Having written mostly screenplays and poetry for many years, the thought of writing a novel seemed vaguely ludicrous. It was what other people did; great intellectuals and artists like Salman Rushdie or John Steinbeck or Annie Proulx. I would read their novels and be unable to grasp how they’d managed to construct sentences of such beautiful complexity or staggering simplicity. How do you describe a rock formation? In “The Shipping News” Proulx not only tells a sweeping story of love and heritage, she tells the story of a place from its very geology, from its mineral content and microscopic inhabitants. In a screenplay, all a writer has really to do is say something along the lines of:
EXT. RUGGED COASTLINE – DAY
Ancient cliffs of black granite pounded by Atlantic breakers. A desolate beach, fossilised rocks tumbling and chattering as they are swept up in foam, and discarded.
That might even be a little flowery for a screenplay. But at any rate – the job of the screenwriter there is done. The camera and location do the rest of the work. A novelist must conjure something deeper, must have a more coloured palette with which to paint his page.
I do however enjoy the process of simplifying language in a screenplay. There’s a certain OCD pride in being able to cut a description down by one word, two words and still have this leaner sentence communicate the original intention. Novelists like Cormac McCarthy and Hemingway can strip back language in similar ways yet still give the reader a rich imagery.
But reading novelists like these can ruin the potential author as he stares at the blank page of his debut novel as I did this morning. I fiddled with Facebook for 10 minutes then I looked at the opening paragraphs from Rushdie’s “The Moor’s Last Sigh” and from McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”:
“I have lost count of the days that have passed since I fled the horrors of Vasco Miranda’s mad fortress in the Andalusian mountain-village of Benengeli; ran from death under cover of darkness and left a message nailed to the door. And since then along my hungry, heat-crazed way there have been further bunches of scribbled sheets, swings of the hammer, sharp exclamations of two inch nails.”
“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folks are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.”
Booth are books by writers I greatly admire and whose prose any writer would aspire to. Re-reading them today, they struck me with their simplicity. Yes, there are passages within both books that are more complex, more profound, but on the whole, the sentences in both these books (in isolation) are nothing I felt I couldn’t write. And if I can write a sentence like Rushdie or McCarthy and a novel is made of a lots of sentences, surely I just have to write a lot of sentences like them and I will have a novel of similar weight, right?? I’m being facetious of course, but this half-baked logic did at least get me started on finally beginning the first draft of my first novel. I’ve been planning and structuring and writing bios for months and began to realise I was stalling. The novel is mostly set in India and I had convinced myself that I must be in India to write it – despite the fact that I’ve been to all of the places many times. So I said fuck it (sign of a weak vocabulary), made a big cafetiere and got going.
I read somewhere that Jack London wrote 1000 words per day. If it was good enough for him. So I wrote 1100 just to feel a little superior to old Jack. In 100 days at this rate, I’ll have a novel. Or I’ll have a lot of excuses.