Work in progress

  
One of the writing exercises I sometimes ask of students is for them to pen me a six-word novel. This is harder many people think. It’s an exercise in synthesis, in communicating an idea or emotion without wasting a word.  Keeping it raw and visceral.

Over the years I’ve been speaking in schools, I’ve read six-word novels that tore at my heart, tickled my funny bone and silenced classrooms. One standout, to paraphrase, read something like, ‘Mum in psych ward. Social stigma.’ Tell me you couldn’t find an entire YA novel in that effort.

I’m reminded of this exercise today because the book that gave me the idea for the six-word novel activity features another powerful story. I don’t have it with me today but it is similar to: ‘Not quite what I had expected.’ And that’s sort of my story of 2015.

Or, ‘Took full time job. Manuscript stalled.’

Perhaps that’s doing myself an injustice. While working two jobs this year, and speaking in schools now and again, I did manage another draft of my long-term project.

A friend recently read the manuscript and had good things to say. But the clincher was that I could do specific parts of the story better. The friend even named an author (way out of my league) and challenged me to aim higher. That’s the task for me for 2016; take the best parts of my manuscript and make every other part reach just as high.

I’m already on a third or fourth draft but I’m going to define, delete and cull big time on on the next one. That’s writing. A story can always be improved.

Speaking of which, every year brings stories of pain, hope and resilience but 2015 delivered several that still echo inside me. My Christmas prayers go to families dealing with mental illness, addiction, chronic illness, grief and disharmony. Good news stories are out there, people. We do overcome all sorts of challenges. Racism, hate and sickness can be defeated.

Enough sermonising. I usually throw in a list or two to my end of year post, partly to remind myself of highlights from page, stage & screen. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Listening: Meet the Eels – Essential Eels (1996-2006);  The Decemberists’ What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; Coldplay – A Head Full of Dreams; Oz by Missy Higgins; Tame Impala – Currents; the Blade Runner soundtrack; Gon’ Boogaloo by CW Stoneking.

Reading (highlights): American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Summers of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell; Born to Run by Christopher McDougall; The Walking Dead graphic novels.*

Watching: The Walking Dead; X-Files reruns! (Very excited Scully and Mulder are coming back!)

Lastly, I was very chuffed to have a football story included in The Footy Almanac 2015 and *I’m loving reading the work of other authors within. The Almanac would make a great Christmas present – perfect for beach reading. You can whack in an order here: http://www.footyalmanac.com.au/

To all the readers who have stuck with me, thank you. I hope your 2016 brings good health and good times.

Where I’m at

Author versus self-confidence
Author versus self-confidence

Thunder Road readers are overdue an explanation. For the purposes of this exercise I’m seeing you guys as the parent while I play the recalcitrant teen:

You: “Where have you been?”
Me: “Out.”
You: “What have you been doing?”
Me: “Nothing.” (Checking phone.) “Stuff.”
You: “Don’t look at your phone while I’m speaking to you! I’ve been worried sick about you. You drop off the radar, you don’t call to say where you are or when you’ll be back. And when I ask what you’ve been up to, I get, ‘Nothing’… It’s not good enough!”
Me: (Shuffling feet.) “Got it.”
You: “I’m going to need to see some changes. If you want to be treated as a responsible adult, you need to show me you can behave like one.”
Me: “Yep.”
Pause
Me: “What’s for dinner?”

Apologies for casting blog readers as parents. You don’t need that sort of pressure. The real heat is on yours truly because it’s almost a year since I posted that I’d finished a manuscript. What the heck has happened since then?

Before I answer that, I probably need to fill in some gaps. Provide some context.

The years that I spent writing Game as Ned and Five Parts Dead I worked part time for a website run by an author-tolerant employer. When I had a publisher deadline, I worked less paid hours than usual or stacked my hours differently so I could clear my head for writing/rewriting/editing/rewriting.

When the website got taken over by a big company I had to change my approach and behave, like, all grown-up and professional to keep my job. When the big company was consumed by a monster company, my workload and responsibilities grew proportionately more intense.

About this time, I discovered I was unwell. I had one operation and learned I needed another, plus some clever treatment, to get things back to where my family and I could sleep easier. After much deliberation, I quit my job to concentrate on rest and recovery.

Best laid plans
The vision was to get healthy while working part-time on several freelance gigs and writing my next novel. I did a heap of writing, including belting out a concept and three chapters of an ill-fated side project. But I was naive about a) how much I’d be affected by the surgery and treatment and, b) how ambitious a project this story is. As I posted here, the manuscript is the longest thing I’ve ever written. It may be Book 1 of several or a third of a long book. I don’t know. Smarter brains than mine may make that decision.

Anyway, I was getting close to finishing a draft when I got a job offer out of the blue. At that stage I hadn’t had a regular income for 1.5 years. It didn’t feel like I could say no to any form of legal employment.

Before I fronted up for day one back in Corporate Land I took the terrifying* step of sending my story to three people. (*Sending a whittled chunk of your imagination out from the shade and safety of your workshop into the sunlight is daunting. Really sleep-wrecking scary. Because if it’s crap, you’re about to find out.)

Person 1 read the manuscript and felt it needed more work. Person 1 was correct. And then I panicked. I was freaking out that a) my story was rubbish, b) I’d lost any ability to write and c)I’d wasted all that time. I asked persons 2 and 3 to stop reading and clutched my manuscript back to my chest.

Detour
Then I put a collared shirt back on and fronted up to an office.

It’s been almost a year back in a job-land. Authoring has had to take a back seat to parenting, partnering, staying healthy and earning a grown-up wage.

All that time, the story has been growing inside me. The characters have been maturing, making decisions and altering their futures. The universe has been evolving. I’ve been increasingly antsy and eager to dive back in.

Last week I took unplanned leave and ploughed through another draft. Then sent it to Person 3 again, plus Person 4. Still scary. I’m clueless as to whether it’s any good or how much panel-beating is required.

But I’m closer than I was a week ago.

The Cartographer

The cartographer
saw the vastness of landscape
and rendered it knowable.
Transformed terrain
to elevations, angles,
contour line etchings
and watercourse filigree.

The cartographer
used his raptor vision
to view conflict as landscape,
charting paths through
political quicksand,
over bureaucratic dunes
to the ocean of truth.

The cartographer,
now guided not guiding,
his acute compass
dizzied by Alzheimer’s.
Piercing the fog,
he cedes, all pauses and sighs,
“I’ve lost the path”.

Tim Pegler's author odyssey