Walking a Tightrope

Here’s the first line to my new novel:

Adam has been dying for eight weeks now, but he isn’t getting any better at it.

I think that’s a pretty good line, and I feel comfortable saying as much because I didn’t write it. Not really.

In sixteen words, this line introduces us to the hero of the book, establishes his situation and puts a time frame on it. It also – I hope – does this with humour. No easy task when the subject matter is death. This short line not only sets up the plot of the book, it establishes the tone. Tragi-comic, I suppose you’d call it.

And this – the tone – that was the bit I really needed before I could get going. I had the plot all mapped out. I knew the seven main characters literally inside out – I knew their names, their cancers, their families, their histories, their fears and hopes, their prognoses (spoiler alert: they’re all terminally ill. They all die).

After 20 months working on the book, I had a chapter-by-chapter outline that ran to around 80 pages. I knew what scriptwriters refer to as ‘the inciting incident’, I knew the midpoint, I knew the ending. I even had an idea for the epilogue. But I still didn’t know how to start.

I’d already tried twice. The first time I got just over 100 pages in, then trashed every single one of them. I liked that draft; the characters were interesting, the situation was well-established, I even had a ghost, which felt appropriate given the subject matter.

This group of seven, you see, have taken it upon themselves to stage a production of Shakespeare’s greatest deaths. Lot’s of ghosts in Shakespeare. And with the characters all having less than a year to live, I thought the spectre was a good touch.

But it was wrong. It messed the tone up, made the book too fantastical, too whimsical. What I wanted was realism. So I killed the ghost.

I started again – clean slate – and this time got 50 pages in before stopping. I hated this draft. I’d lost the fun somewhere along the way. It was too dour, too maudlin. It wasn’t right.

At this point, I was considering canning the novel altogether and running off to join the circus. But I couldn’t let it go. (Also, I can’t juggle, throw custard pies, or swallow swords).

I knew this was a good story, and one I wanted to tell. I knew the characters were engaging, brave, bold, tragic, complex, human. And funny too. I knew they would make each other laugh – sharing a dark, honest, irreverent humour that was uniquely theirs.

That humour – gallows humour, was rarely a more appropriate term – was key to balancing out the heavy subject matter. But there’s a fine line between funny and crass. It’s a tightrope. One wrong step and . . . disaster.

So I wrote some snatches of dialogue between the cast. Small exchanges that captured the tone and humour I was looking for. I guess these passages of writing were a kind of safety net. A way to build my confidence in the book.

And it worked.

More than a year and half after starting the project, the opening line came to me in a dream. I woke up one morning and I had it, exactly as it appears in the final version of the book:

Adam has been dying for eight weeks now, but he isn’t getting any better at it.

As if dying was something you’d get used to. The sense that our character is frustrated at his inability to just ‘get the hang of it’.

After that, I wrote the novel in 51 days, those working days spread out from late September to a few days before Christmas. It was a thrilling, scary, exhilarating 3 months – but I just kept on writing, kept moving forwards and didn’t look down until I got to the end.

I walked the tightrope. And I think – I hope – I got the balance right. And if I didn’t, well I can always run off and join the circus.

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