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Saturday, 11 January 2014

The "Brian-the-Snail" School of Writing and Publishing by John A. A. Logan


           We had to get home from school pretty quickly in the early 1970s, to catch The Magic Roundabout on TV.
          I remember one day I must have lagged behind, because I ended up seated in a little cottage at the edge of the village, amongst the family of my fellow seven-year-old classmate, Suzanne, staring at the small, rectangular black-and-white screen as the Magic Roundabout theme music started and the Merry-Go-Round began to spin…

          I should have known I would never be a Dougal, battering my way forward, zooming as if on mad wheels, always in a rush…

          I wasn’t going to be an Ermintrude either, a daisy stuck in my teeth, not really minding what happened…

          A Zebedee, me, bouncing maniacally Heavenward on a shiny spring? No, it could never be in my nature…

       Dylan the rabbit, the only denim-waistcoat-wearing Hippy Rabbit on television? Well…I’m not saying I wasn’t tempted…

          But no, I could feel it within, even then, that Brian-the-Snail-ness…that slowness…


********************

          Fast forward twenty-six years, and I’m sitting in an Edinburgh bar with my first literary agent, eating curry from a large plate.

          Milan Kundera is being discussed.
          “Have you seen his new novel,” I say, “Slowness? He says he thinks modern life has lost something important, by leaving behind that healthy slowness…”
          I look up from the plate of curry which I am wolfing down, and which the agent has paid for.
          “I think I’m a bit like that too,” I say. “Slow, methodical, I like to work on something for ages, that won’t be a problem, will it?”


********************

          And now we arrive at the present-day…no daisy-chewing cows or guitar-strumming rabbits in sight…no-one bouncing past on springs towards the Heavens…

          Just me, and my novel, Agency Woman, which I’ve been working on now for eight years…tinkering…removing parts, polishing them and replacing them, getting my head in close to the oily areas and squinting, making little adjustments with the tiny screwdriver…listening sometimes to the mechanism…like my Dad with all those old watch parts, broken up and scattered out of their tin box across the table, to my Mum’s consternation…but me and my Mum knew he was getting somewhere, tinkering away, working on the thing…“coming about its own business” like Ted Hughes’ Thought-Fox…

          I thought Agency Woman might be ready this month, but it is not…

          To next month then…and Beyond!









15 comments:

Roz Morris aka NailYourNovel said...

John, I'm another writer who needs to let work mature. I like to read slow-matured books that have depth, and if my WIP hasn't yet acquired that I feel it's not finished! Thanks for being a champion for the long, slow writing process!

julia jones said...

Yes, a reassuring, sympathetic post - even though I may possibly be the least patient person on the planet I know that you (and Roz) are right. Thank you

cally phillips said...

Yes, most things benefit from a bit of maturing! I have to say most of my writing kicks around for a good 10 years before it finally gets 'written' - though the actual writing of the words then comes quite quickly. And the current 'project' was an 'idea' (or a step in the wrong direction in the late 90's when I thought I would do a PhD on the author) kicked around aimlessly (and at times hopelessly) till one Julia Jones opened my eyes, and digital publishing gave me the opportunity and NOW nearly 2 years on, I'm only 3 months away from THE LAUNCH of The Galloway Collection. And happy with the maturing process. There's no rush John (apart from us wanting to read your work!) and time spend in preparation is never time wasted. Each person should go at their own pace. More Parsley the Lion than Dill the Dog (to put in a word for The Herbs which were much better than Magic Roundabout!!) Looking forward to Agency Woman (may just about be in a the position to actually READ something by a living writer then too!)

Stuart Ayris said...

Right with you on this John! My FRUGALITY novels more or less burst out of me in an uncontrolled moment - but that was so necessary in so many ways.

The novel I'm working on at the moment will be ready when it's ready and I'm absolutely fine with that. Some nights I just write a singlr sentence and I crash out satisfied. The novel, the characters and the story are in my mind constantly and the whole thing has become the best part of my waking times.

Writing it down feels almost like a joyful afterthought...

Jan Needle said...

i'll be looking forward to it, however long it takes.

John A. A. Logan said...

Thanks, Roz! (perhaps we should also branch out into strong-smelling, Blue fermented/fomented Cheese-making?)

Thanks, Julia! (I would have thought the hours/days at sea would have made you a patient Soul?)(Then again, Ahab was a bit driven right enough!)

John A. A. Logan said...

