Working and re-writing an existing body of work is extremely strange. Especially when it takes place over an extended period of time. I am now 1/3 of the way through the 3rd part of the novel…1 and 2/3 parts still to go.  I am still surprised and intrigued by my reactions to what I am reading, and how I choose to act on them.

Firstly, the book IS starting to hold together better in my mind. The sharpening of the details around each character’s voice is definitely helping. They are becoming far more distinct and developed in my mind’s eye. Secondly, after a once-over by a copy editor, and two passes by myself, I am still finding typo’s. How do publishers EVER get a clean book out there? It is a staggering feat!

Thirdly, I am still finding logical gaps of motivation and reason. It is very clear that, while I always seemed to have had a good idea of where the narrative was going, I quite often neglected to write it down and connect the dots! This led to some of the stories not really flowing, to sympathy not being developed over time and for some of the narrative progressions to become abrupt and not easy to understand. Every few chapters I find one more of these.

Keeping track of this all has resulted in a few additional documents as well… One where I list each character that is involved in each chapter and what they get up to. This device alone has led to me working out some good changes with regards to the flow and logic of my tale. It’s a great place to leave myself reminders of what I still need to do as well.

Portrait of James Joyce
Nothing like reading Joyce to make one feel a bit of an intellectual midget!

All in all, I have far more confidence in the manuscript than I did initially. In many ways it is like I didn’t really want to re-engage in case I thought it was rubbish. It’s not, but man, it DID need a lot of work.  The other real factor is that, despite myself really, I have written something that is actually completely not standard in form or structure. The form of story-telling is not linear novel style, and the structure of the chapters and parts is also part of the narrative. When I was a kid, growing up reading amazing literature, I always thought that I would write wild, ground-breaking literature. Later, as a literature student at University I felt like I had to concede I just didn’t really have the talent, skill or intellect required for such ambitious ideas. Then I just started to write and write. Somehow I have come back round to the experimental idea.

In terms of my process with writing, I am also learning a lot from this re-write. I still feel planning and structuring before you really get going with a novel is of paramount importance. But I am also seeing now how spending however much time is needed just writing and working on your idea is. Just sit down and get out as much as you can at once. It starts to give things their tone and voice. And yes, it is doomed to stall at some fairly early stage BUT it gets what is in your head out,. Once it is out, then you can start to find or tease out the various links and develop the structure of the tale. In many ways, I can’t wait to finish this just so I can start on the next one!

montageThe chapter I worked on this morning is a montage style chapter really… It includes about 3 or 4 paragraphs from each of the main characters in turn and functions as a kind of summary assessment of where everybody is so far.  Maybe I am more influenced by my love of film in my writing than I realise. It’s like a murder mystery flick where we check in on everyone before the next thing happens. And the thing is it is from this point onwards that the various wheels that have been set in motion, start to roll out toward their conclusions. Its great. And I didn’t even really plan that. So, a good morning’s work I feel!

So, a small extract as usual. It’s winter in the book now (just for you in Johannesburg) and Conrad, my investigative journalist, is trying to figure out how he feels about his job…

“While Wilfred fills his glass and tends the pots of his own Sunday lunch, Conrad is on the streets of Berea, just alongside Hillbrow a mere five kilometres away. Working. Waiting to meet a man. About a story. Even here the streets are quiet. The cold underneath the winter sun keeping people still, indoors.  Conrad shivers and hunches deeper into his puffy jacket, pulling the beanie closer down around his ears. The first cold of Johannesburg is always the worst. It will get colder, but you feel the first one more. So unused to it. Your blood nice and thin from the long parade of hot, long days.

He stamps and frets on the pavement, aware of how conspicuous he must look. Out of the sun, it is freezing. Why today? Why here? It’s what he does; what he has always done. He is building a story, piece by piece. Tracking a syndicate of thieves trafficking household appliances. He has been trying to correlate police reports of break-ins with social media stories about theft, looking to see if he can find the reported break-ins on the feeds. He wants to then find an insider who will talk about how and why they rob certain places, why they take certain things. If he can, tie his research into actual thefts and find the actual victims on social media. Talk about the psychology of loss and theft and the effect it has and see how it plays out in public, how people talk about it, internalise it, how it changes them.

It’s not a usual story. Just the usual methods, Find one person, work your way in. Don’t worry too much about the big picture; let the small pictures add up to an order that points one way or the other. Follow the signs. Whether he is tracing tweets or status updates online or following a list of leads from police through informers to drug-addled kids wasting away on the streets – it is just a series of signposts that lead somewhere. Take your eye off the goal and watch the ride. You will learn a lot; that’s where you story lives.

This has taken too long. Conrad realises he is out on a wild goose chase. He turns and stamps some life back into his frozen toes, walks away blowing on his fingers. This is how it is sometimes, you lose some. But he is sure that he was being watched. It’s good that he came. You’ve got to do the miles before you can smile. He will find the story. Fuck knows if the paper will use it. But his exploration of social media is changing his ideas of what makes a good story. It’s like a new drug. He checks his phone to see if any messages came through while he was waiting. Nothing. The phone is on silent so no sudden noises would have startled his contact. His no-show. Conrad’s stomach rumbles. He unlocks the car parked three blogs away, slides behind the wheel and points the vehicle at the nearest chicken takeaway joint: Sunday lunch.”

From the novel “Johannesburg”
©2013 David Chislett