Gaslight

One of the advantages of being sober so far in 2019 as it has given me more free time to focus on my writing and no excuses to slack off because I’m hungover. The mammoth edit of my novel was taking forever to complete, but after a couple of long evenings of re-writing, it’s finally done.

It’s come in at a shade over 200,000 words, which is about what I expected. My rough rule of thumb is that the first re-write should collapse the story by 10%, and I’m in the ballpark. Once the final draft is done I would expect it to run just under the 200K mark, but for now I’m in a position where I can start to force the manuscript on anyone who wants to read it (and maybe some of those who don’t!)

This is usually an exciting time and as the days pass I’m sure I’ll get more enthused about it, but right now I’m quite drained and tired. I started this journey in November 2016, so this has been the longest gestation period for a novel I’ve experienced, and it’s taken a fair bit out of me. I do still feel a sense of wonder that I sat down and started writing what I thought would be no more than a novella and ended up with this behemoth, but that’s part of what makes it a thrill. I never know where it’s going to end up, or if it’s going to go anywhere at all.

So over the next few weeks I’ll approach a few people and see if they want to read it, then once it’s out in the world, it’s no longer mine. Which is always a daunting prospect after being a part of it for so long.

And finally I have a title for the novel, which also forms the title of this post. Any regular readers will know I’ve been struggling with this for months, so it’s good to be able to put a face to a name so to speak. Hints at some of the themes of the book whilst also creating a sense of mystery.  It’s growing on me.  Hopefully the novel will have a similar effect on its first readers.

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Dark Days and Drinking

In the writing game, the propensity for substance abuse appears to be higher than in other parts of society, particularly alcohol. A number of my favourite writers all had problems with the bottle – Stephen King, Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler to name but three. As King brilliantly articulates in On Writing, the idea that creative endeavour and booze or drugs are somehow connected and necessary in a world of emotional isolation and despair is a myth. Alcoholics drink because they are addicts, anything else is just another excuse.

Which brings me to my own battles with the booze. I’m obviously far from the standard of the legends I’ve mentioned, but I’ve used that excuse for my own excesses on occasion. And in the last few months the excesses are starting to get out of control. I drank heavily over the Christmas period, culminating in an ill-advised solo drinking session on New Years Eve which resulted in a substantial blackout period and one of the most savage hangovers I’ve ever experienced. I spent the first day of the year sleeping and puking and swallowed in a sea of self-loathing and guilt. Twenty six days later, I sit here and write, and I’m still sober.

I’ve been drinking for all the wrong reasons for a long time. It’s my fall back pastime when my mental health takes a tumble, which is the worst possible solution for that problem. When I’m bored, I drink. When I’m lonely, I drink. When I’m sad, I drink. When I can’t get the words down right, I drink. And on and on and on.  That my life is so much harder than anybody elses and I deserve to drink as some kind of a reward. It’s pathetic, really. I have friends with serious family stuff going on, life and death situations, and I get drunk because I feel I’m worthless as a writer or because I’m lonely. What a self-indulgent load of nonsense that is. Like I’m inviting the despair on to give me an excuse.

That’s not to say my mental health problems shouldn’t be acknowledged, far from it. But alcohol is not the way to do it. Once the fog cleared I made some enquiries and will hopefully be going back into therapy soon. I spent the best part of three years seeing somebody a decade ago and it really helped. More fool me for thinking I can do it on my own. And I’m sure that if I can keep my drinking under control my creative output should remain constant, and everything else will improve both physically and mentally.  I’m already sleeping better. My skin feels clearer. And its lovely to wake up in the morning without having to wonder how I got home. Simple pleasures.

It would be nice to get to the stage where I can enjoy a beer again, make it an occasional pleasure rather than a habit. If I can’t handle that, then it probably is time to give up for good. But I know now that I can’t go on as I have been, and that’s revelation enough.  I can not drink and be cleaner and happier, and still be able to write and live.

