I mentioned a few posts ago that I was going to waffle on about my Hell-novel (which is a hell novel in more ways than one), Circle, and how it’s taken the reins back from Son of Songs, my epic-literary-spacey-graphic-novel.
However, I realised there were some far more interesting things going on with Circle than I previously thought.
Elaborate? Why, certainly.
I am primarily a third-person writer. I am very comfortable in my role as commentator rather than character; it’s nice to inhabit multiple heads and travel to multiple places in order to tell a story. I find this method makes a story more well-rounded and eventually more enjoyable. When I had the idea for Circle I knew from the start that I wanted to do a first-person. The voice I had was strong, and it offered a chance to do something different in both a narrative sense and a character sense. But – and this is a big but – I also promised myself it would be short. I knew I couldn’t sustain first-person long enough to make it a viable long-haul novel.
(Note the word ‘knew’. This is where writer self-consciousness comes in.)
I had dabbled in first-person before. Curiosity had drawn me to attempt it. The first real go I had was in one of my time-travel novels, which is half third-person and half first-person (think Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus novels), and I was happy with the way it turned out. I could keep the pace and give multiple accounts, and everything was fine. ‘What can go wrong?’ I thought.
The first mistake I made was giving the first chapter in for workshop. I didn’t realise this at first. I was talking to Laura Clements (my writerly friend, and also the person who did the Against the Elements cover art), and I was complaining about Circle and how long it was taking me and how it felt so stodgy. I normally crack out a novel in about 4 to 9 months. The only exception to that rule was my Epic Fantasy Novel (which took about 15 months in all). Circle has now been in existence for nearly 18 months. After that long, with the same characters to worry about, and having known the ending for a year and a half, I was starting to tire of their tedious problems. I have so many more things I want to write, and know I will enjoy more than Circle.
Laura listened to my complaints and finally said, ‘The only reason you’re worrying about it so much is because you gave it in for workshop, and now you’re convinced it isn’t good enough.’
And I hadn’t really thought about that before. Workshop, of course, was UEA’s main method of editing in its Creative Writing modules. You write something, you hand it in, everyone crits it, you go home and sob over a pint. I made the fatal mistake of handing in something I cared about to a group of realism writers.
I can’t even begin to describe what that crit session was like. I remember feeling like I was about to burst into tears every time someone opened their mouth – nobody liked it. Nobody understood it. Things I had put in intentionally were causes for complaint and dismissal. I was fighting every corner for Circle that I could. At long last, one of the girls beside me said, ‘Who here actually reads fantasy or science fiction?’
Silence. Dead, complete silence.
‘So,’ she said, ‘we don’t know whether or not this is good, do we? How are we supposed to say what’s right or wrong in this piece of work? For all we know, this is perfect fantasy.’
I am forever grateful to this girl. I am also forever grateful to my tutor, who in our one-on-one asked me how I felt the workshop went. I told her I was going to tear up the first chapter and start again, and she looked at me aghast.
‘Why would you do that?’ she said.
‘Because it’s obviously awful,’ I said. ‘Everyone hated it.’
‘I didn’t hate it,’ she said. ‘I think your main character is unlikeable but I think that’s a brave thing for an author to do. I think the plot’s interesting and I like the pace. Nobody hated it.’
The first chapter is now the product of something strange and collaborative, and it set the tone for the rest of the novel. It makes me feel a little uncomfortable reading that first chapter.
I also remember that next workshop, I deliberately handed in something I wrote just for the class. They loved it, lapped it up. Guess what? I got a lower mark for that one than I did for the first chapter of Circle.
But what if that’s why Circle has taken me so long? The ghost of workshop haunting every page, scrutinising every sentence? Maybe it’s a good thing. I certainly feel like Circle is one of my more accomplished pieces – but at the same time, I feel like it’s slowly pulling chunks of my soul away with every week it drags on.
Circle is a big shift away from what I know. It’s a first-person action thriller thing. I usually am content with third-person quest things. I struggle daily with Circle and the shadow it casts. I know in writing people will always judge you and that you can’t please everyone because all writing is subjective. You have to write both for yourself and for an audience; it can’t be one or the other. That’s a difficult balance to achieve.
I know I am coming to the end of Circle now. Those wheels are in motion. I have reached that pinnacle that every novel has and I am coming down the smooth side of the mountain now. I will not be sad to see it go. At least, right now, I don’t think so. Perhaps one day I will look back and love what I did with it. Right now, I’m sick to the back teeth of the thing. And this is all to do with writer self-consciousness.I am aware it isn’t my usual. I am aware it is taking me a long time. I remember every time I write it that workshop session where it wasn’t good enough.
In ten years time, in a perfect world, I would love to be a fly-on-the-wall in a bookshop, watching one of my old classmates peruse the best-sellers. I’d like to see the look on their face when they see Circle up there with my name adorning the front. I’d like to see if they’d pick it up and look at that first chapter and remember the things they said about it. I’d like to see if they bought it.
That’s a nice thought to have.