ON WRITING MY NOVEL CHILL [© Hannah Quinn]
I wrote this novel over a period of five years or so, including a two year gap when I was writing other things. That’s longer than average for me, although I do often take a break while I write on something else and then come back to previous manuscripts.
One of the things I like to do, and this is becoming more the norm with passing time, is finish what I ‘lovingly’ call the vomit draft. That is the first draft where the story just pours onto the page. It is all about being creative, being in the make it up stage. Although it’s tempting to edit as I go, I don’t. I just let the story unfold. Most scenes have a basic fleshing out, others I know I’ll have to come back and put flesh on the bone and blood in the veins. If I try to do it there and then, it would halt the flow and that’s the last thing I want.
It wasn’t always like that. I used to create and edit at the same time. In a general way it worked, still works if I have a short deadline, but the end result is never as good as the way I work now. Staying in the creative development phase brings a much better story in the end.
I find when I’m writing the vomit draft, the idea of the next book is starting to take shape in the dim dark recesses of my rather odd brain. As I finish the draft I’m working on, the percolating idea starts to boil and demand attention. So, I put aside the vomit draft and start the next manuscript. For example, whilst writing Chill, I was thinking about Barbed Wire Blues. Whilst writing Barbed Wire Blues, I was thinking about Olivia’s Breath.
Anyway, I initially wrote a second draft to Chill but it was too dark. I knew that. I badly needed to give it light and relief. It is a dark story and I’ve always had positive and invaluable feedback on it. I read excerpts at Literary Festivals and workshops, open mikes and writing groups.
I was quite surprised by something in particular. Men got angry. So angry they said if they had the book in their hands they wouldn’t keep reading. They would throw the book across the room or out the window. The anger men talked about had nothing to do with me, the topic or the style of writing. It was the story itself. The vulnerability of the protagonist, Penny Chapell, and the harrowing truth of her life story. This was true especially of men who are fellow writers.
Women had the opposite response in that they always wanted more, often asking for an extended reading or turning up for the next reading. Only a few said it was too real and unrelenting for them, even though they didn’t think they would be able to put it down. If there is one thing a writer wants, it is to hear people give a strong emotional response and say they can’t put your work down. However, what you don’t want is to give them such a response it plunges them into depression!! Well, I don’t.
It was an interesting experience, I must say. And something I had to think about long and hard. Whilst it was gratifying to write something which engendered so much strength of emotion, I felt somewhat unsure if I had hit the mark I wanted to hit. There is a lot of truth in this story, one of abuse and victimisation. My goal was to give insight and clarity to a life that is caught in a world most of us cannot even imagine, and also to tell a damn good story.
What I didn’t want was to make my readers feel as though they were there for good or turn them off the subject altogether, or my future works. Every writer needs readers.
Not sure how to proceed at the time – I wasn’t able to lift myself out of Penny’s world enough to make the needed changes in tone and content – I put it aside and started writing something else.
At the time, I didn’t really know Olivia’s Breath or Barbed Wire Blues well enough to give them the creativity and energy needed. It was more a case of nausea draft than vomit draft. So, I turned my attention to a different medium altogether and wrote a new play: Homing Pigeons. This play had its first exposure at the Carlton Courthouse Theatre in Melbourne as a rehearsed public reading to excellent feedback and review.
I was busy with setting up my business, http://too-write.com for awhile and didn’t do much serious writing for a few years. Then, I was back into in my old feverish way and rewrote Chill from scratch. It became a quite different book.
Chill is about child abuse and victimisation, both familial and associated. It has always been from the child’s point of view. Therefore, it is not told in chapters or with a plot driven narrative. Children see their lives in the present, i.e. what is happening to them right now. This is the way Chill is told. The narrative comes from the movement of her life and from character development.
I had a number of false starts in the book. Literally. I think I rewrote the start about five times, discarding all of them. Then, I returned to the original start: a prologue, although I cut it down to less than 800 words from an original 1500 or so. It works much better now.
As my first excerpt, I’ve put the prologue here. I’ll add some other excerpts later.
She stares at the river far below, seeing, not seeing, right hand tracing small invisible figures in the air, left hand tugging at crowded curls. Her absent stare moves to her right hand, to the wildfire charcoal collected from the ash remains of a burnt out house. Squatting, she draws: the only markers of this day, the anniversary of her birth, a figure eight drawn on each of eight toes.
As gentle as the sigh from her lips, a breeze brushes her skin; feathers grass seeds over charcoaled eights; tugs at her hair. She smiles at the feeling of crumbly soil beneath her feet, wriggling her toes to embrace the bare earth while she imagines floating gently to the water far below, gliding, sliding through the murky surface to the soft, clear depths. Just like the Sleeping Beauty waxwork in the Warrandyte art gallery, she will lie peaceful and smiling, chest gently rising and falling. Her lashes will rest dark upon her pale skin. There will be a touch of rose on her cheeks and lips. Her dark hair will trace across her face, over the pillow, onto her shoulders as the water makes it ripple and wave.
Sleeping Princess. Waxwork in the river.
A tiny voice whispers deep inside her head: lean forward. She stands and inches forward, holds one foot over space. The voice, warm and tickly, is insistent: Further. Lean further. Her heel lifts from the ground. Her body tilts. Her heart quickens with anticipation.
She pictures herself as a floating statue, serene and beautiful like the Virgin Mother, and her hands curve into loving cups of humility. An angel appears, smiling gently, to watch over her as she lowers into the swaddling water. Do it! The voice is a hiss in her ear. Do it now! A buzz inside her head. Now! Her raised foot lifts a little further and stretches out, ready to take a step. Now! Her other foot is ready to follow. Then an unexpected thing happens.
She almost topples off the cliff.
Heart beating hard, she collapses to the ground, every part of her body shaking uncontrollably. For a moment she thinks she hears someone laugh, but there is no-one about. No-one ever is, not here, not this place where she has imagined life in a hundred different ways, each as far removed from real life as possible. It is the perfect place to live out her latest fantasy. Was the perfect place.
Clenching her teeth and stiffening her body stops the shaking on the outside, but inside she quakes and quivers like half-set jelly and she cannot stop it. Horror and disappointment wrack her mind. Many times in the last days, she has come to this cliff top; walked many miles through trackless bush; imagined floating gently into her ever-after. Not once has she imagined toppling, falling helter-skelter through the air, filled with terror, uncontrolled, gasping and grasping, no more than a rag doll tossed off a roof.
It is not a price she is prepared to pay.
Long moments pass, hollow moments filled with echoes of a life she does not want; a life she does not know how to live. The shaking eases and all is silent as black moments stretch into eternity, into an endless forever. Her eyes do not see. Her mind does not think. Her heart cannot feel.
The late winter day cools. The quiet that settles between birds sleeping and small animals waking for the night seems to weigh heavily on her shoulders. A chill wind blows across her bare arms and legs, searching out holes and loose stitches in her sister-thin dress, blustering around her slight frame as she sits lifeless as a statue.
A magpie warbles nearby, as though telling the girl to rise up and go home. In time, she does. The sun is gone. A slip of white moon adorns the colourless sky. Darkness falls like a fluttering shroud. As she moves stiffly from the clearing, as she moves sure-footed and automatic through the overgrowth, a streak-of-stubborn strengthens her step and her resolve. There is a way. The only way. She will break everything into little pieces. Nothing will exist except what is in front of her and when it is over, it will be gone.
From this moment on, Penny Chapell knows she will survive.