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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

“Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns” he said

Yesterday I got to the end of cutting out the dead wood of my novel, so today is moving straight forward into the last 5000. Feels like a Tennyson poem, or was that “Forward the Light Brigade rode the 600”? This book is much more complex, for me at least, than the first two, mainly because there is not just one central character in the first person, but six characters (including one who could be considered “main”) all of whose thoughts are recorded in free indirect speech – third person narration, but almost all conveyed through individual subjectivity. It’s not Joyce or Woolf – I’m too kind to the reader for that.

That’s my diary entry for 14 April 2010, with the end of my novel in sight. The entries in this post show that I’m more and more aware of the book as a whole; I’m able to summarise its structure and give it a title – Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart wins over the more obscure Solifluction. Also, I’m starting to think about how to publish the book, and whether it might be possible to break into the UK market.

2 March 2010
I didn’t try to work on my novel above the noise of the gutterers’ equipment and Tigger’s indignant barking – just paid bills, answered mails, did the laundry.

I’m here alone. Peaceful rather than lonely. I’ll have a good soaking bath and find a book to read. Sometimes the old ones are more comforting than the new releases.

5 March 2010
Yesterday I went to Home Affairs to apply for a new passport, not that I have any travel plans. Today I will try to get my driver’s licence renewed. That will make it a week of not writing, but quite a lot of maintenance to show for it: new gutters, teeth done, massage, passport, licence, C’s chores in addition to mine. All executed in sweltering heat.

And Dalebrook pool closed with a big sign saying Polluted Water.

I dreamt that my mother was talking to me, holding forth in that astonishingly charismatic way she did. G too is in my dreams, but quieter now, like someone just living, observing, co-existing. No more desperate pleading to wake me at midnight.

23 March 2010
Good work on the novel on Friday and yesterday, also two hours of waking novel thoughts at midnight last night. What was the jokey name P and R had for the Sotho cattle rustlers?

24 March 2010
I am despondent again about the book. I wonder if I am plodding on just to finish it. Readers pick up plodding very quickly. I have about 5000 – 10 000 words to go before a first draft is complete. Not good to be feeling this way now.

26 March 2010
I did solid work on the novel yesterday and the day before. I feel OK about it, though there are many, many details I still want to get right, in addition to actually finishing it. I have a hangnail on my right index finger, which is making typing difficult. Or rather, the plaster is.

29 March 2010
I’ve had two bad nights with a post nasal drip that creates coughing spasms whenever I lie down. Now I feel a bit spaced out from the cold and flu pills I took to get some sleep.

I’m on 52 000 words, very close to a first draft. I had good ideas and impetus this weekend, but yesterday B eventually just came and sat on a stool behind me staring at the screen so that I gave up.

When I have finished the novel I must actively look for work.

We went to see The Railway Station on Saturday – excellent I thought, though Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer acted the young couple off the screen. I liked the fact that Tolstoy’s wife seemed both utterly sane and quite insane, depending on whose point of view you adopted. And the delicately drawn contrasts between ideal love/spiritual love versus the hard tack of family love.

6 April 2010
I have made good progress on the novel, both moving forward and going back chopping and cleaning. I’m working through a list of things that need doing in the story, things I still want to include.

9 April 2010
Another nightmare last night, of the house burning down. I could analyse the dream for what it says about my fears and insecurities (and hopes), or I could accept that last night’s curry was too strong.

Today I will write again. What I’ve been doing is an odd little game. I’m keeping the word total at 55 000 – about 5000 short of a complete novel. Every time I add words, I subtract the equivalent amount from the bits I don’t want that are just sitting there taking up space. I don’t want to delete them all in one go and sink under 55 000, because that will make me despondent, and we can’t have that.

12 April 2010
Despite the class and the lunch, I managed to keep up work on the book, as I hope to this week. There are some areas which need very attentive revision, and I hope I have the surgical skills for it. Perhaps not today – I’ll do simpler bits today.

13 April 2010
The beach yesterday was wonderfully wide and flat. I feel my fitness (such as it is) has come back after the long cold and sinusitis. I slept well too – no bad dreams. There is a man of about 70 who walks his four dogs, throwing them a ball from one of those long plastic scoops. When he goes into the water himself for a dip, the three Labradors follow him, unconcerned about the waves, still playing tug-of-war with a piece of seaweed, occasionally looking over their shoulders at their master. But the tall black poodle is afraid – he stands in the shallows and looks yearningly after the swimming man, willing him to come ashore.

14 April 2010
Yesterday I got to the end of cutting out the dead wood of my novel, so today is moving straight forward into the last 5000. Feels like a Tennyson poem, or was that “Forward the Light Brigade rode the 600”? This book is much more complex, for me at least, than the first two, mainly because there is not just one central character in the first person, but five characters (including one who could be considered “main”) all of whose thoughts are recorded in free indirect speech – third person narration, but almost all conveyed through individual subjectivity. It’s not Joyce or Woolf – I’m too kind to the reader for that. For me, much comedy is revealed in the contrasting thoughts of characters who are close to one another. I think I’ve enjoyed that the most. The other difficult thing is that I dip into their lives for only a day or so over a period of about four years. Two days from 2006, from 2007, 08 … So for the old, old character approaching death and the young, young teenage girl, you get a contrasting sense of one entering life and the other leaving. I’ve had to try to keep a kind of grid going of the changes. But for the middle-aged characters, the changes in time are more minor adjustments in circumstance. I have the tiniest references to developments in SA politics over the period, but perhaps readers won’t even pick that up. There are two possible titles. I thought of calling it “Solifluction” to suggest the way a topography may look unaltered on the surface when there are big movements underneath. But I think that will be too hard for the public, and that I may call it instead “Homemaking for the down-at-heart”, which is the title of a book the old, old character wrote in her day.