Thanks Cally! Yes, that sounds like what Linda Gillard means when she says she "thinks" her novels first, and this takes longer than the actual writing.
The Threads of Time has that fermented, matured depth quality that Roz mentioned above, a richness and weight to the story and the prose.
Hey, you know about 15 years back I bought a VHS tape of The Herbs to watch it again...it was still brilliant, that Lion chasing his tail til I was dizzy too...singing his "I'm a very friendly Lion called Parsley/please don't raise your voice or speak to me too Harshly"" song!
Also got a VHS of The Clangers that day...(Time Warp)
Good Luck with the Galloway Collection launch (I knew you were working deeply on something, you went into online Radio Silence most of last few months!)

Thanks, Stu! I always bear in mind William Faulkner writing "As I Lay Dying" in 6 weeks, a fevered rush, I think he had to do it that way to fit it around a labouring job he was doing when quite young...so I know fast can work fine at the right time...
The first time I started to ponder on what Slow could do, though, was when a friend told me that Milton wrote his epic poem, Paradise Lost, at a rate of 2 lines a day...I never looked that up to confirm it or no...but just the idea of what long, slow processing could achieve (and a night's sleep between lines of a poem to let the subconscious do its best work by morning, furnishing the next line)...that idea of slow maturation never left me once it got embedded in my brain...
I love the idea of you honing that single sentence of a night (and Happy very belated New Year, mate, All best for 2014!)

Thanks Jan, Hearing that tempts me to go off and rush it into readiness sooner, rather than later! (But I must resist that urge a wee bit longer...)

Linda Gillard said...

I started writing fiction many years ago when my kids were 2 & 4 and I was a stay-at-home mum. Finding time to write was problematic (but thank God for playgroups!); finding time to think less so, since one could plot a novel or write dialogue in one's head while changing nappies/building a Playmobil house/ferrying youngsters to aforementioned playgroup. (I've never driven, so I've had a lot of walking time in which to think my novels.)

But when I started teaching as a working mother I couldn't find the time to think my fiction. (Writing it wouldn't have been a problem - I'm a a lifelong insomniac - but 4.00am is hardly quality creative time, especially when the central heating is off.)

I've just finished my 7th novel and what I'd really like to do is sit on it for a month (or maybe 3) and then go back to it and simplify or perhaps embellish, just generally enrich that book.

As an indie that doesn't really fit in with my business plan so I shall probably e-publish in a few weeks because I know I have an audience waiting for this book and I've kept them waiting a long time, thanks to serious ill-health.

There's been a fuss recently about the indie author who's published 25 books in 30 months and he's being congratulated on this staggering achievement. Well, good luck to him, but anyone working that fast isn't IMHO living, they're slaving in their word factory. If writers don't live and reflect, what exactly are they offering readers?

I hope there will be a backlash - a slow writing movement like the slow food movement. I'm not saying one is better than the other, I think they're chalk and cheese. But I refuse to feel guilty or inadequate because it takes me at least a year to produce a novel (and I think it always will.)

Writing fiction is daydreaming on paper. I can't dream to order or by the clock. In fact for me one of the hardest aspects of writing is the waiting - waiting until I'm ready to write that big, difficult scene or tackle a scene where I have no idea what's going to happen.

All credit to you John, for being prepared to keep us waiting until the time is absolutely right and your novel is ready.

John A. A. Logan said...

Thanks, Linda! I like this idea of "thinking" the novel. I "think" it's something that not only happens before the writing, but between and during the subsequent drafts/edits...and I like to think that the subconscious is working heavily in the background, doing the bulk of this work, and doing it better than the "conscious" mind ever could.
I always liked the idea of Graham Greene, and R L Stevenson...when I learned they would "submit" their current work to the subconscious, sleeping on it overnight, both of them believing that the subconscious (or The Brownies as Stevenson called it/them) would do the work during sleep, finding ways round narrative corners, generating new previously unimagined paths...
The longer the book takes, the more nights' sleep (and passing over to the subconscious of the narrative) can take place...(insomnia notwithstanding!)
Also, re walking time...I always found that a walk (often in the dark)(perhaps by the sea) would unblock problems in a developing narrative...as though walking, like sleep, allowed the subconscious to "take over the problem"...

"Writing fiction is daydreaming on paper. I can't dream to order or by the clock. In fact for me one of the hardest aspects of writing is the waiting - waiting until I'm ready to write that big, difficult scene or tackle a scene where I have no idea what's going to happen."

Yes! That waiting is almost a strain. The trouble is...I learned the hard way that trying to circumvent the "waiting" just results (for me) in making mistakes that then take LONGER to sort out than...if I had done the Waiting!

I think the most important thing is that we Dream/Play/Imagine in the way and at the pace that truly fits our own instinct/nature...I'm sure that for some people it is right and good to write/work fast...but equally, for some, the Slow/Fermentation School is a tried and tested Method for getting the Fictive Dream on paper (or e-Paper even!)

