Category Archives: Persistence

Zen Exercise or Sea Wreck?

At some point this year, I will reach the ninth anniversary of having started my novel.  Nine years, thirteen drafts – still plugging away.  ‘It’s like a zen exercise,’ said my sister, when I last met her.  Pretty much.  Each time I feel I’ve got to the end, there’s another reason to start again.  Usually feedback from an agent or an editor.

In this latest draft, it has lost fifteen thousand words.  Maybe more.  The last one was over seventy thousand words, it’s now at fifty-three.  I might eventually get it published as a short story.

But I’m still learning.  Most of the loss has been the flashback chapters that the current editor felt held up the pace of it.  What is interesting, is that having removed them, they aren’t too much of a loss.  I’ve cut a character and bolstered up another.  I feel like some bloke in his shed, tinkering at something mechanical that will never quite be finished.

Though, this draft feels close.  I think one more read through and I might be ready.  And if I get asked to do another draft?  Maybe.  My friends and writing colleagues seem to be past the point when they asked me if this was really the last version.  They may even have forgotten that I’m writing.

I have in mind a sea wreck, jutting up from the tide, some mad bloke running up and down the shore shouting, ‘It’s nearly done!  Nearly done!’  It’s not me, of course.  I’m just nine years into writing a short novel: on my thirteenth draft, which I’m calling a fourteenth because I think it might be bad luck.

Writing Fiction: Man Without a Yacht

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a presentation from a young entrepreneur explaining her app for making meetings more efficient.  She was introduced by her sponsor, a middle-aged man, who said that he invested in small, promising ventures, such as hers, as a way to earn enough money to be able to live the dream and buy a yacht.  Admitting that clearly, as he was here, he hadn’t achieved it yet.  He then went and sat at the side, looking very much like a man who doesn’t have a yacht.

I know what he means.  I have a tendency to defer my current happiness on the basis that something big will occur in the future.  Getting published, for instance.  Which raises the question, why do I write if this is not going to happen? (A statistical likelihood.)  What is the present pleasure?

I recently started playing guitar again.  Dusted off and restrung (the guitar, not me) I have really enjoyed it.  I find that I am at a level to play a basic version of Bach’s ‘O Haupt voll Blut and Wunden,’ (the one Paul Simon adapted for ‘American Tune’).  Believe me, I have no ambitions to play this in public.  It is doubtful that crowds would fill St Martin’s in the Fields to hear P. Gapper’s faltering versions of Easy Baroque Pieces for Classical Guitar.  But playing each chord of Bach’s magnificent progression is a great joy.

It is said that this is the way to live life.  As if you are singing a song, enjoying each note rather than rushing to the end.

Try telling that to my laptop.  I am in yet another period of struggle with my writing.  But there are moments of pleasure, and over all, the sense of achievement makes it worth it.

During the recent debate over Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature, an online contributor said something to the effect that the decision made her wonder about the point of writing novels.  Even suggesting she might give up.  I suspect her argument was about feeling devalued, but there was also something about the importance of an end point to give your work worth.

For me, then, I have to decide, does the pleasure come from the simple act of writing, or am I sitting in the corner waiting for a yacht?

Writing Fiction: How Many Drafts?

At the end of my last writers’ group before the summer break, one of my colleagues approached me in the corridor and asked me if this was going to be the last draft of my novel.  I could have read her wrongly, but it seemed to me she was suggesting that it should be the last draft.  I understand.  Thirteen drafts surely suggests that you’re just hacking over old ground.  What about the liberation of new turf?

Except that in the course of the last eight years, by ploughing back and forth, changing characters, plot, dialogue – you name it – I have been learning how to write.

At the moment, I’m sowing in a new plot line.  What has surprised me is the pleasure of doing so.  A confidence in the voice.  The way solutions have presented themselves.  Perhaps it’s because I know the field (sorry about this, I’ve got stuck in a metaphor), and there are joys in staying here a while longer.  I’ll finish when I know that I have truly transformed it to something I can happily leave behind.

I’m not there yet.  There may be many drafts to come.  I hope not too many.  But I’m willing to stay.

Writing Fiction: Light in the Dark

Going back over the wodge of first draft – of the twelfth draft – chapters has been a dispiriting exercise. The character who had become so clear by the end of that draft, is, at the start, vague, ill-defined, and largely absent. My feet begin to drag, my heart sinks.

Combine this with the usual travails of life. On Monday, having struggled with a chapter before going to work, I then went in and ran a training course. It was a disaster. The participants clearly knew more about the policy that I was there to tell them about than I did, and feedbacks were mediocre. This is for a client who gives me a lot of work. Visions of the contract collapsing, combined with the general enervation of the day, left me in a state of turmoil. In the evening, having hoped to have time to recuperate, I ended up having an argument-by-text with my girlfriend. I went to bed feeling tinges of a depression that occasionally bugs me when things seem hopeless.

