Welcome to the blogspot of Melbourne writer, Elizabeth Jane

Welcome to the blogspot of Melbourne writer, Elizabeth Jane

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Writing Life

Now supposing you won an international writing competition and your success was reported in a number of publications, including the Melbourne Age. Supposing, as a result you had a call from a publisher, asking about your novel. And supposing you sent six chapters and a synopsis to the publisher, and they really liked your work and wanted to see more.

Yes, wonderful, I'm sure you'll agree: a recipe for ecstasy.

But supposing your novel is currently pulled apart with track changes and comment boxes throughout. And you tell the publisher, look I've only re-written the first twenty-two chapters, but give me a couple of months  and I'll show you all I've got.

And they agree.

Then you might have to do a great deal of work to do.

But what if you lied?

Not a real lie because you really have re-written the first twenty-two chapters – barring all but one teeny- weeny scene in chapter twenty-one which you have been putting off ...

And supposing you kept putting it off, pulling the individual chapters into one document, making decisions, reading and re-reading, everything neat and tidy, until there is nothing left to do but re-write that one tiny scene in chapter twenty-one?

And now it is time to write it and you feel sick.

Yes, that's right: sick.

New stuff always makes you icky. There is the excitement, the challenge of re-working old words to make the same-but-a-better story. There is doubt and fear of failure, your long time companions. And all the while you are wondering, hoping, praying that you will be able to give life to this vague sense of meaning that has formed in your mind.

So, you start because, let's face it, you have to.

And at first, you feel like newly washed hair all mussy and twisted. Then slowly creation's conditioner seeps into the fibres. You put a comb to the knots and begin to tease out the words. Very gently, lest you change too much, you work back and forth, in and out of the document. Does this move the character forward? Is he meant to be failing the character tests in this chapter? Or passing them? Who is this character, anyway? Maybe I should delete him? Cut the scene completely? Write a different novel?

Oh no, you think. Where am I going?

Of course, at this point when you are in deep crisis, there is always family: a school meeting, an art exhibition, a sick kid, or a husband you have to talk to.

But … you can't you possibly stop writing at this stage.

Except, you have to.
And quite frankly, it's what you need, because while you are away from your computer, the problem resolves itself (normally in the middle of the night, or a desk shift at the library). And you write the idea down in your notebook, or send an email to yourself.

And enjoy a brief interlude of peace.
Meanwhile, a dear friend is reading her way through the other twenty-two chapters of your manuscript, patiently editing and making suggestions. And she reaches chapter twelve and sees a need for some structural changes.

Oh God, you think. This is only chapter twelve. You quickly extrapolate this particular change against all other possible changes you might have to make, and realise that one small scene in chapter twenty-one is the least of you worries.

You are sunk.

Horror churns. You lose sleep. You never really liked that friend anyway. Who does she think she is?

She is right, damn it! The changes must be made – and right away, not a moment to spare. If you leave them they will burn a hole in your manuscript.

So, you make the changes – and all the other alterations your dear friend suggests, and the story is better for it. So, you delete the hate mail you have so carefully drafted.

Then, with gut wrenching, you re-visit chapter twenty-one.

The scene is before you, a poorly patched garment. You decide to be brave. Make sweeping changes. You work in a fever, nerves like violin strings. The whole document altered, chapter by chapter, like dominoes, falling, falling, falling ...

But it's not a waste.

The scene is strong and resonant, full of symbols and hidden meaning.

My God, you're a genius. Why did you put this off for so long? All that talent, finally flowering. A Pulitzer Prize in the making.

And you think, perhaps you will sleep tonight – maybe all the way through to six o' clock in the morning.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Not the Mother of the Bride: Liz’s Outfit

Sometimes, I worry about humans. They don't understand priorities. We are heading towards an important familial occasion, a busy, once in a lifetime, precious season, when certain formalities must be observed – and buying the Mother of the Bride outfit is of utmost significance. Yet, Liz spends every waking minute hunched over her keyboard.

'Please,' I beg. 'Don't leave it to the last minute.'

'I have to submit by the end of November, Biskit.'

'But Liz, your daughter's getting married. You are the Mother of the Bride.'

I have visions, terrible visions, of Liz entering the wedding chapel in work clothes with a badge that says – didn't have time – hanging from her lanyard.

I suppose, when a respected Melbourne publishers calls and asks to see your novel, a certain amount of work is required. But in my opinion, she ought to be focussing on important things – like permanent rinses, waxing, eyebrow tinting, and clothing.

I don't wish to misrepresent Liz (after all, she feeds me). Occasionally she does interrupt her writing - to read a book, for example, to work at the library, or attend TAFE Novel classes. Sometimes, she even remembers the grocery shopping.

But for the most part … she is in another world.

How to motivate her? That was the question. How to tear her away from her desk, just for a minute? Priya and I decided guilt was the best strategy.

'Mum,' Priya said, 'I need a wedding outfit.'

'We'll go shopping next month.'

'But Mum, the wedding is in December – I need to start looking now!'

'Not now, Priya. I'm busy.'

'You don't care about me,' Priya wailed, stamping her foot, 'only your stupid book.'

Liz and Priya went shopping the next day. Liz wasn't in the mood for shopping (and didn't we know it). But I knew once she hit the shops, temptation would take over. She would start flicking through hangers, holding up items and trying things on … just quickly. I wasn't there, of course. It's one of the injustices of my canine disposition. Quite unfair, I'm sure you'll agree. Fluffy white dogs are bred for their beauty, not their brains. We have a natural affinity towards shopping.

But this is how the plan unfolded.

First, Liz tried on a red dress. It made her look round and chunky, like a pillar box. Next she chose something a little more subtle – a pewter dress. She looked more like a tankard than a goblet. A black skirt with a paper bag hem looked frumpy. Hot pink made her feel like a Rhododendron and, as for the purple dress, well, what can I say? A New Age nightmare!

Fortunately, at this point the shop assistant intervened. 'Can I help you?'

'My daughter's getting married,' Liz said. 'And I'm too fat for anything.'

The assistant eyed her appraisingly. She fetched a pencil skirt, a soft non-crease top, and a cropped satin jacket, from the difficult figures section, and teamed it with a pair of gorgeous black high heeled shoes. Liz disappeared into the cubicle. Priya heard huffing and puffing. The shop assistant answered a few urgent questions about belts and zippers. Then Liz tottered out looking magnificent.

'Wow!' Priya said.

'It doesn't get better than this,' Liz said, laughing.

'No,' Priya agreed. 'Are you going to buy it?'

'What do you think?'

Liz bought the lot: skirt, top, jacket and shoes from Dianna Ferrari. I'm not going to reveal the colours, nor divulge anything as skanky as prices. But Andrew has seen the Mastercard statement – and he is still recovering.