Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Soft Collisions, the background

A long time ago I wrote a novel in the first person, following the inner lives of three young people in Manchester who were all desperate for love. The original seed was a story I wrote called Last Day, about a young man who cared for a girl at work and never admitted it until the night of her leaving do. They slept together but it turned out that his interpretation of the sex was wrong and she had been using him. Much as I liked the story, a thought kept nagging at me: what would things look like from the girl's perspective? Why would she act like she did? Had I been unfair on her in portraying her as selfish? Could there be things below the surface that the lad was unaware of? Eventually I gave in to these thoughts and wrote a companion story, covering the same events but from the girl's viewpoint. It was an exciting experiment for me, and I found that both protagonists were mistaken about each other. It was their own misunderstandings that kept them apart. When I came to write Soft Collisions it was the theme of misunderstandings that I wanted to focus on, so I based the novel on these two stories, plus I added another couple's relationship to mirror them, which had its their own baggage and misunderstandings. However, for reasons of a plot twist (which I was later informed was corny and an insult to the reader) I only focused on one person from the second couple, so as to hide the motivations of his love interest. Hence three first-person perspective stories.

I loved the novel, and at the time could not see the flaws pointed out by experienced writers and editors. However, with time comes new perspectives, and after writing a popular fiction horror/thriller novel, Turner, I returned to this piece of literary fiction. I re-read the comments. I comprehended them. And I wasn't afraid of the huge amount of work involved in acting on them, which included a complete re-write in the third person, a major change to the plot, greater emphasis on some of the other characters, and the telling of the 'hidden' character's story right from the start so that there would be no disappointing plot twist at the end - instead there would be an attempt to make the unlikely seem plausible.

I have been working on these changes for some time and yesterday was the first day of some 'writing time' I am taking out from work each week to throw myself into this project. I've already achieved quite a lot. Yesterday I wrote some new scenes for the novel where there are details that seem relevant to add in order to reinforce ideas. I can see that my current issue is length. The first draft was just over 83,000 words. The current re-write is a humongous 121,000 words. It is quite a shock to realise that I have written something so large! So the novel is huge but I see that as a good thing, since I can later be more ruthless in paring it down, hopefully leaving a core of quality. I'll hopefully find time to analyse some of the editing I am doing in this blog, which might be useful to other people doing similar re-writing projects. It is certainly useful to me to think about what I am doing.

I'm off to work on the novel now. However, I'll paste in the current synopsis below. It needs a lot more work, it is currently more like an extended jacket sleeve taster, but referring to it helps me to keep my focus while editing.

By the way, if you are wondering about the relevance of the Rossetti drawing... it is because the it is the character Alex Kavanagh's favourite painting, and it comes to have a symbolic meaning for him during the novel.

Synopsis of Soft Collisions
What if two people loved each other but misunderstandings and lies kept them apart? Soft Collisions explores this premise. The novel is about contemporary relationships, following four young people over an exceptionally hot summer in a Manchester of boring office jobs, identikit shopping malls and endless pubs. They all encounter something that has the potential to become love, but behind them is the weight of the past, a long dead field which doesn't provide a fertile ground for anything to grow in. It is a novel about identities, fate, art, happiness, responsibility, and dreams.

Alex Kavanagh is a pedantic teacher obsessed with the past and with quantum physics. He lives at home and dreams of being something more, but he has never been able to get over the spectre of a past lover (Lucy Spiers) who left him emotionally cold. Lucy had an identical twin sister he never knew about, Jane Spiers. Jane is caring and impulsive, a contrast to Lucy's callous and fickle nature. When Alex and Jane meet by chance in a bar and Jane realises that Alex is still hurting from her sister's mistreatment Jane acts on an impulse: she pretends to be Lucy for a few minutes in order to apologise to Alex. But she is surprised by Alex's eagerness to spend time with her, and in a flustered moment agrees to see him again. From then on feelings and lies begin to spiral out of control.

Meanwhile Samantha Rees, an attractive woman who lacks self-confidence, also seems unable to have a mature relationship. She works with and comes to care about Mark Hopton. He claims to love his bachelor lifestyle and mammoth drinking sessions 'with the lads' but is deeply unhappy. His violent family seem to want to drag him down, but he sticks to his principles. Samantha believes that Mark has hidden depths and - along with her best friend, a flirty extrovert - they start to engineer an immature seduction attempt that will have unforeseen consequences.

Unseen connections link these two story arcs, from the apparently random collisions of molecules to the echoes from the past that resonate in the present. The different approaches to honesty in the two arcs lead to outcomes that are more bitter than sweet. Self-knowledge comes at a cost.


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