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.

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Sitting on the Edge

So it’s been over a month since I finally finished the first draft of my still untitled third novel.  I’ve found having an extended break before the re-write is essential, not only to recharge the batteries but to allow the story to become unfamiliar, almost as if it was written by somebody else. This allows me to approach the manuscript with a critical eye and be ruthless in my cutting, paring back scenes and chopping all that boring exposition that I’m sure litters the pages. I’m at that point now, having let the novel stew for long enough, written something else in the interim, and had a few weeks of writing nothing at all.

But there is a reluctance to go back to it. Why? Partly because it’s going to be a herculean task. Editing 220,000 words is more than laborious, it’s never-ending. And there’s always the ever-present fear that it will read terribly, and it will be a year and a half’s work for not much result. Same old, same old.  But it’s silly.  In contrast to these fears lies the much greater one that inflicts us all to varying degrees. That I’m running out of time. I’m 40 years old in 18 months. Plenty of writers had had a 20 year career by that stage. I’m still wading around in the shallow end. I’ve spent too many years worrying that I’m not good enough rather than getting down to knocking the words out. Time isn’t going to wait for me, like it won’t for anyone else. Sure, I have a hectic full-time job which leaves my writing window to a couple of hours a night. But only the very good have the luxury of a full-time writing career. The rest of us are down in the saltmines getting by.

I’m content when working on something, too. In this period of not working my sleep has suffered.  I’m restless in thought and deed. Writing helps keep me calm, more focused.  I’ve struggled with my mental health for a long time so I wouldn’t go as far as to say writing makes me happy, but I feel closer to the person I truly am in those moments when it all feels like it comes from somewhere deep inside. From my core being, if you will. And that is what really matters. I will probably not make a living from this. I won’t see my books on the shelves. I should be satisfied with what I have. And I am, mostly. I guess that tiny kernel of me that craves recognition tends to shout the loudest, that’s all. But it will pass, this contradiction of inertia. When the increasing fear of time slipping away draws me back in.

Untitled: The Finish

Finally, finally.  It’s over.  The first draft of my third novel is finally complete.  Given how long it’s taken to get here, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would never happen.  462 days.  Enough time to sail around the world and go back the other way to make sure you didn’t miss anything.  And somehow, 220,000 words have come of it.  Readers will know that I’ve been obsessing over the length of this novel for months, and I can believe the final word count less now than ever.   I don’t know where it has come from.  I’m surprised that I have that much inside I want to express.  I’m amazed the characters had so much they wanted to say.  I’m less surprised at my capacity for talking bullshit.  Somehow it’s all added up to the shambolic mess that makes up my still untitled, third novel.

It’s not even as if I had much to go on. I sat down that cold November afternoon with a vague idea tugging at the back of my mind. It had come from a song lyric.  Not one I’m going to reveal, for that would be a plot spoiler, but it planted the smallest of seeds. I did as I always do, started writing with no fully-formed characters, no idea of plot, only the very loosest ideas about what the story was going to be about, and went from there.  Writing in what some might call a reckless manner means you run the risk of flailing badly, especially at the beginning.  Down little back alleys that lead to nowhere, overwriting, emphasising aspects of character that turn out to be unimportant once the protagonists start to emerge from the shadows, and all that.  Only this time these problems seemed to rear their ugly heads throughout.  On a virtual daily basis, as it happens.  My great fear is that the re-write will bring all these flaws sharply into perspective, and the whole thing might be irretrievable.  So in a sense it’s over, but the real work is only just beginning.

It’s safe to say my emotions on having it finished are mixed.  I ploughed through the conclusion yesterday, smashing out 4,500 words over the course of an afternoon, but I never felt exhilarated by it.  It  is as the whole manuscript has been – a battle.  I’m relieved that I don’t have to devote hours of my life to it anymore (not for a while anyway) as quite frankly, it has consumed me whole for far too long. I got caught in the snake’s belly, that’s for sure.  There’s a certain amount of pride, and a sense of amazement that I have managed to sustain, for good or bad, an output that would run to about 800 pages in paperback.  I’ve read many a book of that length and often pondered how the author did it.  Well, now I know.

