Staring Down the Barrel of a Rewrite

The course of a novel never did run smooth. I first had the idea for this novel while I was at university (oh so many years ago). I originally envisaged it as being a thinly-veiled fictional reportage of my grandfather’s World War 2 experiences. Then I realised that wasn’t enough to sustain a book and built a plot around it. As the financial clusterfuck gathered pace I began to get more and more interested in left wing, then far left wing and finally radical left wing theory. All the mainstream political parties in Britain were advocating essentially right wing economic policy, squabbling over decimal points rather than anything as fundamental as “are we on the right track”. Then the Scottish Independence movement got some steam up and I thought “here’s my novel: combine these three things and you’ve got a book.” So I tried. Then, like Bruce, I tried again. I thought I’d managed it but of course I made the same mistake that every “communist” country (I put it in inverted commas because there has never been a real Communist country, as even the most cursory reading of Trotsky will tell you) does, in that I figured ideology + the passage of time = narrative. Of course it doesn’t, but it took a reader and writer of far greater insight than I have to spot it (no names, though if you visit the friends page, you may find him). And so. I’m back not quite to square one but a novel I thought only needed a light repainting turns out to need months in the dry dock, an entire new hull, mast and rudder and even a possible renaming ceremony. Still, I want to write the best book I can, not just achieve a coherent word count, which is why I ask these people I trust to tell me the truth. I consider myself one of the luckiest writers in that I have friends who are not only talented and cleverer than I, but are capable of being honest in a helpful way. Not all writers are as lucky.

Anyway, I’m back in chapter one, simplifying, rearranging and turning a series of points into a (hopefully) gripping story. So far it’s going well. I’m 10’000 words in and painting good scenes with fun dialogue. But that has never been my problem. My problem has always been making these scenes, these conversations, add up to anything very much. Well, they say the third time’s a charm (or, as the genius Simon Munnery has it: “Once bitten, twice shy, three times a lady”) so hopefully in the not to distant future this book will actually be done.

I’m currently reading Roddy Doyle’s Oh, Play That Thing. I’ve always admired Doyle’s ability with (lack of) narrative. His books are, at first glance, top heavy on the dialogue with seemingly little in the way of narrative. One of the many ‘creative writing tutors’ I’ve had over the years described his style as “nothing more than stage directions from a writer so convinced his books would be films.” Well, many of his books have become films (and this particular tutor was talking about The Commitments), so maybe he had a point, but returning to Doyle’s work for the first time in more than a decade, I am amazed again by the way he can use dialogue as a novelistic tool. Usually, in most novels, dialogue and narrative waltz around each other, syncopated, melody and counter-melody, but always distinct. In Doyle’s work (and he’s not unique in this, Irvine Welsh, Duncan McLean and Chuck Palahniuk to name but three) it’s almost impossible to tell where one stops and the other begins. It’s totally different from the way dialogue is used in theatre or film scripts. He has a real understanding of the difference between dialogue on a page that’s meant to be read out loud and dialogue that is meant to pass silently from paper to the inner voice in our head. It’s a skill I really admire and one I am determined to master. Picking up this book at this time was a coincidence, but it might just be the reminder of the direction I want my writing to go in that I needed.

In the meantime, why not watch the documentary that, in part, inspired this book: The Scots Who Fought Franco.

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