Thursday, 16 February 2012

Qualifying failure. Fail again. Fail better?

This is my most recent novel, Peeler (Mercier Press, 2010).

Buy it.  No, seriously, buy it and then tell your friends to buy it in paperback or ebook.  It's big and not too expensive.  A bargain in the current economic climate and all that.  But I have to warn you:  it is, I often think, even now, after generally rave reviews--'dark, brooding, multi-layered, morally complex masterpiece', Belfast Telegraph; Irish Times Selection Top 10 Thrillers 2010--a failure.  No false modesty, this.  Oh this little old thing?  It's no good at all, don't waste your time... It is a good novel. Some have thought it to be a very good novel and I am proud of it, as I am of its successor which will be (God willing) released next year.  And yet...  And yet I still consider it something of a qualified failure.

This has nothing do with sales figures, which, while not of the kind that might induce an Irish bank to consider me for a mortgage, are certainly good enough that I can afford to buy pretty much any size tent in Halford's. (Ok, the 6 man is out, but any size up to 4 man, definitely do-able...) Nor does it have to do with the fact that it has thus far only been published in Ireland.  I expect it will be published in the US and UK soon enough and rakes of copies have been sold in these markets--and Canada, amazingly--thanks to all you fellow bloggers and reviewers who kindly pushed it.  (You know who you are Crime Always Pays, Detectives Beyond Borders, The Rap Sheet, Critical Mick, Eurocrime et al.) 

No, I consider it a qualified failure in that every time I pick it up, I find things in it I would like to change, things that could be better.  

The copy of Peeler that I used when doing readings/events/promotional gigs etc. is splattered and scored with ink every bit as bloody red as the deeds described in the pages. Words--whole lines, even a paragraph--are excised.  Commas are dropped, added; the word 'derelict' [cottage] changed (for what reason I can no longer remember) to 'the ruins of the' [cottage] in urgent, pre-public-reading red ink.  I find occasional words that are used twice on the same page--cardinal sin!--and sentences that, while not bad in and of themselves, could simply be better, have more punch.

I make it a point not to be too hard on myself when I stumble upon these minor blights, harking back to another of the many quotes I've pinned to the wall by...  Hmph... Looking at it I realise I've no idea who said it and to preserve the mystery, I'm not going to Google it.  Anyway, the quote is this: You don't finish a novel, you merely abandon it.  When I handed Peeler to my agent, I abandoned it in as fine a state as I could make it at the time.  He then read it and gave it back and I made some changes, made it better, I think, and abandoned it to him again.  After it sold, my editor at Mercier Press--the brilliant Wendy Logue--suggested some more changes, asked some questions which I tried to answer.  I made the changes I agreed with (most of them, in fairness) and again with the abandonment.  (By this time, I was so sick of the manuscript, so weary of my own words, I would have happily thrown it from a car window in a cinched bin bag.  This, I feel, is a common enough sentiment among writers and it is the one true sign that the MS is ready to rock.)  Which brings me to another quote from the wall, this one on a faded yellow post-it by the writer Peter Mayle:  The best advice on writing I've ever received is: Finish. So finish I did, thinking Peeler even then to be a failure in ways but as good a failure as I was capable of as a novelist.

So a qualified failure...  But then again, I sometimes open it and find lines, paragraphs, scenes, I have no recollection of ever writing and think, 'Hey, that's not bad at all.'  Others, I feel really, really chuffed over.  (Even if I can't remember writing them, I'll still take the credit...)  All of which is to get around to the title of this inaugural post.  From Worstword Ho--yes, I read it back in the day, and no, I don't remember much of it--it is one of Beckett's most cited lines.  Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Fail again.  Fail better.  Google it...and find yourself on a how-to-play craps site which, unwisely, I feel, uses it as its presiding philosophy for learning to play games of chance.  For money.  Hmmm...  So it's become a bit of a cliche, really.  Used in sports psychology, business seminars, by unlucky gamblers (!), by artists and writers alike, its appeal lies in it's clear and basic wisdom:  Life is not perfect, it seems to say, and your endeavors never will be either.  You'll roll sevens, more often than not and lose your shirt, your wife,  your dog.  But just maybe...just this time...  Many a cliche is strangely, powerfully profound.

Thus, Fail again.  Fail better.  As a maxim it accepts imperfection as a given but acknowledges hope for improvement (scope for improvement?) and the possibility that any work, while imperfect, can be 'better'.  There are works that I (very) occasionally read--and in this blog I hope to recommend them as they arise--that strike me as almost perfect.  Impossibly good.  But I'm willing to bet that the authors of these books view them similarly to how I do mine.  Qualified failures but 'better' than they were once as mere concepts of the mind or neurosis inducing rough drafts; works as good as they can be and hopefully, just plain damn good.