Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tansy, Haunted By Three Janes

I'm currently putting together my acquittal form for the Arts Tasmania grant I received this year, to write a gothic Tasmanian history YA called "Three Janes and a Haunting." As well as filling out forms to talk about the successes and failures of my project, I also need to clean up the manuscript itself, before sending it to Arts Tas (and um also to my new agent, *dances*). I'm shocked to discover that it's actually quite good.

Bear with me, I'll try not to be obnoxious.

This was one of the most painful books I have ever struggled to write. It seemed all bright and shiny when I put in my application for the grant - a bit of Tasmanian history, a bit of a ghost story, a plucky heroine, it would be fun! But I hadn't thought through the part where this was the first new novel-length work I was writing since the hiatus I had gone through, thanks to having a baby and bringing my PhD thesis to a torturous close.

Since then I had completed a work in progress (Power and Majesty, to be released in 2010 by HarperCollins Voyager) and rewritten an earlier manuscript (Cafe La Femme, to be released by Pulp Fiction Press in 2009), but nothing new. I was expecting the rush and excitement of writing something new, and instead I had to drag out every sentence, every chapter, knowing it had to be at least drafted by the middle of the year because I had other writing commitments.

As my friend Kaia reminded me yesterday, I whined a lot.

I did everything I could to make the manuscript more interesting. The historical part was flagging? I added a modern storyline. Writing went slow? I jazzed it up with reported IM conversations, quotes from student essays and a cute boy with floppy hair. Still, it was hard work, everything took two or three times longer than it should have, and it annoyed me.

The rotten thing about being a professional writer is that you can write more and better in one great day than you can in two weeks of slog. But you have to do the slog, because you might not get that great day, and waiting around for it is a marvellous way to fail to write a book. "Three Janes" had no great days.

Then there was the revelation syndrome that took over the manuscript. After writing half a novel in which lots of mysterious strangers keep secrets from the heroine, I discovered to my horror that every time I sat down to write, one of my mysterious strangers would make some grand revelation that would completely contradict everything that had gone before. Once this happens half a dozen times, believe me, the manuscript is... let's just say mess is a kind way to put it. I was swamped and lost, three quarters of the way in, and I saw no way out.

And then I had a miracle. Kaia (yes, there's a reason she still remembers the whining) asked to read the manuscript. I was shocked at the thought of anyone seeing the big stupid broken mess I had created but finally I sent it to her. She read it in less than 24 hours. She made lists. Now, you need to know this about Kaia - she makes lists like Leonardo Da Vinci invented clever things. Her lists are works of art. Chapter by chapter, she went through my broken, battered semi-novel, asking pertinent questions, listing actions and events, and showing me every tiny flaw, in one big magnifying glass. And with that one act of gratuitous editorial kindness, she saved my book.

I finally had one of those great days - not so much for the writing, but for the plotting, when I figured out how to bring in a touch of Ancient Roman history to balance the rather alien Tasmanian. I figured out, step by step, how to fix the book, and I finally got it written. Even on the days when no inspiration was coming, I had those precious lists to work through, the annoyingly incisive questions that pointed out every hole in the story, and I not only repaired them, I rebuilt the whole book from the ground up.

Several months later, I'm rereading, tidying up the manuscript (now retitled 10 Random Facts about Lady Jane Franklin), and I think it's actually good. It may be one of the weirdest things I've ever written, and it's alarming to have written a twisted, comedic and mostly frivolous ghost story about Lady Jane Franklin in the same year that Richard Flanagan has wowed the literary world with his take on that particular lady (I'll just hide in my corner, shall I?). But I rather love my characters and the strange things I have done with them. I'm hoping it will find a publisher and an audience because... well, yes. It wasn't fun to write, but it reads like it was (hee, don't tell anyone), and I think it represents a major turning point for me as a writer.

Which only goes to show, you never can tell.

(and later that year I co-wrote a draft for a different novel that was so much fun I wrote more words in a month than I had in half a year on Three Janes... but that's another story)

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