There was The Wolf of Wall Street, A Nightmare on Elm Street and a Miracle on 42nd Street. Even Desperate Housewives had Wisteria Lane. Not me, I gave my first novel the woebegone title 29 Brown Street.
The book explored the impact of place—a specific address—on the central characters …
Set in Melbourne, Australia, in 2002, 29 Brown St describes a time of house auctions, corporate ruthlessness and creativity. We follow the lives of those who built and occupied the house at 29 Brown Street. Sam, the architect, returns after a 28-year absence to discover a foreboding sign. “For Sale, Deceased Estate.” Was Melissa dead, or had the house changed hands?
In hindsight, this focus on setting was a sign of things to come. My home when I started writing the book was a Californian bungalow in Melbourne, Australia. By the time I abandoned the novel, I’d moved to a compound in Lagos, Nigeria.
In The Value of Failure, I mentioned Mistake No. 2: Underestimating how long it takes to learn the craft of writing and to polish a novel. Now is the time to elaborate. To get technical, a novel has a lot of words—on average, 80-100,000. This takes thinking, planning and editing. Some writers churn out 5000 words a day, but I’m slow and can only manage 1000. Usually, a first draft (not fit for human consumption) takes me 6-12 months. That’s when the hard work begins—editing.
Professionals discuss at least three levels of edits in refining a novel: structural, line and copy. Consider the analogy of building a house. The structural edit correlates to the design and layout. The line edit is the fit out with cabinetry, heating/cooling, kitchens and bathrooms. The copy edit is the painting, window fixtures and finishing touches.
The structural edit focuses on the big-ticket items such as the central premise, characters and setting and can lead you to add or delete backstory, points of view, plot points, even characters. The opening chapters are particularly challenging, so much so, that I’ll dedicate a whole blog to this another day. The line edit refines prose and dialogue, along with the depth and detail of setting and characters. The copy edit reviews grammar, spelling and continuity—the final polish. In practice, editing is an iterative process and you cycle through these stages until you reach a final draft.
My first draft of 29 Brown Street, came in at just 44,000 words (a novella, really). Until I reread it for this blog, I hadn’t looked at it for more than a decade. One day (for symmetry, maybe in 28 years), I’ll come back and revamp it. By the time it’s ready, it’ll be historical fiction. I’d start by changing the title. If I named it for the places I’ve lived since, I’d have Mobil Court, Turtle Rock Court, Al Rayaan Village or Missouri Avenue—all far more compelling than Brown St. Which brings us to the other wonderful reason novels take so long to write. Life. Whether inspiring, heart breaking, or mundane, life events interrupt our focus. They also inform and bring depth to our work.
I dropped 29 Brown St, because I embarked on a 13-year Winding Narrative that took me through four continents. My fascination with place has fed all my subsequent writing. My work in progress is a four-book series, each set in one of my expat locations. So, pack your bags, we’re about to go on a trip down memory lane to Nigeria. In the words of my protagonist, Tara Wells, “From my first moments here, I sensed Lagos would leave an indelible mark on my soul. No question, Nigeria is ripe with blog-worthy material.”
But first, I will take a fun look at the everyday reasons it takes an age to write a novel. Next time: The Writer’s Hour