And yes, I do feel a bit sad that I won’t get to write about the characters every day anymore.  It’s always a privilege when they let me into their lives (this is genuinely the way I feel it works, no matter how stupid it sounds) and I just try to run and keep up.  They surprised me along the way, angered me, and made me laugh.  Yeah, it feels bereft without them.  Already they are starting to retreat into the distance, but I’ve just got to let them go.  They’ve got lives to lead, and so have I. I wish they’d bothered to help me with a title, though.  Would have saved me a few nights laying in bed thinking about it.

But the show must go on, as they say.  Besides, there are always more tales, right?

Achilles and the Tortoise

That title is, or course, based on the paradox of Achilles never being able to catch up with the pondering tortoise.   Which is a pretty apt metaphor for the never-ending state of my still untitled, third novel.

As you will know from the plethora of posts I have made on this subject, this novel has turned into something of a behemoth.  Deadlines have been trampled on, any attempt to reign in the characters a bit has been firmly resisted, and the whole thing has turned into what might be called with some understatement, a bit of a mess.

For the trouble is, when I feel I’m about to hit the last yards and ready myself to breach the tape, something happens and the line moves a little further off.  I don’t want this to happen.  The over 200,000 words already written are unwieldy enough as it is.  I worry constantly about keeping all the strands coherent and realistic.  I’m certain there’s continuity errors piling up by the hundreds.  And behind it all, a great fear that the whole project will turn out to be a waste of time.

How so, you might say.  It’s a big achievement, writing that much.  I guess it is.  But what will come of it? A difficult re-write which will show up all the deficiencies, then probably a couple of rounds of rejections, than thrown in the online dustbin never to be seen again. And I’ve garnered less enjoyment of it than my previous novel.  I remember smashing out the last 5,000 words of that in a single afternoon, and that was the closest I’ve ever felt to the sheer magic of it, when there really is a muse fluttering on your shoulder and whispering sweet nothings in your ear. That feeling has been sadly extinct this time around. And my output has never got anywhere near those dizzy heights. Hence the interminable slog, and the finish line always out of reach.

I realise this all sounds horribly whiny and self-indulgent, and I can only hold my hands up. It does.  I wish I felt more positive about the whole thing, rather than allow myself to become frustrated.  Writing is like any other job, and most days in any career can be pretty ordinary.  You have to show up and get your head down, regardless of how you feel.  The work may be tentative and flat, but at least it’s there. It would be nice to be swept away by it every once in a while, though. Because if that did happen more often, I might be able to smash the paradox and leave the tortoise trailing in my wake.

Nanowrimo and the Opposite Extreme

The National Novel Writing Month, or #Nanowrimo to use the modern parlance, is an event I’ve seen all over social media this month.  Essentially – write a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November.  I hadn’t heard of this before, but it’s quite a nice idea.  Having a daily word count tracker to see how much you’ve done, personalised badges along the way, and most importantly, access to forums and other writers for inspiration and to motivate you as you go along. This is all good stuff.  But I don’t think it’s something I could ever be a part of.

Why? 50,000 words in a month works out at just under 2,000 words a day.  Which is manageable if you get on a good run.  But sustaining that output for 30 days would be beyond me.  And even if I could do it, the quality of my writing would be abysmal.  I guess the point of the event is to overcome the fear of being able to write that number of words in the first place, and have somewhere to turn when it all seems impossible.  I get that.

However that fear isn’t one I possess anymore.  My problem is the opposite.  As soon as I think that a story is running into novel territory (over 30,000 words is my benchmark) the story seems to expand and expand until the finishing line is an every distant mirage.  And trying to get wrapped up by a certain date is beyond me.  With my current novel, I gave myself a loose date of my birthday to get the first draft finished.  Well that’s been and gone.  Then it was before I go to New York on holiday.  That’s in about three hours time, so that’s out the window as well. So now we’re looking at Christmas, which will be about 400 days since I started on the damn thing.  Even then I’m fairly sure I will overrun into 2018, which means I will have spent the entire calendar year working on this novel.  Beggars belief.

Have I lost the ability to write concise prose?  That’s the question I ask myself.  I shuffle along at 500 words a day like the tortoise rather than the hare.  And will still be going long after everyone else has packed up and gone home. 50,000 words in a month? No chance.  I’m lucky to write a third of that in 30 days. 180,000 words and counting in just over a year? I’m your man.

New Territory

I’m starting to wonder if the first draft of this novel is ever going to be finished. To say that progress is going at a snails pace would be an insult to snails. In a previous post I predicted that the novel would end up overshooting 150,000 words. Well we’re a fair way beyond that and still the finishing line shimmers in the distance and each step closer turns out be a mirage.