 

Stages

OK, so the first read-through and initial editing of the novel is complete. It’s difficult to try to formulate an opinion on it when there is still so much to do, but I haven’t had to shake my head in exasperation too many times. So I guess that’s a reasonable sign.

I like to do the very first edits on paper, as I tend to get a better feel for it that way. And there is great satisfaction to be had from putting a red line through a dreadful sentence before anybody else can read it. Saving my credibility one pen-stroke at a time. Now the task is to translate that work to the electronic manuscript. This stage I enjoy less, as it’s almost performing the same task twice. I’ll tidy up any extra continuity errors that may have slipped through the net, and get rid of a few more adverbs.

These are the manageable tasks. The main challenge will be to address any glaring plot holes. Why is a character walking when they have a car, that sort of thing. Developments in plot that hinge around a character’s actions that are a little too convenient. Sometimes this will mean a fair amount of juggling, as one action sets off another, and lo and behold a whole chain of events needs tweaking. These have only been starred in the manuscript, with a note that further editing is required. In the electronic edit, I will have to tidy these up. Thankfully the ones I remember should be reasonably straightforward to address.

I’m looking to get this stage complete in the next few weeks, certainly by Christmas. And then once that is done, I’m at the frightening stage – ready to give it up for people to read. This is the exciting but daunting part. At the moment I’m in control. No-one has read a word except me, and it can stay that way if I want it to. But as soon as the manuscript is in another person’s hands, it’s gone. Having the novel in the public domain is great, but then all the worry of criticism comes in. An inevitable part of the writer’s life.

With this one, there are two things that I want to gauge from the first few people I can corral into reading the novel. First, and this is one I have gone on about a lot, is length. I suspect I will have taken 5-10,000 words off the first draft after the re-write is complete. So we are going to be at 200,000+ words. So am I not being ruthless enough with the draft? Does the novel sag in places? In short language – is it boring? And if it is too long, can further reductions keep the manuscript a coherent whole but improve the structure? Big questions, but one’s that only a reader can really answer.

Second, are there themes that stand out? And are they ones that are interesting enough to keep a reader engaged for the entire novel? I will hopefully have bought the themes more to the forefront by the time the draft is complete, but will the reader get a sense of them? And be captivated by them? This is the important one, really. If they can’t get what it’s all about, or even worse don’t care, then I’ve failed. I’m concerned that the storyline is a well-worn trope, which could be enough for readers to give up on it.

All this is quite a lot to ask of the poor reader, particularly as they are most likely to be someone who knows me, so will have existing prejudices that may affect their ability to be impartial. Perhaps I’ll hawk the manuscript on social media and beg complete strangers to read it. Either way, the time to let the novel into the public eye is not too far away.

A Lack Of

Over the twenty or so years I’ve been writing fiction I’ve built up a fairly solid body of work, word count wise. 3 novels which must add up to 400,000 words or so, a novella of 30,000, and various short stories here and there. Call it half a million all in. Which, seen as a whole, is quite a number. You would think from such an expanse that I would have introduced a vast array of different characters, each with their own unique backgrounds, hopes and desires. Set against a plausible backdrop, steeped in a concrete sense of place, with character history and back story and development.

As I say, you’d like to think so. But through this novel rewrite I’m starting to get the impression that all these words are just repeating the same things over and over again, only with different faces and the same paper-thin depth of character. I get that every writer has their themes that thread through their work. Judging by what I write about mine would be substance abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, depression, and suicide. Cheery stuff. And somehow I keep returning to these themes every time I sit up and write. Not necessarily a bad thing, you might think. But I fear it’s more to do with my ignorance than any great overwhelming desire to write on these subjects.

Off the top of my head, some topics I know nothing about: finance, banking, mortgages, construction, architecture, housing, computing, technology, feminism, sociology, physics, science in general, archaeology, astronomy, economics, furniture, design, cars, fashion, marriage, children, the list is endless. And I would consider myself reasonably intelligent and more well-read than most. So with this shameful lack of knowledge on virtually everything, it’s no wonder my fiction is limited to the same tired topics, and my characters all start to merge into one another. I couldn’t even have a character with a complicated job, that would be enough to finish me.

