In just a few days, the Snake will give way to the Horse (in the Chinese zodiac). It was roughly a year ago, before the Snake had even entered, that I finished my tome of a historical novel.
Here’s what I mean by ‘finished’: I planned it, did my research, wrote the first draft, and then ‘edited’ that draft twice – from the first page through to the last, where editing included the heavy re-writing of particular chapters. I was aided throughout, even in the early stages, by Dr. Nathalie Teitler, poet, director of The Complete Works II and a professional developmental editor. Some writers think this unusual, but for me, feedback is invaluable while I’m still crafting a story.
Ultimately, the whole endeavour took two years. This, I was told, was not that long, given the scope of what I attempted: a story commencing in 1878 and ending just before the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 (a period which spans sixty three years), where real history is incorporated into a fictional setting.
Writing my book made me look at art and artists in a different way. Most of us see only the finished piece, be it a book or play, opera or painting; we don’t usually think about how much effort a ballerina or opera singer, actor or painter, has had to put in. Now I know.
My novel Spirit of Kueh contains roughly 145,000 words. To give you an idea of what that means, the first two paragraphs of this blog-post contain approximately 100 words. Imagine writing 1,450 more paragraphs like those and then editing each twice, and you will perhaps see why it took so long. By the time I finished, I had reached the point of exhaustion. I closed the folder on my PC marked ‘Manuscript’ and could not look at it again. There was no way I could have edited my novel a third time – not then anyway.
In this age of bite-sized concentration and 140-character sound bites, I’m aware that a novel of 145,000 words is deemed long, especially for a first-time novelist. A published novelist I met (who hasn’t read any of my work) claimed I would never find a publisher. We shall see.
I don’t doubt the challenge, but having put a lot of thought into the way my story should be structured, I believe it hangs together as a coherent whole and some impact would be lost if the story were to be split up. Also, we’re not short of drama: the female protagonist, who is illiterate, starts her own business while raising a family of ten children. Ten children! How many of us could imagine raising ten children? All of this takes place against a backdrop of a rapidly westernising Malaya. Hence the themes in my novel are rather contemporary : the ongoing conflict between modernisation and tradition, and especially for those of us living as minorities in a foreign land: what is the true cost of (our) cultural assimilation?
My next step then, after three months of research, was to send off query letters to agents, together with a synopsis and the relevant pages or chapters. Each agent, incidentally, is different: writing to them is like applying for a job; there is no ‘standard’, and everyone asks for something slightly different, which means that each query takes time to prepare. I wrote to five agents, received one response – a no – and was ignored by the others.
Fortunately or unfortunately, life then took over. I became bogged down with managing a house renovation project in a new country (France) and my routine went kaput. In snatched moments, I wrote. Not being able to focus in the same way, I turned my hand to non-fiction, jotting down hundreds of snippets about the many surprises France laid my way. I also wrote two pieces of flash fiction (published in Litro Online and Postcard Shorts) and several short stories (now under consideration for publication). Without a proper routine, it was impossible for me to even think about what Helen Dunmore, the award-winning author who visited us during the one Arvon Foundation course I attended, called ‘writing biz’: the process of dealing with the commercial, non-creative side of writing. Agents and publishers fall into this category.
Now that we are about to enter the Year of the Horse, it feels to me that the time has come. I have looked again at the folder marked ‘Manuscript’ and have, inevitably, begun further editing. This time, I bring a fresh eye and new skills, skills I could only have gained by writing short fiction. Indeed, I find that many of the published novels I read today could use further editing. In art though, there is no right or wrong; you could continue editing a story ad infinitum. When do you stop?