Tuesday, April 27, 2010

After your first novel - then what?

I have been working on my current novel for three or four years now (I've lost count) and it has been a grueling process. Recently I have been thinking a lot about something Antoni Jach, teacher and mentor of countless writers all over Melbourne, once said: 'You get your first novel for free.' At the time I didn't completely understand what he meant by this but now I think I do.
When I think back to when I wrote my first novel Chenxi and the Foreigner, in my mid-twenties, it's like I am different person (other that I am obviously much older and alas not always wiser). I'm not saying that my first novel was any easier to write - I still had to slog out numerous drafts over several years - it's more that I wrote with a kind of weightlessness that seems harder to conjure up the more I am published.
I am definitely a more professional writer now; more aware of what I am doing and why I am doing it, who my audience is and even the kind of book I am writing. I edit my work better, I plan better, structure better, probably even write better, but by gaining all this control over my writing, I lose a certain enviable out-of-controlness that comes from blindly finding your way through your first novel.
As an art student, I loved the unpredictability of printmaking. Unlike drawing (unless you draw blindfolded or with your left hand) with printmaking you could never be one hundred per cent sure of what the outcome would be. I guess that's the closest analogy I can think of to describe the difference between writing my first novel to writing the one I am working on now.
I remember once listening to Sonya Hartnett talk on a panel with a hip young first-time novelist and at the time thinking how weary and cynical she sounded. The hip young novelist had so much fire and excitement and enthusiasm and was comparing writing his novel to riding a bucking bronco. Sonya rolled her eyes and said something like, 'That's because you're still a virgin. Just wait til you try to write the next one.'
Even though I would hate to ever feel weary or cynical about my work, at times it definitely does feel tamer. I carry more weight and I know well the hard road ahead of me. I'm also more likely to dismiss my work as crap whereas in the beginning I was overjoyed just to string a few words together and to watch something be created from nothing.
These days I can still have moments like that. Little breakthroughs like cracks in a wall where the light gets in (thank you Leonard Cohen for that beautiful analogy). This weekend I had a good weekend, an uninterrupted long weekend perfect for writing. My partner and I both work from home and take turns looking after our youngest son so the other can work. I wrote in the mornings then walked along the Merri Creek with my son in the afternoons. With him, I can often rediscover that sense of childish awe about the world, that slow daydreaming time so essential to creativity. Then in the evenings I would read through the day's work. I didn't hate all of it. I was amazed to discover that some of it I even liked.
I don't want to jinx myself or count my chickens before they hatch or let the cat out of the bag or any of that other proverbial nonsense, but I'll just say that my novel has changed considerably over the last three/four years. From starting out as an angsty teen novel about identity and acceptance (yawn), I think now it is beginning to simplify and crystallize into something younger, lighter and more full of awe. While I began with something complex and complicated and convoluted, now I have decided just to tell the story of a bunch of kids who find an angel in the creek.
Picasso strove his whole life to recreate the simplicity and lightness of his childhood drawings and, like him, it may take me a lifetime to do the same. But perhaps the more time I spend walking along the creek with my young son, the easier it will be for me to get there.


  1. wow this is so exciting finding your blog. I have recently bought Billie B Brown - Second-best friend through scholastic book club at my childrens' school and LOVED it!! And just tonight I have ordered The Soccer Star in this months issue. I'm addicted haha. :o)

  2. Hi Niki - thanks so much. I'm glad you like the books - they have been so much fun to write. I have a very strong memory of myself at Billie's age - and my youngest is going through all this right now - school, friendships and all that kind of thing, so, for now, the stories seem to be coming really easily. No angst at all! (As you can see from my most recent post, this is not always the case.) It's such a joy to have the Billie books to work on and to have them so well received. Hope you like the Soccer Star - that's my son's favourite.

  3. Sometimes I swear it's like you're writing my thoughts Sally. Know the feelings you're describing so well (except the one about getting the first novel for free. I'm still owed I think!) Sorry that it doesn't look like we're going to get to meet up on this trip but many congrats on Billie B.


  4. Thanks Meredith. Yes, sorry to have missed you again! Definitely next time! Have a good trip back and I hope Mads watches just a little bit of TV for you! xx