Wednesday, September 5, 2007


I love this word, and it seems to be in the news a fair bit at the moment in relation to stem cell research. But I also like it in relation to its other meanings: the mythological beast with the lion's head, goat's body and serpent's tale, and the notion of some desirable goal that is illusory. And by the way, there is an actual chimera which is a type of fish aka rabbit fish, but that I find less interesting.

Most days I think the idea that I'll ever make a sensible living from my writing is a chimera, but I live in hope. They say that it takes 7-12 books to build up a real following, and here I am currently writting book number 7. Since I am still trying to flog book number 5 and have managed to flog book number 6 to an e-publisher, I am not sure that book 7 will count as book 7, it might really only represent book 5, but you never know. I am currently on version 5 of chapter one. I think this is the one that will take. I've never rewritten a first chapter so much. But I've decided that this time I am not going to stop, but will continue and then revisit and rewrite.

If I manage a steady 500 words a day between now and the end of the year, I should have amassed 61,000 words by the new year. Of course it won't be like that: this weekend, I have to go away for family reasons, and I doubt I'll manage my target. On the other hand, most days when I do write, I more than hit the target, so who knows. I wrote the bulk of a book in November 2005 when I did the Nanowrimo contest (National Novel Writing Month) which takes place every November. It took another 6 months to finish off properly, but the starter bones were there and I hit the 50,000 words in a month limit.

Isn't this a terrible prosaic banal way to approach writing! On the other hand, the unglamorous truth about writing is that by and large, it is banal. I'm reading a marvellous book, This Thing Of Darkness, by the much-lamented late Harry Thompson, a British TV producer and comic writer who died a couple of years ago from ironic lung cancer (ironic because he'd never smoked). The book is about Captain Robert Fitzroy, who commanded the Beagle and befriended Darwin, offering him the opportunity to join the voyage which lasted 5 years and was the source of the Origin of the Species.

Now one thing about Fitzroy and his experiences on the Beagle - he was beating the sea lanes around Tierra del Fuego for the better part of 10 years, and the thing that he and his mariners experienced again and again was phenomenal storms - all the more so in a vessel just over 90 feet long. Thompson's first storm is amazing - the writing is magnificent, and your heart is in your mouth as you read the account of how the boat is only just saved from destruction. But of course, that's the first of quite a few storms. Even in the hands of a writer as passionate and competent as Thompson, from time to time, the bad weather gets to you, and frankly, Darwin's expedition from Patagonia to Buenos Aires escorted by gauchos is a welcome relief from the nautical misadventures. Even the most appalling storm can become banal.

This though, is one of the classic reads - it's not a complete history by any means: Thompson omits interesting things like Fitzroy's failed attempt to become a member of parliament which would have put paid to his seafaring, and consequently meant no Darwin on the Beagle. On the other hand, the book is a big'un - over 700 pages, so diversions into 19th century British political manoeuvring were probably best avoided. Sometimes the process of developing scientific theories are rather clunkingly described, but on the whole, this is one of the most interesting and vivid novels I've read for some time. In the hands of Thomas Kenneally, a true master at novelising history, it might have been a real masterpiece, but Thompson did an honourable job and it is a very enjoyable and compelling read.

Now back to that fifth version of chapter one.

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