On writing: Wild Wood and the Babadook

It was just one small comment, but it made a world of difference.

‘I love that process of being told by the work what it is, but it also requires faith and trust and that can be hard.’

Just a flash of understanding that acts like a key, a key that unlocks … me. I don’t think I even realised before she said it that that’s where I was, and why it’s so hard some days to face it. Like taking on the Babadook. This book has become its own thing, has its own personality and will. Before I start to write on any given day there’s a dialogue, followed by an argument, followed by a kind of uneasy detente, in which we agree to try and press on together.

The ‘she’ in this story is Angela, a medical doctor and also a PhD in creative writing that I’ve met through my work for Crave cafe. The ‘it’ in the story is One Way Through the Wild Wood (working title), a non-fiction novel that I began in 2014.

I’m now on the sixth draft. SIXTH. Thankfully, I’m working in the second half of what has become a 130,000+ word manuscript, and conceivably it could be completed within the next few weeks. But when your book has become the Babadook, you never can tell.

The project began in the early stages of writing Jared Noel’s book, Message To My Girl. A random post of some of that material led to a conversation with an old friend about the possibility of editing his story for publication. I took his 30,000 word manuscript away, read it, fell in love with the stories and the character, but also immediately realised there was more to do than just an edit. It deserved a bigger treatment. Well, that was an understatement.

The first draft was a complete novel, told in first person, with a narrative voice that was machine gun and erratic, as if on speed, raging against everything and everyone, full of self-righteous indignation and bursting with energy. It was too much. The style didn’t work at all. The narrative structure was loose and scattergun, and wore thin by about the second chapter.

The second draft was better. But the structure was all wrong. The entire story was told from a single moment in the midst of a drug overdose, like a coked up version of A Christmas Carol. But at least the narrative was stronger, even if the characterisation sucked. The narrative voice wasn’t right either. He was a whiny bitch, a pain in the arse. I needed some of that, but not this much.

I didn’t even finish the third draft. It was awful. Though the new idea, that the character had delusions of being a super hero, unlocked an element that has remained all the way through to the most recent draft—that he views past events through the window of a delusion … that he is somehow special, somehow set apart, and that delusion feeds a sociopathic personality that has distorted his perspective on everything.

Drafts four and five were variations on a new approach—this time the narrator has compartmentalised his story into themes around the ideas of right and wrong, of justice and injustice. Events of the past and the characters that took part in those events are utilised in the explication of each theme to explore the single idea that everyone else is to blame for what has happened in his life—that he is the only righteous one in the story.

By the completion of draft five, I had written more than half a million words on this one book alone. I thought I must be close now. I spent about three weeks doing a close read of the novel in iBooks, making notes as I went. By the time I finished, sitting alone in a hotel room near the airport where I sometimes escape to work, I realised I had to start the whole thing again. Why? Because it was shit. Characters, still underdone. Dialogue, incomplete. Narrative voice, all wrong. Narrative structure, barely perceptible beneath the stylised retelling.

I had made a basic error. I had sacrificed the building blocks of good storytelling in order to convey a message, like a super long sermon. There is a reason most people get bored after listening to a preacher for 20 minutes. Spread that out over 130,000 words and see who’s still reading.

Groan.

So I started again. But this time, with a new process. I took the best narrative and character elements from draft two, together with the well-developed thematic stuff from draft five, and I began to create a whole new retelling of the story. Somehow, it worked.

There was a new element too, one that I didn’t foresee—the demands of the work itself. Telling me where dialogue needs to be expanded, or where a scene has to be better described, or a plot point fleshed out. Characters have forced me to give them more time; events have told me how they can be better paced. It’s a weird thing, to sit down at your laptop intending to create something, then to have your own work speak back to you, wrestle with you, order you to go get a coffee so you can get a grip and come back when you’re ready to listen. When I write now, I feel like Tom Hanks with Wilson—arguing with a volleyball until I surrender once again to a wisdom and experience that’s superior to mine, and yet emanates from nowhere but my own head, and from within my own process.

Perhaps I’m mentally ill. That’s a real possibility. If you consider the growing number of candles on my desk as I try to make headway through this darkness, it’s probably in no doubt at all. This week I thought on more than one occasion that I would just walk away from this thing, and do anything else but write another word in service to the Babadook.

And then Angela sent me that text.

‘I love that process of being told by the work what it is, but it also requires faith and trust and that can be hard.’

So, here I am again. Back in the Wild Wood.

Writing.