In the morning, feeling lousy, I meditated for half-an-hour and something happened. I experienced, briefly, a sense of everything changing, all of the time. I came out of it feeling more optimistic.

Then, after breakfast, it was back to the editing. Another clunker of a chapter, where the bright, bubbly character was absent and there was lots of middling-to-middling writing. I started to lift out what I could, and suddenly had a picture of her in a car, late at night, driving past McDonalds and feeling virtuous. I set aside the editing and started to write. And there she was burbling away in her own style.

So, what to make of all of this? Perhaps, that Edison quote about life’s failures not knowing how close they were to success when they gave up. Or just the way that inspiration comes out of the darkest places. Perhaps more, that it’s my general experience of writing: it comes when it comes, and my role is to be open to it.

Writing Fiction: What If?

I’m going to tell the story of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, so if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now.

An old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, sets sail and goes beyond his normal fishing grounds. He hooks a marlin, really big; the biggest of his lifetime. The two of them set-to in a relentless battle: day and night, his boat dragged farther and farther into the Gulf, his hands cut-up by the fishing line and still he persists. In the end, he defeats the fish. On the way back, sharks begin to nip at the carcass until, by the time he reaches the village, the big fish is nothing but a skeleton. The bones are pushed around by the waves, mistaken by locals as just another shark. The man collapses to his bed, exhausted, and sleeps.

You set out to achieve something big, you get it, but in the end, what do you have? On the other hand, there may be some gain. The story ends with the old man’s dream of lions on a beach.

Let me tell you another story. This time a true one, told to me by a friend. Before the last Olympics, a British champion – who has dreamt all her life of winning an international gold medal – waits to take the only automatic place on offer for gymnastics. But the British Olympic Committee organises further events as a decider. She loses to a teammate and is put on the reserve list, then watches as her rival fails in one of the events she could have shone in. No matter, the Commonwealth Games are coming up and she is guaranteed automatic entry. A month before the Games she has a serious injury and cannot go. She will retire before she can compete again.

Science tells us that human beings have an inbuilt optimism: ask a newly-married couple if they are likely to divorce and they will say no – statistics show a 50/50 chance*. Like players of the lottery, we ignore the statistics and buy our tickets every day.

Writers are no different. After eleven years, I am still quietly confident, but I increasingly focus on ‘learning how to write’ as an achievement I can point to. Truth is, my original ambition may never be realised.

There are some who publish and are happy with their success. Others, like the fisherman, find the prize quickly disappears in front of them. Others still, never achieve what they wanted – through unexpected events, bad luck, perhaps even lack of will or talent. They are constantly denied and, in the end, have to accept the loss. What do those people do? How do they make sense of what has happened?

I have no answers for this, just a question that hovers around and occasionally causes me to look into the future: I hope I will get what I want. But, what if?


Writing Fiction: Rant

Pardon me for me for being overly-dramatic, but sometimes it is literally like someone is standing in front of me, hands against my chest, pushing hard in the opposite direction.

Literally, figuratively – whatever.

Is my comfortable life in check? Certainly. The flat has recently been painted, a lovely new relationship started, I have enough money and work to see me through to next year.

So, what’s with this self-defeating mood? Every now and then it pops up, looks at what I’m writing and says, there is no hope and certainly no point. One of those moods where if, in a year-or-so’s time, London is invaded and reduced to rubble, I’ll think, what the hell was I worrying about?

Psychological tricks and motivational games come and go, but the answer is what it has always been: keep turning up and keep putting one foot in front of the other – that, and the support of fellow writers and friends. Oh, and meditation and exercise.

In the end, I know it will pass. If I come up with anything new, I’ll let you know.

Writing Fiction: Signless

Sometimes, on meditation retreats, I get impatient with my dreams. What I want is golden buddhas descending through the rose-coloured air, pointing the way and saying, ‘Yes, Paul Gapper, you are doing the right thing. Your presence here is exactly what is required.’ Instead, I have dreams about missing training sessions, going to the wrong place, arguing with friends.

But I know that I will come away feeling better: more in touch with myself, more contented.

Much of my life seems to be like this. No great signposts saying, ‘This Way in 300 Yards,’ just a feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction after the event.

There are more decisive moments. When I did my first writing course, I knew that I loved it and had to get on the one-year novel-writing follow-up. But day-to-day, I turn up with my laptop with a feeling it is probably the right thing to do.

Recently, after I hit a bump with my writing, a friend suggested I consider stopping. I said, ‘No, no. You keep turning up, keep turning up.’ Though I’m not sure I argued a particularly strong case for why. Just a hunch that it was probably better than giving up.

And, for a lot of the time, that’s pretty much all I have to go on.