Sunday, February 19, 2012

HOW many words a day?

20,000 words in two days. 

It's a figure that's stuck with me, ever since I read in an interview with John Marsden that he wrote the final 20,000 words of Tomorrow When the War Began in two days. Anthony Trollope also claimed he could churn out 10,000 words on a good writing day, and it wasn't unusual to have several such productive days in a row. Jane Godwin, who has a full-time job at Penguin as well as her own writing commitments, aims for five hundred a day, but confesses she is finding it difficult. Sofie Laguna, while in New York, wrote the excellent Bird and Sugar Boy at the steady rate of about a thousand words a day. You can see I'm obsessed with the word count/time quotient, and it's a question people often ask. How long does it take? When I started writing this blog I was feeling pretty full of myself because I had just finished writing The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, which seemed to happen very quickly once I had the original idea about how some resurrectionists might in fact have been 'gentlemen' acting for the public good, and not people like Burke and Hare who had the indecency  to be murderers and also Scottish. I think there were a couple of days where I managed about eight thousand words, when I was writing the back story of Plenitude, though it is the big whack of back story toward the end of the novel that some people complain slows down the book, even though it ties all the ends together. Anyway, the book made me laugh, and it made my editor Dmetri Kakmi laugh too, but he suggested there was a little too much of a good thing, and so he started pruning away. The first draft of 70,000 words dropped to 65,000 after Dmetri took out the shears, and I didn't miss any of them, so he was obviously doing a pretty good job. He's left Penguin now (so, it seems, has everyone) and I miss him enormously. 

The very shy and self-effacing Dmetri Gaga

And of course I also felt rather good about having written sixteen thousand words in two days, since that almost put me up there with Marsden and Trollope, very strange bedfellows. But after completing the Body-snatcher book, I really wasn't managing many words at all per day. I had writer's block. I felt stupid and useless and wrote a self-indulgent post called Farewell to Bob, which you will find elsewhere on this blog  if you're even remotely interested and even if you aren't. It's still there.The Internet is like that. Creepy, isn't it?  Then I had the stroke in September and for five whole months I couldn't write anything at all.

 Aerial view of my head with the top chopped off.

In a strokebound state you do spend a lot of time meditating and being generally introspective. It's interesting that a Welsh rugby player recently had a stroke which, he claims, turned him gay. He immediately left his fiancée, stopped playing rugby, found a boyfriend and trained to be a hairdresser. I have a theory about this, as I'm sure you do. Sorry, but the sports-hating hairdresser is such a gay cliché. It's the sort of thing dreamt up by that  people who don't get out much, or get their information from old sketch comedy shows. I think that our rugby player, while being introspective after having his stroke, realised that his life was finite, so he might as well be honest with himself and go about enjoying it. Doesn't it seem more likely that he was born gay (as I believe people are, rather than 'turned gay' by people like Margaret Court), but the domestic and school environment in which he grew up simply didn't tolerate the gay kids, so he decided to be as not-gay as possible. A professional rugby player is almost a 'straight cliché'. Was his stroke a tap on the shoulder? Did the whole 'stroke made me gay' story provide a convenient excuse for suddenly adopting a more alternative lifestyle? Come on, it's just as logical as Margaret Court's well publicised and damaging 'theory' that homosexuals are often the victims of child sexual abuse, which has, ipso facto, made them gay. In my meditative, introspective state I didn't have any blinding flashes of self-knowledge like that. I was moderately happy with who I was, and I knew that I definitely wanted to keep writing books for a living. I couldn't work because I couldn't use my hands, so I just lay there thinking about a sequel to The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher since, much to everyone's surprise and even, I would suggest, distaste, the book started appearing on shortlists all over the place. A sequel seemed like a good idea. I had the new story worked out in my head. I would invent a secret cult of people who believed in conducting live dissections (as Herophilus, the ancient Greek father of surgery apparently did) and, of course, my hero would end up on the dissection table in front of three tiers of Herophilists, until his companions PLenitude and Victoria manage to rescue him in the nick of time. Fortunate, that. There might even be a sequel to the sequel.

 This isn't Herophilus it's Plato, who apparently looked very much like him.

But I didn't start writing this sequel till last week, when I found that I could sort of type with one finger, provided I read each page back as soon as I'd finished it and corrected all the bizarre mistakes I'd made. Oddly enough, I wrote words as they sounded, not as I knew they were spelt. I was like a faulty piece of voice recognition software doing a bad job of turning my speech into words. If I hadn't edited each page as soon as it had been written, it would have been well nigh impossible to comprehend later. But the editing didn't slow me down, and it was quite necessary, even though most writers say you shouldn't edit yourself as you go along, which I would agree with, but what I was doing was literal editing, which isn't the hard stuff - structural editing.

