I need a Beginning Of Romantic Interaction scene.

And last night, after seeing the Doug Johnstone and Toby Litt session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I realised I could take another swing at the remaining slab of flint and chip off the music industry aspect altogether.

Which is perhaps ironic, since I was attending the Johnstone/Litt session was because both authors have recent Rock’n’Roll novels: I Play The Drums In A Band Called Okay (Litt) and The Ossians (Johnstone). But sometimes you need to see your supposed competition to see that you actually want to line up in a different event. At least this time.

Of course, having chipped off a band called The Wet Candles and its two tribute bands (The Final Flicker and The McFailures), they’re free to be used again somewhere else.

Being Completely Honest With Myself In A Not Entirely Personal Arena Moment: The reason I’ve been stopping and starting Novel A (and Novel B (and those brief moments where C and D were considered viable)) is whenever I reach a tough spot, I remember how much work the two manuscripts I have completed were. And how unfun the part that comes after completion is (trying to get published). And that if there’s something wrong with the core of the story, there’s no point pushing on till completion because it’ll probably end up in a draw with the other manuscripts.

It’s like running back into a burning house. You know how hot and dangerous it is coz you’ve been there, but you know you’ve got to save your Grandmother/Van Gogh/family photo albums.

But why do I have to save this story?

This morning I read, via the Guardian Online, Andrew O’Hagan’s comments at the Book Festival on Friday. In addition to slagging off Richard and Judy’s Book Club, he had a go at Creative Writing Students:

'When you speak to students, if you teach on a creative writing course, often what you find is that they are not interested in life at the level of the sentence,' he said. 'When you try to activate some interest, they find that slightly distracting. What they want to talk about is what it would be like to be a famous novelist.'

Every aspiring writer, whether they ever enter a creative workshop or not, has moments where they wonder what it would be like to be a famous novelist. And sure, for some students, that might be the main motivation. But unless they are exceptionally talented, they won’t ever find out first hand. Because it’s hard to craft something that makes sense to someone other than yourself. And even when you get that right, it needs to be something people would consider buying.

The explosion in creative writing courses might expedite the learning process for many writers (I know I’d still be toiling away in a much more affected, showy style if I hadn’t had regular feedback from other writers over the past few years), but it can’t provide the ideas or the desire.

I have ideas for Novel A. Some of them are embedded in another manuscript, others I’ve reeled in fresh from the deep seas of the imagination, and still more will come as I inhabit life at the level of the sentence.

And I have desire. That’s what pulls me back to the threshold of this burning house. That’s why I will, eventually, reach in and pull out the heart of my story.


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