I have a confession to make. Some of my short stories began their lives as novels. Novels that were cumbersome, messy affairs, that had no cogency or idea of an ending, some being relegated to the bottom drawer before they could even reach first draft status. But having been brought up in a household where food scraps on a plate made you feel guilty, I couldn’t leave those stories untouched. They had to be recycled, and like Newton’s Second Law of Motion, those rejected words were transformed from one form of energy into another.
So my first ill-fated novel Cul de Sac became the short story ‘Last days in Darwin’; Six Degrees, a young adult novel based on my time working at a Kelmscott bowling alley, became ‘Happy Days’. Phrases or words were snipped and spliced into new stories, and characters moved on to new literary abodes. Sometimes I just had the pleasure of the title and nothing else: The Water Diviner’s Notebook—well I had no idea what that the story would even be about, but hey, what did that matter? I could picture the sumptuous book cover gracing the shelves of libraries (background—sepia-hued landscape, solitary windmill; foreground—chunka lunka notebook).
Sometimes this recycling approach didn’t work; the narrative pacing was all wrong and I had to abandon those stories. I wonder if judges reading literary competitions can spot the first chapter of a novel turned into an abruptly finished ending, where the story screeches to a halt at 3000 words to then fall spectacularly off a cliff face?
Or there were instances when my attempted novels just didn’t have the legs to go any further, when I had written myself into a corner with an implausible plot line, or worse—when the narrative voice or the protagonists were too boring, their worlds not expansive enough. Heck, if I was bored spending time with these lacklustre characters surely dear reader you would be too? And some ideas were just plain bizarre. Once I schlepped my young family to Missouri so I could research an idea about the location of the Garden of Eden—my way of tapping into the zeitgeist of the YA phenomena of vampires and angels. So there we were in the small town of Independence (the alleged Meth capital of America no less!), as I valiantly tried to make this little known Mormon theory of Eden work, which of course was as plausible as Russell Crowe being cast in another musical.
But there is a warning for this method of mine. For with all those shelved and stalled ideas waiting in the wings to be rebirthed at another time, there is the danger that they can disappear into the ether and be snaffled up by more worthy practitioners. If the writer Elizabeth Gilbert is to be believed, then when a magical idea comes tapping at your door and you don’t respond fully, it can move on to a better home. This happened to her when she kissed another author at a writer’s conference and the novel that she had stalled on, up and entered Ann Patchett like osmosis. I’m not sure if I fully believe that ideas are fickle, sentient creatures but I remember back to a decade ago when a novel I was procrastinating over set in a café in the ghost town of Cossack (Café at the End of the World) was trumped by a novel about a coffee shop in a mining town down south—The Hopetoun Wives. Similarly, a film script cowritten by my sister that was sitting idle in our desks for years about a high school debating team (Debatable Heroes) was pipped at the post by the American film, The Great Debaters (though they never used the ‘mass debating’ joke in their script).
You would think that an element of despondency would be creeping into my life by now, that I would be defeated by all these false starts. But no! In some strange way my optimism remains as buoyant as ever and I currently have a new novel on the go (though I will avoid kissing other writers for now). I think of a quote by Thomas Edison that says, ‘I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ And if this new novel doesn’t work, and this is another one that gets away, then I may have found a new title for my next collection of short stories: The Novels I Never Wrote.
Bindy Pritchard is a Perth-based writer, whose short fiction appears in various anthologies and literary journals such as Westerly, Kill Your Darlings and Review of Australian Fiction. Bindy has a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing from Curtin University. Fabulous Lives is her debut short story collection.
Read Bindy’s first post as blogger of the month— ‘A Lifetime of Books’.