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Week X+8

In the late, great Alan Plater’s 1994 novel Oliver’s Travels, the characters play a game to pass the time on a long car journey. In the game, you have to talk as if you’re a character in a soap opera (“I sometimes think we’re all running away in this God-forsaken world” “And I guess this is where the running has to stop”). And if you can’t think of anything to say, you can use the line, “What’s that supposed to mean?” because it crops up all the time in tv dialogue to get the writers out of a hole.

I read the book again a short time ago, and here’s the thing: suddenly I hear the phrase “What’s that supposed to mean?” every time I turn on the tv – in the last couple of weeks alone in Star Trek Deep Space Nine, House, Spooks and Castle. If you look out for it, you can’t help noticing it – it’s everywhere. The thing to do is not to let it annoy you, but every time you hear it, have a drink, or eat a chocolate, or buy a new car, or something. (I do the same thing when watching Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel by counting the number of times they say, “that was AWEsome” – or, as they rather charmingly pronounce it, “Ossum”).

I finished the first major overhaul of my novel at the weekend, reducing it from 135,000 words to 95,000, mostly by cutting out all unnecessary exposition, descriptions and adverbs. I still have my heart set on getting it under 90,000 words, which I’m confident of achieving by Christmas (it may have no literary merit, but by God, it’s going to be brief!). I wrote the very first draft back in 2003, and reading it again after such a long gap was like reading somebody else’s book. This made it much easier to be ruthless, but there were still times when I felt this other person was a better writer than his current editor!

I’ve been taking it easy on the gansey front this week, partly because I haven’t really been in a knitting mood, partly because I haven’t got a project lined up for when I finish this one, so I’m trying to make it last. Lawrence of Arabia claimed to have left his first (handwritten) draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in a railway carriage, and never recovered it, so he had to write the whole thing again from scratch. There are times when I tackle the second sleeve on a gansey that I think I know how he must have felt.

This week’s bread is another ciabatta, using a different (more authentic) recipe. The thing with ciabatta is that the dough is very wet, and you’re advised to use a machine. As I don’t have a machine, I have to do it the hard way and knead it by hand, though knead is really the wrong word – mostly you’re just trying to stop it pouring off the edge of the counter, like someone trying to contain an oil spill. Overall, the experience is not unlike trying to fit diapers on an octopus. (Once the gluten starts to form it becomes very sticky, too, and at times it was hard to know where the dough stopped and I began.) The results are worth it, though – soft crumb inside, a nice crackly crust and lots of holes.

If this was a soap opera, I would now declare that I’m going to start a new life as an octopus wrangler. (And that would be your cue to say, “What’s that supposed to mean?”…)

8 comments to Week X+8

  • Lynne

    Oh, I DO hope you don’t cut too much of what you define as “unnecessary exposition” from your book. I eagerly look forward to your blog each week – not only for the knitting expertise, and now the breads, but for the words that flow so well together, and, of course, the humor!

  • Happy knitting in the next time!!!!
    Anni from Germany

  • Gordon

    Hi Lynne,

    Thank you, as ever. I think I should stick to the blog, really! But I warn you, the writers I respect the most (for style and content) are Alan Garner and William Golding – neither of whom are famous for their sunny world view…

    The blog is a lot of fun to write, and I think it’s the ephemeral nature of the exercise that gives me the freedom to let myself go (today’s blog is tomorrow’s virtual chip wrapper, to misquote someone). There are times when I think I missed my vocation writing for The Simpsons.

    All the best,
    Gordon

  • Gordon

    Dear Anni,

    How nice to hear from you, thank you! I hope you continue to find this of interest, and happy knitting to you too.

    Cheers,
    Gordon

  • =Tamar

    Don’t cut too much… if only because the word count of a novel has been enlarged so much that many novels of the past are now considered novellas if not short stories. Or at least save the bits for a while. I once wrote a short essay and the first reader said “cut it, it’s too long” so I did. The second reader said “lengthen it” – but then I couldn’t remember what I’d cut.
    So what’s the novel about? (I know, it’s about 90,000 words.)
    WTSTM sounds hostile to me, in any context other than arcane translations, where it can be a genuine question.

  • Gordon

    Hi Tamar,

    I’ve written 3 novels, two of them detective stories (one of them set during the building of the great Elan Valley dams in mid Wales in the 1890s). The one I’m scorching with a flame thrower right now is a fantasy story.

    What’s it about? Well, I wanted to write a fantasy story for “young adults” that could also be enjoyed by adults, the kind of thing I’d have loved when I was (a lot) younger, but would still take down from the shelves today. I wanted it to be set in the present day, because I prefer stories where the fantastic and magical impinge on the real world – so, if you’ve read Alan Garner’s “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” or “Elidor”, or Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” (or watched any episode of Dr Who), you’ll get the idea. I wanted it to be set at Christmas, because I love midwinter stories, and I wanted it to involve wolves (“the wolves are running” is probably the most magical sentence in English, along with “over the hills and far away”!).

    So, in the style of a back-jacket blurb – “A young girl, Mair Rees, has come home to her village in mid Wales for the Christmas holidays. Strange thing start to happen – spectral wolves attack the village, a mythical army arises from beneath a lake, and the village is cut off and besieged. But who is behind it? What is really going on? And what happens when supernatural forces out of legend are found to be real, and still powerful…” Or something like that! (But less cheesy.) Think magic, adventure and betrayal, and you won’t go far wrong.

    It’s taken me a while to find out what sort of writer I am, when it comes to fiction. Just putting words on a page isn’t enough – and over the last few years I’ve discovered that, for me, less is considerably more. So, believe me, the world isn’t missing anything in the stuff I’m eradicating! Like the majority of unpublished writers, it’s pretty bad. But what’s left is, I hope, less so.

    Cheers,
    Gordon

  • =Tamar

    Some say you have to write 100,000 words to become good at it. Still, a few authors seem to be good from day one.
    I’ve read, um, five unpublished authors. One incredibly bad,
    three good (one of whom later self-published), and one very good and I think the publishers are insane to have rejected him. He’s also the most prolific, which seems to support the 100K word idea. Your three novels ought to have covered that part. I look forward with interest to reports. The story sounds like fun.

  • Gordon

    Hi Tamar,

    You need to practice to find your voice, I think. One of the lines of poetry I quote a lot (too often) is from Alexander Pope, and goes: “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learned to dance.” Though whether he had morris dancing in mind, which is one of the few dances I have learned, I rather doubt…