Yesterday, sitting in a pub in my hometown, I wrote the final line of my new novel, Nelson and the Gallagher. Finishing a story is always a weird experience. Sometimes you’re satisfied, other times you’re fretting about that bit on page 45 that contradicts a later plot development, and other times you’re just glad the ordeal is over and ready to move on to something new.
Finishing Nelson was squarely in the first category. Potentially more so than ever before, I felt really good about what I’d just written. Having not read over the complete story I’m certain it won’t be perfect, that there will be parts that can be cut or beefed up or re-written entirely, but by and large I’m pretty sure I achieved what I set out to with this story. Which isn’t always a sure thing.
Nelson had a pretty quick turnaround from idea to finished draft. I first entertained the notion of the story back in December, while away for Christmas with my family and looking for something to write. While walking around Thredbo I came up with a rough plot, but ended up writing thriller novella Khancoban instead. The idea for Nelson lingered, however, and after spending an afternoon outlining the whole novel in my notebook, I started writing on February 22. Just over a month ago.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that makes the process sound rushed, but I write fast, I knew what I wanted and the finished book was only ever going to sit around 40,000 words; roughly the same length as Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, a pretty fleet read. Besides, I was uniquely placed to have a decent handle on the plot, themes and characters of this story, because a lot of them were lifted directly from my own life.
For context, back in 2005, when I was 13 and living in Mansfield, my parents took on running the kitchen of the Ivor Whittaker Memorial Lodge, a ski lodge up on nearby Mt Buller. As a pretty avid skier, this was a dream come true; every weekend I would go up the mountain with Mum and Dad and, while they worked, I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. Buller was my playground; I could go out on the slopes, I could sit inside reading a book, I could explore, I could hang out with the staff – the freedom was more than I’d ever experienced before. And there was an added appeal; at the time, surprising pretty much no-one reading this, I was far from a popular kid. I had exactly one friend in those days at high school, and he had just moved to a different town, leaving me more or less alone. School was a daily misery. But on the mountain, things were different, and with regular tourists coming up from Melbourne, many of whom had kids my age who had no idea I was actually a geeky loser, it was pretty easy to reinvent myself and live a very different life up there. Those days were like a weird dream; during the week I was the derided weirdo, on the weekends I was someone else entirely. And that, at 13, is a pretty powerful thing.
It was a special time to me, but in retrospect it wasn’t all that interesting outside of my personal nostalgia for it. But for a while I’ve wondered if there wasn’t a way for me to leverage the setting and a few of those experiences to come up with a good story. Heighten the drama, add some raised stakes, and essentially use that period of my life as a platform for the sort of coming of age story I loved reading as a teen.
Often you’ll start writing a novel or a play and within a few weeks you’ll be out of fuel, having learnt that you just didn’t really have the passion for it you thought you did. I half wondered if that was what would happen with this, but in the end I turned the whole thing around in just over a month. Perhaps due to the fact that it’s autobiographical, it was pretty easy to write, and had the added bonus of feeling like I was revisiting one of the best times of my life.
Of course, that does beg the question of whether this story will mean anything to anyone who isn’t me, but I think it actually has more potential to find an audience than just about anything I’ve written before. The reason for that is simple; in its themes and ideas, I doubt I’ve ever written anything so broadly relatable.
“Have you ever played a game of Monopoly and found that you just never quite land on the right squares, no matter how hard you try? That basically summed up my high school life so far.”
The above is one of the early lines from the novel. Essentially, that feeling is what Nelson is all about; that time in your life where everything seems unbalanced and out of your control. It’s about how powerful and intoxicating it can be when something does go right and it’s about how easy it can be to screw that up as well. It’s about how our teenage years basically operate as a practice run for everything else, how they’re a time in which we do our best, make mistakes, and learn. And it’s about how that is important, even when the disappointments hurt like hell.
I’ve written autobiographical stuff before, but Nelson isn’t really like that. About 50% of it is true; the basic set up, most of the characters and some of the individual events are straight from my own life, but the plot is largely fiction. And Nelson, our protagonist, isn’t me. Granted he’s a teenage dweeb with no friends and a love of horror movies, but he’s a lot more articulate, likeable and self-aware than I ever was at that age. Telling an autobiographical story that was set free from the constraints of actual autobiography turned out to be really liberating, and, I think, means that Nelson is able to speak to the broader teenage experience rather than just my own. My girlfriend asked me yesterday if I’d taken it as a chance to rewrite history and indulge in a form of retrospective wish fulfillment, but if anything the opposite is true; Nelson’s life is a lot more dramatic and disappointing than mine ever was. because it had to be if it was going to be a halfway engaging story.
Of course, all of this is just me saying how good I think the story is. A few people have read excerpts of it and the response has been really encouraging, but I have no way of knowing if it’s actually worthwhile. I could be looking back on this blog in a year’s time with head shaking incredulity. But in the end, I have to kind of trust my instincts on this, and they’re telling me I’ve written something that could be really special. Time, and plenty of editing and re-writing, will tell.
In short, I’ve got a good feeling about this.
Writing words about writing words.