Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Faulkner-Wisdom: Gift from the Past: The Girl in the Bathtub

After last year when The Girl in the Bathtub was named a finalist in the 2012 Faulkner-Wisdom for the novel-in progress category (and a short-list finalist for 2013), I decided it was high time that I finished that book.  It was nearly a decade when I first wrote those opening chapters, gradually adding a chapter here and there until I passed the 200-page mark, ending Part One. 
I still had two parts to go.

The Girl in the Bathtub is also the follow up to A Perfect Day for an Expat Exit, another finalist from last year’s Faulkner-Wisdom in the novel category, and the second in a series on Expats in Southeast Asia that I had planned while living in Penang, where both novels are set.  A third book would be set in Singapore, a fourth in Thailand, and a possibly a fifth in Borneo where I now live.

But that second book kept stalling or I kept setting it aside to work on my other novels (reviving two from the dead: one made it to the finals last year, the other short-list finals this year).  It wasn’t the blank page that was bothering me; it was the opposite—I was over­whelmed by all these notes, over 200 pages, single-spaced, and organized mostly in rough form by chapters for Part Two and Part Three.  Originally they were written on various sizes of papers from a pocket-size notebook to back of enve­lopes to half or full length pages in my scrawling handwriting that my students com­plained about for years:  “Thanks for all the comments on my story, sir, but I can’t read it.”

Even I had difficulty deciphering some of my cryptic notes for this novel.  Gradually, over the years, I did type these notes into the computer and did manage to fit them into the appropriate chapters (chapter outlines do come in handy) or if I wasn’t sure, tacked them on to the end of Part Two or Part Three to be dealt with later.  I would also advance the latest chapter, make more notes along the way, and occasionally revise the first fifty or all two hundred pages of Part One to keep the novel alive.

Still, I had to deal with this huge jigsaw puzzle of notes that contained individual sentences, paragraphs, descriptions, plot ideas, character sketches and snippets of dialogue . . . with plenty of pieces missing.   At times, they were overwhelming.

Finally last year I made some headway into Part Two, chapter 13, when I got stalled again.  Then mid-May this year, after editing and reading aloud three novels before submitting them to 2013 Faulkner-Wisdom, in­cluding the first 50 pages of The Girl in the Bathtub, I reread the remainder of those two hundred pages of Part One and decided this is going to be the year that I completed the first draft.  I realized that I was looking at the problem the wrong way.  Instead of feeling overwhelmed by all these notes, I felt grateful that I had all these notes—better than a blank screen!  In fact, the notes were a gift from my past, and the time had arrived for me to accept this gift with open arms. 

I knew if I just stuck with it and plowed through them I could carve out a first draft in three months as a birth­day present to myself.  This sounded like a win-win challenge for me (plus a nice present, too).  Instead of looking at all 200 pages of notes as a mess to deal with, I broke them down to bite size chunks, first by chapter, then by scenes.  I would read through the 10-15 pages of notes for a chapter, jot down what the scenes were about, and organized the notes by scene (giving each note a letter a, b, c, d, e) and then shifted the notes into each section.  Next, I’d work within each scene, putting related stuff together and seeing if I could work out an opening and keep it going.

Once I finished chapter 13 (after cleaning it up, printing it out, editing and correcting) I immediately moved on to chapter 14, not wanting to stop my mo­mentum and risk letting weeks, months, or another ten years slip by.  The Girl in the Bathtub became this game for me, a challenge of taking all these old ideas and seeing if I could turn it into something new that moved the novel forward.  Occasionally I’d have to create new material as an opening for a chapter or as a transition scene, while tossing out stuff that no longer worked or shifting leftover material to later chapters or to the end of Part Two, just in case. 
Pretty soon, I began rethinking my plot, making new notes, asking myself questions about scenes and the characters.  If you write down those questions to yourself, ultimately you’ll get the answers; I often did late at night or stepping out of the shower in the morning, a reason I keep notepads and pens everywhere.

I gained more confidence as I moved into chapter 15 and began thinking ahead to the following chapters and would work out the various scene sections and if I was lucky, an opening paragraph or two, so by the time I was ready to move into that chapter, I already had a head start; I wouldn’t have to start cold.

Some chapters, like chapter 19, the last chapter of Part Two, were a nightmare.  I had 30 pages of single-spaced notes (potentially 60 double spaced pages) for basically one really long scene, including all this leftover stuff from the preceding chapters that I couldn’t fit in any­where.  Some of the stuff I had to shift to Part Three for the same reasons.  I was careful about deleting stuff, because I found too many instances where I kept pushing bits and pieces of stuff that didn’t seem to work to later chapters, and then my subcon­scious would find a way to link three or four of these pieces together in a way that I had never antici­pated and I would think, wow, where did that come from?

Most chapters came together in a fairly straight forward manner; however, it may have taken me a week to piece it all altogether and iron out the wrinkles.  Others, like chapters 19 and 22, felt like I was pulling my hair and teeth at the same time.  I’d have all these notes, cleaned up more or less in order by section but I couldn’t see how they could work together, so I’d have to print it out and try matching them up with some creative editing notes and directional arrows whereby I needed to link a few sentences from four separate pages and then shift all that to a paragraph on a fifth page before combining it with another paragraph on a sixth page (spread over 15 or so pages, going back and forth in different directions).  A night­mare that re­quired a lot of concen­tration and no interruptions from my wife or children or I’d freak out and take hours to find out where missing stuff ended up and risk either losing my mind or getting stalled for another ten years.

Some chapters I had no idea how I was going to start or end it until I actually got to the end.  Other times, I had to skip the beginning and worked the later sections first and only then did I find a way to write an opening scene.  Mostly what I had to do was just sit there, hours on end, and plow through this maze of notes, scene by scene, and try not to bail out to check the internet or emails or work on other projects.

Eventually, out of sheer determination, I made it to the end of each scene, end of each chapter all the way to chapter 25 and the end of Part Three by August 2nd, the day before my birthday.  In the process, I took The Girl in the Bathtub from page 204, after years of going nowhere very fast, to page 510.  That’s three hundred decent pages in less than three months.

I know, it’s still a first draft and it’s still going to require a lot of work, but right now, unlike those previous years, I have a complete draft of a new novel to work with and that’s pretty exciting.  As I begin the revising process for draft two The Girl in the Bathtub can only get better.

Of course, I would not recommend writing a novel this way, but sometimes you got to do what you got to do to get the darn thing finished, if only for yourself.  And if judges for Faulkner-Wisdom competition are thinking the first part is pretty darn good, then I’d better make sure the rest is pretty good, too.

Once this second book in the Expats in Southeast Asia series is completed, I can start sifting through my notes for my Singapore book and the one set in Thailand.   

These books will also be gifts from my past.

                          --Borneo Expat Writer 

*An Unexpected Gift from a Growling Fool was also named a shortlist finalist for the 2013 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel, and Act of Theft, shortlist finalist for the novella, so five books into two years!

**Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards:  Six Lessons

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

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