Here are the obligatory nude ladies, so my post gets more hits. Sandra and Jean are both volunteers for the Children's Book Council of Australia Here they are tallying votes, and being surprised that the Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher did okay.
Because I had the story worked out in my head, I managed to churn out 30,000 words last week. That's around 6,000 words a day, which is not too shabby. Trouble is, I didn't have any more story after that. I established the menace of the herophilists, then had my central characters become involved with them and ultimately have their lives threatened by them. The original body-snatcher book was just over sixty thousand words, and I felt I needed somehow to add another 30,000 words to what I had written, so I dreamed up another story for one of my characters, some of which would take place at sea. I haven't been in a sailing ship before, only much smaller sailing vessels, so I downloaded Kidnapped from Project Gutenberg. It had just what I needed, including some really wonderful shipboard scene-setting. 

 Try writing this.
In fact it was so good that I even stole a tiny part of it, which I will have to rewrite when I do the next draft, or at least acknowledge that some of the prose is nicked from RLS. And didn't Wikipedia get a hammering! Do you know anything about an island called Corvo which is in the Azores? Well, I didn't but it seemed such an ideal place, near enough to England where the main story was set, so I found out all I could, and combined it with my own memories of tropical island paradises I had visited, like Vanuatu and Noumea and Balnarring, so I had some lovely background scenery for my extra story.

Corvo, in the Azores, looking very much like Efate in Vanuatu, but possibly not Balnarring. 

I added all that extra stuff on the weekend and I now have close to 60,000 words, written very quickly, for that's what you're meant to do, then edit later, very slowly. But I'm not sure they're all great words (except for the ones that RLS wrote). This second story I added took the book into the realms of fantasy, whereas everything that happened in the first body-snatcher book might conceivably have occurred in 1828 and paid at least partial attention to the history of the day. I had people wearing the right clothes, visiting the right attractions or suffering the appropriate privations and indignities of the period. There's no way an historian would give it the seal of approval. For a start, one of the words in the title is an anachronism. We didn't have teenagers in the early nineteenth century. (Though another book with almost the same title has since appeared in America.) But I liked the fact that I had used what was there in 1828 to build a story.

The sequel is different. The 'second story' to bring the novel up to length involves voodoo and therefore, in my view at least, definitely falls into the fantasy genre. (Though The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, did get shortlisted for an Aurealis award, and these are given only for works of fantasy. I've since met one of the judge and she told me that the inclusion of the Body-snatcher book was a bit line-ball, given it was supposed to be historical fiction.)

At least I didn't visit Wikipedia every two minutes seeking material about voodoo. I'd remembered a a short story by comedian Alexei Sayle where he wrote about two thinly disguised English TV comics (actually Bob Mortimer and Vic Reeves) who tried using voodoo to boost their ratings and, even more heinously, to rig a football match result. There were whole paragraphs of information about early voodoo, or 'voodon' which Sayle described as something other than ordinary voodoo. I tracked down the Sayles book, and I took copious notes and wove them into my 'novel'. It then occurred to me that Sayles' job is to make up stuff. This also happens to be my job. But what if Alexei Sayle actually invented this whole alternative version of voodoo, and all the stuff I had painstakingly noted down is actually, to quote the brilliant fat bastard himself, 'bollocks'?

I am creating this post as a kind of closure. (There! I've finally used the word that I said I never would.) I now have sixty thousand words and I think they might make sense. I'm just not sure if I have a proper novel yet, or a long short story with another long short story threaded through it. And of course, voodoo is Haitian, which immediately buggers things up for me, because that's on the wrong side of the world to be of any use. But every morning for over a week now, I've risen at 5.00am to bang away at the book, since I need to write because it helps my self-esteem (pathetic, I know. But isn't that why everyone does it?) I’m not about to go putting pictures of my book covers on Facebook because my self-esteem isn't quite that low, and I know I've just offended an awful lot of people - but come on, guys, it’s okay if it's your first book. But you guys all have backlists. Post pictures of your cat being stupid, or the clouds doing weird shit over Westernport Bay, or that video of Rudd being all sweary. I won't be getting up tomorrow morning at 5.00am to continue the mad splurge of novel-wruting. I will rise like a normal person.Ha

