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Csilla Toldy

Many writers agree that whatever we write will only be finished once it is published. In my writing practice, I often find that a certain theme does not want to let me go. Yet, until I find the right form for it, it lingers in my memory and on my computer. Something that started as a film script has become a novel or something that started as a confessional personal essay ended up in poetic form. Good writing is re-writing and this can often happen across genres.

The novelisation is a process that worked for me in this regard. I had a feature film script that I developed with Sundance. It was to be an international co-production,  but it did not get the support in the country of origin, in Hungary, where the whole story starts.

I had invested a lot of time into the project and thought that perhaps, if it had been a novel, it had had a better chance of becoming a film. I looked at the story from many angles. I tried it as a memoir as it is heavily based on my own story of emigration, but even though I wrote in the first person, I could not find a voice. It was too close to home and I got lost in the jungle of my own emotions, and memories, not being able to distinguish between what to tell and what to leave out. I discovered soon that creative non-fiction was not an alternative. I knew I was working on a novel, but my own, personal voice got in the way.

Writers transformations

When I tried it in the third person and distanced myself, I could create a character out of a facet of my own being and used the film script as a skeleton for the plot. I started off on the long journey of learning by doing – to write a novel.

When I received a bursary to spend two weeks in a writers’ retreat, I knew what I was going to do. Novelise the film script. The scenes of the script became the scaffolding with much of the dialogue and the characters retained. It was great fun and rewarding to flesh them out, go into their heads, and give their point of view. I discovered the infamous emotional satisfaction that many novelists describe: my characters surprised me, and started to live their own lives, doing their own things.

I wrote 40,000 words at the one-week retreat in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Ireland. After this concentrated effort, many more drafts followed over the years. Back in 2016, I took advantage of the help of TLC and got a copy editor’s insight into the piece. She acted somewhat like an agent, too, and introduced me to an e-book publisher who expressed interest in the novel.

However, I love tangible objects, especially books. Nothing can compare to the smell of a book fresh from the printer. I did not sign the contract. Starting from scratch again, a long waiting time followed during which I published poetry pamphlets and a collection of my short stories. The novel started its shelf life.

Little glimmers of hope and many new drafts followed, the writing of one supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I entered the book to many novel awards, some of which offered feedback pointing out the character’s values and commenting on pacing. This was something I had to work on. I suppose, in a film script you can get away with the CUT TO command, but in a novel, the reader likes to linger on the details of an emotional journey much longer. Stuck between two stools: the commercial and the literary novel, I took criticism with a pinch of salt, not wanting to give up on the European tradition of literature I am coming from.

The latest draft, which I entered for the Bath Novel Award got on the long list. As the novel deals with issues of migration, diversity and LGBT themes, Penguin’s Write Now programme offered me a place, too. I made good use of some advice from an editor there, but still, I did not get a publishing deal!

The journey was long and arduous, but now after so many years and two more novels in the pipeline, a title change and a few more edits, I am happy that Bed Table Door is coming out with Wrecking Ball Press this winter. Looking back on its gestation, all I can say is that perseverance pays. Not in monetary terms, but in the satisfaction that you have created something that is out there, available and I only hope that it now has the potential to touch someone’s heart and mind. I can’t wait to have the book in my hand and smell the paper!

Csilla Toldy

Csilla Toldy is a writer and translator from Hungary. Her publications include various literary magazines in the UK and Ireland, as well as Red Roots – Orange Sky (2013), The Emigrant Woman’s Tale (2015) and Vertical Montage (2018) with Lapwing Belfast, Angel Fur and other stories (2019) with Stupor Mundi, Fife. In 2021 she was an Emerging Translators Mentee with the National Centre for Writing, UK. Her novel Bed, Table, Door is forthcoming with Wrecking Ball in 2022.