Case in point – I have had a short story idea whirring away in my mind for a while now. But I anticipate it being set across the entire lifetime of a character (something I’ve never done before, believe it or not). Which would mean writing about the 1950s all the way up to the present day. Getting the details right. How people spoke, what they ate, read, drove, what jobs they would have for a lifetime, and so on. Details that have to be right or everything falls apart. Not part of the emotional story, but the nuts and bolts that bring it to life. The bits I’m bound to fuck up, basically.

That’s what research is for, I hear you cry. Yes, of course. I always feel I’ll be winging it, though. Worried about being tripped up by having someone watching TV in 1935 or being unable to properly describe what wainscoting is. And letting that anxiety feed through and affect what I really want to say.  I know it’s a stupid barrier I’m putting up, that to attempt to broaden my horizons will make me a better writer, but man it seems so daunting. Getting the words down is hard enough; expressing what’s in your heart even tougher. Not being able to describe a room because I don’t know what a chaise longue is just seems embarrassing.

Just Cutting

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I think the time I feel closest to being a writer is seeing sheafs of paper scattered about the floor with various scrawled red lines on them. Because that means that A) I’ve got something of substance to edit, and B) I’m actually having the responsibility of omitting sentences of my work for the greater good, for the overall story rather than the great one liner.

The pic above is a pretty accurate example of where I’m at (and no spoilers, it’s the first page!). Tons of alterations. A lot of this is losing the extraneous material. Anything that’s too much like exposition, well that’s gone straightaway. Of course as many adverbs as I can do without. Spelling mistakes. Tweaking clunky dialogue. Most of this is actually quite fun, especially as parts of the story I’ve forgotten, so reading them through again is a surprise, almost a delight. The joy of re-reading a paragraph that sounds far better than I could have imagined is one of the greatest pleasures I have with this whole writing gig. It really does feel like magic that has come from somewhere else.

But, of course, a big problem will become apparent. This mostly comes in the form of structural problems with the story. A character might do something explicable, where I shake my head and say ‘where the hell did that come from?’. Often these faux-pas can just be deleted, but if they are connected up with developments further down the line,  you have a problem. On a first re-write I tend to star them and scribble a brief note in the margin, reminding myself that this bit needs an overhaul. Part of this is kicking the can down the road, I freely admit. But untangling the knots requires time and energy, and on the first read through, I mainly want to get a feel for the piece. The overarching story and themes (the what’s it all about? question, in essence) can be fleshed out and strengthened in future drafts.

So far I’ve been lucky, touch wood. I haven’t experienced any major deficiencies as yet. I know the novel is far too long, but I’ve found the cutting back a lot easier than I remember for my novel Playing with Fire. I think I’ve learnt that dialogue and the actions of the characters can show narrative without reams of further explanation. The reader can work it out for themselves – I might need to give them a nudge every now and then, but they don’t need everything spoonfed to them. I’ve also noticed how often I use certain words. Every writer must have them.  Mine? I use ‘just’ as an adverb a ridiculous amount, which is an awful habit I’ve picked up from God knows where. I even start sentences with it. Ugh. ‘Still’, is another I overuse as a shorter version of the horrible ‘nevertheless.’ So I’ve tried to kill as many of those little festerers as I can.

All in all it’s slow progress, a few pages a night at most, and there are 298 in total, so I’ll be here for a while yet. I’m not writing anything else at the moment so my full creative focus is on this, and it’s nice having that direction. If all goes well I might have another stab at getting the final manuscript published, but that’s getting way ahead of myself. Best to not get too greedy and try and make this the best novel that it can be.

Oh, and I STILL haven’t got a title!