And thanks, Shaun, for lending me the Alexei Sayle books. They are a revelation. Sayle does seem to be the genuine article. He's not just a celebrity who's tried his hand at bookwriting, he's a real craftsman, and I feel I have actually met a lot of the people in his stories - but then, I guess we both work in the same industry, only he does stuff for the BBC and I do it for, ooh, wait, I've got the card here somewhere.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Back to Casualty

Last week, the symptoms returned. The tingling fingertips, the numb lips: these were two of the symptoms that heralded my stroke back in September. I definitely, positively didn't want to return to The Alfred again, so I ignored the symptoms and figured that I should just go to bed, and they would pass. I rang nurse-on-line and was told to get straight to a hospital and, above all, not to fall asleep. Dreading the possibility that I might be about to go through another few months of hospitalisation and rehab, I gathered up my overnight bag, some spare clothes, then went to the emergency room at The Alfred. It was Friday night and stinking hot, the sort of night where you anticipate there might be a fair bit of alcohol-fuelled violence and that emergency rooms would be clogged with people with knives sticking out of their heads. But the emergency room at The Alfred looked remarkably unoccupied. There were two little old ladies and neither had knives sticking out of their heads. They sat, patiently watching the Australian Open on the TV.
I went to triage - where they had all my particulars on file after the last hospitalisation. The triage nurse did a quick run-through of the tests that indicate whether or not a person might be having an ischemic episode, then I became aware of some noise behind me. The triage nurse, who had a broad Scottish burr, which can sound very authoritative and excellent for crowd control, announced to whoever was behind me that she would deal with only one patient at a time - and that currently I was that patient. The noise continued. I turned around quickly but looked at the floor. I didn't want to make eye contact with any patients who had just been told that I had priority. There was quite a lot of blood on the floor, which made it pretty much impossible for me not to have a look at whichever patient was the source of so much blood. There was an Indian teenager, being held up by two friends. Blood poured from his stomach, Apparently he had just been stabbed. He didn’t look dangerous at all, just surprised and fearful. (Which is how I guess I would look if I had blood gushing from a knife wound in my belly.) I told the triage nurse (in her defence, she hasn't seen the blood) that I was happy to let the Indian boy go ahead of me, and she agreed that this was probably a good idea. In no time at all, he was whisked away to an operating theatre so that someone could stitch him together again. I really hope the stabbing wasn't an act of racially motivated violence. I've read enough articles on The Times Of India website, warning young Indian students that such violent racist attacks are common, and that one (in Spotswood) had ended in a death. (Fortunately there are also op ed pieces by jorrnalists with a better world view, advising readers that the stabbers are a particularly small minority, and that most Australians welcome the Indian students with open arms - but these types of articles do not sell nespapers and are rarely given prominence.)
While I stood aside for the young Indian kid to receive emergency treatment, I realised that the tingling fingertips and numb lips I had been experiencing seemed to have cleared up. They still gave me a CT scan, and they made me wait until I was given the all-clear by the doctor . The ischemic episode had passed. The small clot of blood that had blocked a vessel in my brain had apparently cleared itself. This often happens, but if you're an ex-stroke-patient, it's best to get yourself to casualty as soon as you experience any of those symptoms. I asked one of the nurses if they treated many stabbings at The Alfred, and her comment was that there were about fou per month. This surprised me. I thought the figure would be higher. The nurse said, 'That's high enough for us.' Quite.

On the corner of Chapel Street and Balaclava Roads in Balaclava, there's a gift shop that seems to specialise in items of Russian manufacture. So there are plenty of wooden dolls and toy bears in the window. There is also a whole shelf of knives - all spectacularly lethal-looking and pretty in their own way. And across the road is The St Kilda Police Station. Last year, there was a community service poster campaign in St Kilda, featuring the photoshopped image of a boy with his face stitched up. Beneath was a caption that more or less said, 'Don't stab people. You might get in trouble.'  (A quick bit of research reveals that the caption was actually KNIVES SCAR LIVES .. though it still worries me that people need to be reminded of this.) So, we've become so lacking in empathy that we need to be told that knives are dangerous. And, as an added incentive for people with knives not to stab people, there is the indication that the stabber him/herself might suffer, never mind the kid with a knife in him. 

And the shop in Balaclava, I'm sure, continues to do a roaring trade. The wooden dolls seem to be slow movers, but the variety, beauty and heft of the knives seems ever changing.