Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

A little wisdom from Family Guy

Next week, I'm going to finish the complete re-draft of my novel. That's presuming I don't go under a bus, over the weekend, suffer a sudden loss of memory, or get summoned home by the great Library God on high. I've got a final chapter to write, a week's long service leave booked, and a husband going hiking in Tasmania.

Monday afternoon, I anticipate writing the long awaited words, The End.

Though, in fact, it will only be a beginning. I will have pull the manuscript together, tidy it up and send it out to readers and then, commence the next round of edits. But before that, I will take stock of my achievements. It has, after all, been a long process.

How long? I'm not going to tell you. But I started with four children living at home. They are now all gone, three of them married.

That long! Yes, I'm a special case.

But before you agree, let me offer some provisos.

First, my three children married young and in quick succession (there's a blog in that surely).

Secondly, I had never written a novel before (apart from three chapters of a horse book in year five). In fact, I hadn't written fiction for a very long time. Not since a disastrous short story in year nine in which I pinched the boat in a painting idea from C.S Lewis' Voyage of the Dawntreader and tried to write something touching about salvation. The teacher begged me to re-write. Yes, it was that bad. I refused on religious grounds – religion in this case being another word for laziness. I scored a measly pass (generous teacher) and never tried my hand at fiction again until…I turned forty and started wondering where my life had gone.

My early drafts were a mess. I didn't understand point-of-view or over use of adjectives. I didn't know about narrative drive, proper punctuation or even story structure. I had a particular fondness for over extended metaphors. Despite this, I had some early encouragement. From Sally Muirden, who taught Year of the Novel, at the, then, Victorian Writers's Centre, from Peter Bishop at Varuna, who short listed the novel for a manuscript development award, and from Alison Goodman the kind soul who agreed to asess my work. These people were incredibly generous. But that didn't change the impact of their words.

It needed work. Serious work.

Now being a first time novelist, I thought this meant lots of tweaking. Even after I took my novel to TAFE and learned about story structure, with Euan Mitchell, I was still trying to nip and tuck without altering the basic shape of the thing. It took winning the Bristol Short Story Prize and being rejected by a respected Melbourne publisher to bring me to my senses. Even then, I dug my heels in, until Nick Gadd, my then TAFE tutor, offered a few home truths about the situation.

I was shattered. He and the publisher were suggesting a total re-write. Like, you know, a throw-the-cards-up-in-the-air-and-see-where-they-fall type of affair. Apparently this is what you are supposed to do at the end of a first draft. It is rarely a matter of tweaking and polishing.

I was in a bad place at the time. Kids on the run, kids getting married, people needing my attention. I had to take a break. Try and work out whether to give this re-write a go or chuck the whole project in and start something else. I got stuck in that place for quite a long time – friends wearied of hearing me go over and over the same old stuff – until one day my good friend Denis took the bull by the horns and said: I don't think you can chuck it in Liz, so you may as well get on with it.

I'd like to say it got easy after that. But it didn't. That's where this segment from Family Guy comes in. You see, I never had a sly-voiced, fork tongued friend like Stewie to undermine my confidence. I had my own hissing voice in my head. You're a fool, wasting your time. Your friends all think so. No one else has taken this long to wrote a novel. You can't be a real writer. You're having too much trouble. You may as will give up and knit booties. Or…didn't you used to be good at cross stitch?


 

Now I took these thoughts to my medical man in a cardigan and we did some cognitive work on things. But the self-doubt didn't go away. I had to start writing with those snakes hissing and coiling in my head. That's when I discovered Bird by Bird (thanks Anne Lamott) and post card sized assignments. Every morning, I'd wake with a clench of dread. I'd tell myself all you have to do is set the scene. All you have to do is write that piece of dialogue. All you have to do is imagine how your character is feeling.

I also read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. Did all the exercises in the book – like all of them. Morning Pages became an essential part of my routine. Every morning I'd light a candle inviting God into the process then I'd write long-hand in a red leather bound notebook about, well…everything and anything, over and over – all the rubbish in my head.

At some point I'd arrive at what I was going to work on that day. I'd blow out my candle and head to my computer. You can write a whole novel that way. I almost just did. And, once I hit the mid-way point, the negative voices began to fade. I started to enjoy myself, to wake each day with a surge of anticipation. To feel that this project may in fact be worth finishing.

Worth? Now that's an interesting word. How do you measure the worth of a thing? A publisher's rubber stamp of approval? Well, that would be nice. However, I am not falling into that trap again. I'm going to measure my manuscript's worth by the self-doubt I've battled, by the blind faith I've mustered, the knowledge I've gained about writing and myself, and by the friends I've made along the way. With these things as my yard-rule, I can never fail. But that doesn't mean I won't be giving giving old Stewie a final whack on the head when I finally write: The End.


 

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3 Comments

  1. Sabina

    Congratulations Liz on getting to The End. I look forward to buying your novel and having a good read. All the best with your writing, Sabina

  2. I’m cheering for ‘The End’ but only because I want to read the bloody thing from start to that lauded ‘The End’. Anyone who hasn’t read Liz’s work, it is AMAZING – and yes, I am shouting this word at you. So, very excited about ‘The End’ that will mean I will get that baby in my hot little hands and have a wonderful read of all those characters I’ve come to love and see how you’ve finally strung it all together. Well done for sticking at it Liz. The journey may have been hard, but it is completely worth it.

  3. ejcorbett@yahoo.com.au

    Thanks, Leisl and Sabina. See what I mean about the friends I’ve made along the way. I have a bevy of snake charmers all helping me keep the pythons at bay. I hope you’re not too disappointed, Leisl. 🙂 Over half of it has not been seen by human eyes other than mine. It will need work! But it’s excited to see the new ending finally unfold.

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