19 April 2010
My novel is 350 words short of its goal, but in fact much more work is required – both words and reworking. Things that I wanted clear and beautiful, or funny and recognisable, are not so. Especially in the last section. Perhaps I will start fresh again this morning, in this rain which insulates my office from the world even more. It was too much to expect that I would be able to finish with a fine flourish on a late Sunday afternoon. I woke at 3.30 am for an internal pow-wow on the subject, and dropped off again only just before the alarm.

Martin Amis is not a writer I’m able to appreciate or enjoy. I ordered and bought Money because it was on a list of the 100 best 20th century novels. I didn’t get past the third page. I hate violence and rudeness and to have them in a book that I will read in the precious moments before I drop off to peaceful sleep seems like a home invasion. I write or try to write comfort books, consolation for being human. Some tears and lots of laughter. Books for other tender-hearted but also satirical, jokey women like me. And for men who are more secretly tender and funny. T loves the title I have chosen, calls it “inviting”. But then she is right at my side as I reach the finish.

It’s good that I made the progress I did because Friday produced very little. I should never have meetings early because that’s my best time for writing.

B entertained her aunt with a rendition of my Friday scene with the wine-of the month delivery man. As we pulled up after school, I could see the man leaving without having been able to deliver my box of wine because no one was home. There followed a desperate flurry as I tried to pull up alongside him on the hill, gesticulate, shout and open the electric window all at the same time. B thought it hilarious that her mother would stop the traffic for her precious bottles of alcohol. Her boyfriend apparently said: “Ja, my old man also likes his dop.”

20 April 2010
I went into a state of depression and anxiety yesterday. What I had done (stupidly) was to go onto the websites of various literary agencies in order to decide who to approach with my manuscript. They are obviously inundated with letters from aspirant (and clearly often clueless and illiterate) authors seeking representation. I found their advice patronising and discouraging.

I was unable to work on the ending because of the funk I got into about my worthlessness and the sheer difficulty of breaking into the UK market. All these agents go on and on about the necessity of having a cracking good plot, which I don’t have – things just evolve. But then later the feeling lifted and I reminded myself that at least there are SA publishers interested in my book even if I can’t find an agent, and that I shouldn’t feel despondent about rejection when I haven’t even sent my query letter off. I reminded myself of the uniqueness of my book (a word that of course covers a multitude of ills.)

I woke up in the middle of the night with my mind dictating a long series of detailed corrections which I hastily scribbled down in a notebook I found in my handbag. How quickly the mind works! I had trouble writing fast enough.

21 April 2010
I have wondered if my difficulty in getting this novel finished and off is related at all to the fact that when I do I will, for the first time in years, be without work. I could go ahead with another creative project – attempting the Millay play, for example – or I could solicit a text book commission. At last Hamlet has brought in its first tiny royalty of R1 800 (they only print it on demand).

I have put in good work on the novel. One of my characters is a stand up comic and I have found it very hard to write his routines, even though he’s not meant to be at the top of his game and there’s lots of room for him to be lame and to miss the mark. But I didn’t want him to be a failure in the sense of not being funny, more that he is inspired but not always in tune with people. Yesterday I wrote his closing scene with its sequence of jokes and I was pleased with it. I’m feeling more confident about it today.

22 April 2010
Yesterday on the beach a young and very fit man was walking in the softest sand with alpine sticks. Training for who knows what. A plump middle aged man stopped me to say “That’s fitness for you” and also described some of the stepping exercises he’d seen the young man do. “I just thought I’d share that with you.”

It was a day of work, with much writing, also helping B with a drama assignment and then making a prawn and calamari Chinese noodle stir fry for supper. L phoned in the morning to help me with one of my character’s musical preferences – Strauss’ Last Songs, Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine. I felt I had the discipline to continue writing for longer in the afternoon, but that my spirit feel drained. So I lay down for an hour with the Emily Dickinson biography. She would have been weeded out by genetic modelling – a tiny 100 pound epileptic, the “partially cracked poetess” as one of her correspondents described her.

30 April 2010
The weekend in a wood and tin cottage high in the mountains above Montagu was wonderful – hot, sunny days and cold nights. Three long walks a day, in the kloof, on the plateau, down towards a distant government dam we never actually reached, bundu bashing. We brought Tigger and Jozy, and were joined by the four farm sheep dogs who guided us and tried unsuccessfully to herd Tigger. And oh, his happiness at these companions, and the freedom, and our togetherness. Can a dog’s bottom be said to be happy? Well, Tigger’s dimpled behind was, as he flew over the fynbos and bulleted along to keep up with his lofty companions. In the evenings we sat on our long stoep admiring the stars and the view of the valley, drinking, talking and playing scrabble by lamplight. We laughed a lot. The girls talked non-stop. In bed I wore a miner’s lamp to read the Emily Dickinson biography.

I read my own novel too, which is finished, but still needs work.

When I got back I found that two people I’d contacted asking for help in finding a literary agent had responded. I will follow up their suggestions and perhaps also make a cold call or two based on my Internet research.


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