Lydia Bennet said...

important points, John and other commenters - you need time to live, to top up your mind, and to think and dream, and to let the work stew while you do other stuff, and to write and rewrite... occasionally I do something really fast, but it always turns out to have been cooking away without me being aware of it, for some time. Trad pub authors are under pressure to produce at least a book a year, agents and publishers aren't keen on writers who take years to do one book, or follow a novel with a poetry collection or a totally different project.

Áine said...

I truly appreciate what Linda G. said:
"If writers don't live and reflect, what exactly are they offering readers?" Linda offers her readers some nourishment and they come back to dine again and again.

Writers who take no time to read nor reflect usually turn out formulaic vapid "fast food" for thought.

The writers who "crank 'em out" obviously have their followers and fill some need but do not nourish. They will never pry any hard-earned dollars from my Amazon account!

I was about to say that we North Americans did not have the benefit of The Magic Roundabout or Le Manège enchanté, but I did a bit of checking only to find that:
"In America, the series was called The Magic Carousel and it aired in the 1980s on Pinwheel" after being rewritten presumably for the lowest of tastes. I found on Wikipedia that a film parody was made, supposedly to appropriate the British-French idea, but also "to accommodate pop culture references and flatulence jokes." Thus may we be forgiven for not recognizing Brian.

So now we have read about Brian the Snail and his school of writing. Brian may have been slow (I'll take John's word for it) but I note that even now there is a Brian The Snail website online, so he endures after 40+ years. I am quite happy to wait for Agency Woman redux.

P.S. Dante Alighieri invested a lot of time in his very careful syllable counts and mathematical models. And the care he took is self-evident.

Enid Richemont said...

Briefly - I work at a snail's pace, whether the project is short or long.

Glad you've finally got an agent, John - hope she does wonders for you - you deserve them.

Rob Lopez said...

An unfashionable point well made. I tinkered with my first novel for two years after the first draft, though I dare say there was a fair bit of procrastination in there along with the tinkering. As it happens, I wasn't quite ready at the time, and I wasn't entirely happy with the results - it felt overcooked.

It's abandoned now, and awaiting a future re-edit (I just got sick of it), but from time to time I do peek inside and find myself astonished at what I actually managed to cram in that I'd forgotten.

As an Indie, I'm currently on the crank-it-out track (though still slow by most standards), and while my writing has improved, I do wonder about the effect of speed on my works. Three of my favourite novels - Tolkein's The Lord Of The Rings, Susanna Clarke's Jonathon Strange And Mr Norrel, and R.Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before - all took ten years to write, and have an undeniable richness to them. That richness is difficult to produce at speed. It's a different reading experience from most other works. Not necessarily better (or worse), but different.

Brian had a point. If only I could work out why he chose to hang out with a dog on speed and a rabbit on dope.

Hunter said...

What a great article (and great comments)! I've never heard of "The Magic Roundabout" but I also think Brian's pace is a good one. I completed my first novel ten years ago and it's still not published, but it helped me find my voice, and I had such a good time doing it that I've continued writing books. I'm still unpublished, but my joy of sitting at the desk and telling tales has never decreased.

I agree with what you're saying about letting a book develop at its own pace. I have books I've been thinking about for fifteen years. Eventually, they will happen. Julia Cameron talks about the gestation period of a book, and even though I'm a man, I can still understand what she's saying. I've found that there is no short cut to letting a book come together.

I'm really grateful to read this post from John and the rest of you authors electric. It's amazing how much we all have in common. I love that story about James Joyce, who once was asked if he had a good writing day. He happily replied, "yes, I've written three sentences."

I personally would like to write more than three sentences a day, but I also have learned to let the book take as long as it takes. This means that sometimes I write nothing. I would love to write ten pages a day, but I've gotten to the point where I just need to let things be what they are. The most important thing is I don't compare myself with others and just do what works. Following my own instincts has given me much freedom to create.

John, I'm so happy for you and your agent and Agency Woman. Fingers crossed for you, friend! Please do keep me in the loop with your progress. It's always great hearing what you're up to!!

Best,

Hunter

Unknown said...

Nowadays slow progress doesn't always mean better marinating. It's what comes with chronically fractured concentration -- yes, by all the lovely digital distractions, like this one.

Perhaps I'm saying that because I am so keen to read Agency Woman. ... I enjoyed your post and the comments, then found this scrap tidying my desk. ... It's about a genius in another sphere who spent 24 years on a single painting:

'Faithful to his own inward vision, Chagall's art fuses Old and New World, fantasy and reality, reverie and nightmare, celebration and lamentation. These themes are often explored within the same picture, as they are in Chagall's oil painting "The Fall of the Angel."
[…]
Chagall began the painting in 1923 and reworked it several times until he finished the picture in 1947.'

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304347904579312600844207752