When you have a shiny new toy you want to show it off, talk about it relentlessly, and remind everyone of its existence. This is my justification for the amount I’ve been blogging about my new manuscript Nelson and the Gallagher recently. For those who don’t follow this blog, a quick recap; Nelson is a comedic coming of age novel about being fourteen and not being very good at it. It’s loosely based on the year when my parents took over the running of a ski lodge on Mt Buller and I found myself in the middle of this strange and exciting new world. Real events, characters and lessons learnt are remixed and heightened into a (hopefully) entertaining and relatable narrative.
The process wasn’t unlike redrafting. Every time I rewrote Windmills or Boone Shepard from scratch I took the previous version and asked at every turn whether there were ways in which what I already had could be more dramatically interesting. Writing Nelson, essentially, was doing that with my own life. I won’t belabour the point, as I’ve been through this in other blogs, but doing this was imperative to make it work as entertaining fiction rather than a self-indulgent trip down memory lane. At every turn I had to remember that this was a novel first, a foray into nostalgia second.
In the end though, it wasn’t that hard. I approached Nelson from the start knowing what I wanted it to be and that meant there were very few moments where I found myself trying to shoehorn in a fond memory just for the sake of it. Besides, the events it was based on happened over a decade ago; my recollections are just too blurry to be recreated with any accuracy. It’s largely for that reason that I think Nelson works.
But I’ve found that trick hard to pull off a second time. For writers, autobiography can be tempting. We’re inherently reflective and often look back over past events in an attempt to understand what they meant and how they shaped us. Then there’s that perpetual question of happiness; was I better off back then? It invites retrospection, and when you have a blank page and a storytelling itch to scratch, it can be hard to resist the call of nostalgia. So many young writers take the adage ‘write what you know’ as an excuse to write autobiography, without really interrogating why it would be interesting to an external party. It would be hypocritical of me to suggest you shouldn’t do this, but you certainly should make sure you have something to say and that your story is objectively interesting (or at least, can be made so with a little creativity) before having a run at anything in the territory of memoir.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying I’ve found myself at a bit of an impasse with the sequel to Nelson I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks. After finishing the first one I was keen to revisit the character, using the culture clash of a country kid going to boarding school as the foundation for his next adventure. Like its predecessor, I would mine my own experiences in an attempt to tell a funny, relatable story about growing up and learning tough lessons. And the boarding school setting seemed like a perfect next step; it provided immediate conflict and there were no shortage of dramas and embarrassments during my time there. Also, like the events that provided the inspiration for Nelson and the Gallagher, it was a time in my life that had a profound impact on me – in every way it seemed the logical next step.
I started plotting, writing out the broad strokes of what would happen in the novel, deciding which characters I wanted to use, then planning the narrative chapter by chapter. I sat in a pub, scrawling in my notebook and listening to the music that characterised that time, trying to get back in the headspace. And look, it worked. To a fault.
My plan for the second book was to mix up events from three years of my life; 2007, 2008 and 2009. I would cherry pick the stuff that was interesting and work it around a theme. In the planning process I found myself focussing predominantly on 2007. That year had the most story-worthy drama, so it made sense as a backbone. But as I neared the end of my outline and started working in more events from later years, I started to get uncomfortable. The story was eluding me and what I had didn’t feel exciting in the same way as the first Nelson.
It didn’t take long to realise what the problem was. Looking over the outline, I had essentially just written down the events of my 2007, faithfully and without significant alteration. Trying to bring in stuff from later years was jarring and immediately threw me out of the headspace. I had basically just been on a nostalgia trip to that time rather than planning a good book. In short, I fell into exactly the trap that any writer telling a story based on their own life has to avoid; I’d been more interested in my own experiences than Nelson’s. The story was about me, not the character.
You’re probably asking what the difference is. If the story is autobiographical and the character based on me, isn’t it inherently about myself? And didn’t I say in another blog recently that almost everything a writer writes is in some way self-reflection? Well, yes and no. It was imperative in the first book that Nelson was Nelson and not Gabriel, because it provided the distance I needed to make the story stand on its own two feet. We might be similar, but we’re not the same. The story might reflect mine, but it isn’t mine. The difference is slight, but crucial. And that gap, in planning the second book, had closed.
This is the pitfall of autobiographical fiction; if we make the mistake of writing about ourselves, we become blind. We cease to see how the story might be interesting to a total stranger. And we become attached to the things we want to relive rather than what the story needs. Naturally this is less a problem if you have an amazing or fascinating life, but for those of us writing the mundane and universal, the balancing act is so delicate. The sales pitch for Nelson and the Gallagher is that it’s a story any awkward, dweeby fourteen-year-old can relate to. It’s written for kids similar to my younger self to read and know they’re not alone. It was a book written for an audience, not for myself. The second book, before I’d even started writing, lost that integrity.
Do I think it’s impossible to regain? Not at all. I suspect the problem is that, unlike the first book, I just dived straight into this one without letting the story percolate until it was ready to be written. Given that circumstance, of course I’d rely on the crutch of my own experiences.
It’s no secret that I get ahead of myself, and if I’m excited about a shiny new toy (new story) I’ll keep working at it or various extensions until the passion ebbs. A lesson I still have to learn is to stop while there’s still something in the tank, in this case to resist diving into a sequel to a novel that hasn’t even been seen by anyone in publishing and may be nowhere near as good as I think it is. I’ll let Nelson 2 come to me slowly, and I’ll start working on it when I know I have a good story to tell, not just a memory lane I want to revisit.
Writing words about writing words.