Sunday, September 14, 2008

Writing Novels: Making a Commitment

Saying, “I want to be a novelist” is not good enough. Wanting means nothing. Don’t we all want to be wealthy, healthy, happy and loved? But are we? Have we made a personal commitment to being wealthy, to being healthy, to be being happy, to being loved? What daily actions have we committed to in order to achieve these results? What we sow, we reap. That’s biblical and logical, too. If you don’t sow your novel you will not reap it either. If you don’t spend the vast amount of your writing time on writing a novel, it will not get written, let alone published. Wishing and hoping will not take you very far in life, so that’s why I’ve decided to make a commitment. I will not only publish my novel, I’ll publish a series of them, and they will provide me a healthy living. This is my novel project. I’m committed to this.

Bold words, I know. Life has a way of challenging our words and our so-called commitments, even in the form of success. Since the republication of Lovers and Strangers Revisited in late July I have hardly spent any writing time on my novel. I edited 100 pages on the way to Kuala Lumpur and thirty pages on the way back to Kuching and then dropped the ball. I let other projects crowd out my novel writing time (nine workshops, readings and book talks in just over 30 days didn’t exactly help, not to mention grading overdue papers). But I had opportunities to squeeze in some writing here and there, which I chose, for whatever reason, not to.

In order to get to where you want to be in your writing life you must take stock as to where you are right now. Financial planners tell you the same thing. Ok, I’m looking into my finances, too, and making a commitment in that area as well (and my health, my happiness, my being loved and giving plenty of love to my family). They all go together. Sorry, I don’t wish to become a miserable, embittered, lonely, broke novelist slowly drinking himself to death in the tropics. A cliché, too.

Or worse, one who ends up killing himself like a lot of good novelist have done (while revising this, I read about David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, which poignantly and rather sadly reinforces my point). I choose to be happy, healthy, loving, and wealthy. Years ago, I also made a decision not to drink, which helps me in all other aspects of my life. (Having alcoholic relatives, friends, and co-workers when I was living in States clearly demonstrated to me that this was not the way to go – they were not happy, their love lives were a wreck, their health were failing, and you can guess as to the state of their financial affairs; not to mention they were overly obnoxious when drunk and constantly complaining when sober.) This is not a choice, but a personal commitment to me, to my family.

So where am I as a novelist in this novel project? And what decisions can I make to get to where I want to be, and what personal commitments can I make to ensure that I get there? Last September I made a commitment to rewrite my novel The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady (*now The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady) so that it would be ready for the 2008 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel Competition, which had a deadline by April 1.

To be honest, I thought I could whip this out in a month or so since I had already been through this novel 14 times, though it’s been a couple of years since I last looked at it, and then plow through another novel that I was hoping to finish in time, too. But while rewriting this novel, I made several decisions that would require a major overhaul and several more drafts before it would be ready. Painful, time consuming decisions. But I remembered the advice of Lucy, an editor friend of mine, who said I’d be better off devoting a lot of time to one novel to get it right than rushing through several novels, which I often did in the past.

To help me get The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady ready, I set an earlier deadline, March 1st, which was the deadline for The National Writer’s Association Novel contest. Through some massive effort, I met this deadline. More importantly, I could now change gears, set the novel aside for a cooling off period. To help take my mind off of it, I got busy rewriting the first fifty pages of my other novel, The Girl in the Bathtub, which is set in Malaysia, for the Novel-in Progress category.

Then once again back to The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady. I was appalled by the number of careless mistakes I had made while rushing to meet the earlier deadline and how much I needed to rewrite. I was even shifting large chunks of material around! I was doubly glad I met that earlier deadline so I had the time to do this, and was pleasantly surprised when this previous draft won Fourth Place in the 2008 National Writers Association contest and was glad to have their valuable feedback from their fiction critique scoring system, which scored high in marketability.