 

 

Wellbeing

Just read my last post and to be honest, things haven’t changed much since then. I’m still not writing very much. The novel sits idly by waiting to be looked at. My enhusiasm for reading has continued to dwindle. What I would say is that my general mental wellbeing has improved somewhat. I’m certainly a little cheerier than I was. There are a few reasons for that, I think. The main one has been the sunshine. It really is amazing how much the simple pleasure of being outdoors in the sun can improve my mood. I definitely think I suffer from that seasonal syndrome or whatever it’s called. Living in the southern hemisphere where the sun shines every day, I got used to warmth and long, light evenings. Coming back to Uk winters and darkness at 3pm really affected me. Now we’re in the height of summer I feel a bit better.

And I’ve had some lovely distractions. In the last few weekends I’ve caught up with various friends I haven’t seen in a while. The World Cup is on, which is criminal for my writing time but has been enjoyable so far (and England are showing their potential, which is somewhat exciting). I’ve also got some good times to look forward to, another Germany book club coming up which I always enjoy, plus I’m getting away for a few days in Cornwall at the end of July, and I can’t wait for that.

I’ve decided to use that trip to begin the edit of my novel. I figure it will be a nice place to start. I have booked a quiet apartment near the beach where I can fully get into it, and have unfamiliar terrain to explore when I need a break. It will be my first real holiday in a while and I’m determined to use the time to properly refresh the batteries. Read some books, maybe do some painting, get into a creative headspace and hopefully that will give me some momentum to get working on the various short story strands I’ve got in various stages of completion, and get something fit for public consumption whilst I continue on with the epic novel re-write.

So I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth, I suppose you could call this the downtime whilst I get mentally prepared to dive in. I hope to have more to say and write about as we get into the second half of 2018.

 

Malaise

I’ve been in a creative funk since my last post, and even after years of ups and downs with my writing output and general mental health I still can’t predict when it will come. I don’t want to call it writer’s block, as I think that’s a lazy and overused term.  I’ve written a little bit, but it’s all coming out flat. Perhaps this is because I’ve fallen back on the old adage of ‘writing what I know.’ This phrase is nonsense and deserves to be treated with scorn, it’s anti-imagination at its very core, but I’ve gone and done it anyway. Reason being I actually wanted to write something about a sport that I play, and explore some of the feelings I’ve experienced in my years of playing. Nothing too horrendous there, I don’t think. Sport is a metaphor for life according to everyone who’s ever played any, and I approached it with some enthusiasm. But it’s not flowing as I would have liked, so the story is currently on the back burner. Sigh.

Some of this of course is to do with a slight downturn in my mental health. I’ve been in a mild state of depression for quite a while now. Part of it is my job, which is time-consuming and stressful and has a knock-on effect of exacerbating my insomnia. Which doesn’t help. I feel like I’m in a rut career wise, but have no choice but to put up with it as I’m saving for a mortgage. Most of the time I can see the greater good, but on occasion I get a horrible dread, a suffocation, that I’m trapped and going to be until I retire or lose my rag, and the darkness descends for a bit and I need to regroup. Loneliness has crept in too, which is unusual for me as I’m solitary by nature. All this is not the best cocktail for productivity.

I feel a bit whiny, just saying all that. It’s been worse, far worse. I had wild bouts of heavy drinking and self-harm in my twenties, and there were moments when I contemplated suicide. I got in an awful, awful mess, and at that time I was writing a novel, on and off. It almost felt like a bipolar episode – days when I could barely get out of bed mixed with partying, copious amounts of alcohol and attacking my arms and chest with knives and cigarettes. I’m not in that place, and touch wood never again will be.  But even then I was still writing something. This malaise feels different, like its seeping into my bones and sapping my creative energy. Often reading will help, a brilliant book will give me a jolt, but that isn’t working either. My reading rate is way down on last year, as it happens. So another aspect of life that usually brings joy has ground to a halt.

Ahh, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just the fucking miserable weather.  Guess I could tell my boss to shove it and then I’ll have plenty of free time to bash this gloom out of me. I’m going to have to push through and write, no matter how bad it is or how much I don’t want to, and the sun will break through the clouds eventually.  I just wish it were easier, sometimes.