My first novel took a long time to write. The original idea occurred to me way back in the last century, but I took a long time to gear myself up for the task. Various needlessly elaborate plans were made, I'm sure, in that time. I began writing in earnest somewhere around 2002. I estimate the time from idea to first words was about five years. I finished (at least I thought I had) in 2006 when the complete novel was shortlisted in the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards for an Emerging Queensland Author. It wasn't finished. Not by a long shot.
Everyone from editors, agents, readers, and anyone else with a passing interest in it offered advice on how to improve it. Predictably, some of the advice was contradictory, but much of it was beneficial. With the benefit of advancing years I've figured out how to listen to such advice. Usually the best advice is the kind you deep down already knew.
Another two years of tinkering took place with the novel finally completed in 2008. By my calculation that's around eleven years from idea to text.
Here Today began as a series of discrete stories centred around disability and set in Brisbane. Literary types would call the form a ‘discontinuous narrative’; to me it was an easy way to break a daunting task like a novel down into manageable size chunks. It also meant that, while I took ages to write the manuscript as a whole, I could polish individual stories and offer them up for publication. With a few, I succeeded, which was encouraging. In 2004, the first story from Here Today, ‘Heavens’ made it into print in the Australian journal Overland. Leith made it out into the world the following year when ‘Blackdrifts’ was published in Island. Eventually, I realised I would have to link the individual stories with some kind of overarching narrative. As the novel progressed, the individual short stories became more tightly woven, which meant that a story like ‘Frangipani’ had to be radically redrafted (and retitled) before it could be published in Meanjin as ‘Twelve Years, One Month and Thirteen Days’. Some other stories like ‘Battle’ or ‘Sixpence’ now seem far too dependent on the main story to carry them. It would have been nice to see those published alone, but they make far better sense within the novel. One that disappointed me was ‘Rosaries’. I would have loved to see that in print and I would rate it as the best short I’ve every written. But it is kind of long and the really good stuff happens right at the end.
Nevertheless I enjoyed seeing at least a few of the characters entering the world while I still worked on the bulk of the story. It’s a great way to keep yourself motivated when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
I was once told by a far more experienced editor that young writers frequently attempt to pour too much into their stories. I think the Grand Structure of my first novel speaks volumes. Is it a flaw? That’s up to you, but if it is, it’s a flaw I can live with.