As for the Faulkner-Wisdom contest, The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady just missed out in being one of the finalists. It placed in their “almost finalist” category. The Girl in the Bathtub was a semi-finalist in the novel-in progress category, a disappointment, but an improvement over last year. (Last year, by the way, my short story “Malaysian Games” was runner-up in the short story category.) So now I have two viable novels and two other novels, one set in Malaysia and in the US, both of which are scheduled for rewriting next month for the 2009 Faulkner-Wisdom contest. I will also be entering my two Malaysian novels for the Man Asian Prize. All four novels are part of my novel project, and the publication of one could lead to the publications of the others.

Before I had learned of the results, I was already looking through chapter one of The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady and began rewriting it again, making massive changes in those first few pages, which, I admit, have been problematic. I wanted to make them as good as I can before I start writing to some agents later this month, now that the results are in, because I know that they can quickly tell from those opening pages whether they have something saleable in their hands. If they see too many red flags, their experience tells them it’s not worth their time, so they’ll pass.

Having completed the line editing for the rest of the novel, which, thankfully, was minimal, I’m now in the process of making those corrections on my computer. This is where I’m at as a novelist. Knowing that the previous two drafts have done well in two U.S. contests this year gives me hope that I’m onto something good and I can only make it better, so when an agent requests to read it I can send it out immediately, confident that I’ve done my best.

To further improve those opening five pages, I recently exchanged them with another Faulkner “almost finalist” writer who contacted me after the results came out. I’ve just given him detailed feedback on his pages (my gut reaction to them and some helpful suggestions to improve them) and am waiting his comments on mine. Just because I choose to live in Borneo doesn’t mean I have to write in isolation! Later, I’ll write about the valuable lesson that came out of this exchange (and from previous exchanges with other novelists while living in Penang), that sometimes we’re too close to our own writing that we’ve been honing for years to see our own flaws that’s preventing it from publication. This was a rude awakening for me. This is also another important step on the road to publication and a happy ending to my novel project. Wish me luck, and I hope your own novel, or book project, is coming along just fine. If not, make that commitment!

*Update: The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady just advanced to the Quarterfinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012!  It was also short listed for 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Award.

***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.


KeeMan said...

Hi Mr. Robert,

Seriously, you can write a non-fiction book on this. I mean inspiring others to write. :)

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks. I've been asked to write a book on creative writing and a course, too. I think we all need to be inspired now and then. Success breeds success. Suceess of others that I know definitely inspires me, and if my success can inspire others -- that's great!

Anthony James Barnett said...

Enjoyed your blog. Found it by accident. Quite informative. Keep up the good work.

Anthony James Barnett -author

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks and thanks for leaving your blog address, which I just checked out and your website, too. Great advice. Too many writers want to get published but aren't willing to do the hard rewriting that it takes to get pubished. Sounds beautiful where you're living. Wishing you succes with your novel and the sequel. Perhaps we can make an autographed exchange, your novel for my collection of short stories. All the best.

Anthony James Barnett said...

Thanks. Good idea for a book swap, but I'll probably have to pass.

This afternoon my publishers sent an urgent message asking for ALL my copies. They've run short and are scrambling to make up numbers for a book signing on Saturday.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Have a great time at the signing. I know what's it's like to run short of books, and read of others arriving with no books or the books arrive too late. Not a good feeling. Better to have too many than not enough -- a wasted opportunity! Enjoy! And sign those autographs!

MayaKirana said...

Hi Robert: Thanks for the push! Not nudge...haha. I'm really glad we reconnected after so many years because not only do we share a student-teacher relationship, you're also our client, and we're also good friends, encouraging each other - especially with books, CDs and DVDs on success and achievement.Thank you for always being positive and keeping me and my goals in view. See you when you get to Penang in October.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks. Just finished the rewrite of The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady, and got the idea for two, possibly three sequels. Didn't think that would be possible, seeing how the book ends, but while in Penang I got an idea and have found a way to tie it back to this book with another book coming in between the two, which I'm anxious to start drafting out. Momentum is everything, and if you can back that with enthusiasm and a great idea, plus you can make the time for it, you become what they call -- unstoppable.