It’s extraordinary, in a way.  A common fear that puts many people off trying to write a novel is a lack of confidence that they can produce the requisite number of words. You can say it’s a word at a time, and everyone starts with a blank page, but it’s easy to believe that the great writers can reel off a book without too much trouble while the rest of us struggle to remember how to structure a passable sentence, let alone a paragraph.  Indeed, I used to have this fear.  Part of the reason I wrote my first novel in my early twenties was to prove that I could have the discipline to sit down every day and and write, and not be overawed by the dreaded word count.

Now though, I seem to have gone to the opposite extreme.  I can’t fucking stop.  This is not to say that I’m not afflicted with self-doubt and paranoia and is this all just a waste of time syndrome, because those foibles speak louder than ever. But thinking 80,000 words was a daunting prospect?  Well those days are over, my friend. 80,000 words seems nice and cosy and comfortable.  500 words a day and you’re there in less than six months. That would be lovely.  In a couple of weeks time I will have been working on this for a year and written over double that.  And at risk of getting it totally wrong again, I could be looking at 200,000 words on completion.  Which would run to about an 800 page paperback. That makes Tolstoy look concise. I’m quite embarrassed by it, genuinely.  It’s absurd.  I’m in new territory, alright.  A whole different universe. 200,000 words that will probably only be read by a handful of people.  I’ll probably break my arm just carrying a copy of the manuscript around.

So how did it get this way? I really don’t know.  I think it’s fear, as most things are when deep in a first draft.  Maybe I’ve lost the ability to construct a concise sentence. Or be able to show emotion with a look or a line of dialogue rather than reams of obvious exposition. Simply, that I’ve lost my touch.  That whatever tiny spark of competency I had has been swallowed up by pretentious waffling. But now I’m hacking through the jungle, it’s persevere or be consumed by the shadows. I just hope that the daylight will break through soon.

Down the Rabbit Hole

One of the things about being deeply immersed in the first draft of a novel is how it is virtually impossible to get a grip on the overarching theme that holds everything together.  I begin every day’s writing with a sense of what is going to happen in the immediate scene that is approaching, but for anything further down the line, it starts to get a little hazy.

This is good in a way, but causes problems in another.  As I’ve written many times before, not knowing with complete certainty what is going to happen is exciting.  I’m as eager to find out as anyone else.  And you would hope that if I can’t work it out, when the novel comes to be read by someone else, they will react in the same manner.

The downside of this method is twofold.  Firstly, it’s very easy to overwrite.  As the characters start to come alive and make decisions on their own, I find that most of my job at that point is simply running to keep up.  I’m taking down as much as I can of their actions, but in the moment, I have no idea whether what they are doing is important or not.  Some of it surely will be, but a vast swathe will not. Good editing will eradicate most of the superflous stuff, if you have a sturdy mind and the ability to get rid of something even if it’s the best paragraph you’ve ever written. The length of my latest novel is already getting out of control, heading for 150,000 words with no end in sight, but if I can be disciplined, that will be substantially cut in the first edit.  Applying the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle to its core will do a lot of the work.

So far then, so good. But the second risk is that the manuscript disappears so far down the rabbit hole it’s impossible to see the way out.  My manuscript is written from three characters perspectives, in overlapping time and with a substantial amount of back story to refer to. The pitfalls are enormous – not just making sure that character motivation is realistic, but also that their actions are based on what they know.  All the protaganists have turned out more devious, secretive and opportunistic than I envisaged, so it’s a constant struggle trying to remember the secrets they have and what has and hasn’t been revealed in their interactions with others.

This tangled thicket is one that would be easy to become trapped in, and I fear that I’m vulnerable to its grip. I feel I am juggling so many balls in the air already, and I’m sure they will be further unseen twists to come that will make my job all the more difficult.  And this trap is one that is so much harder to deal with in a re-write.  Not only will the novel need paring, but substantial scenes will need to be completely rewritten to ensure the threads all tie up.  Which could lead to a maze of deadends, like trying to work out a sudoku when you’ve added a wrong number somewhere along the way.

For now though it’s a case of full steam ahead.  The clock has ticked up to nearly ten months on this novel, and I need it finished. WIth the right mindset, and a careful analysis of back story, I can hopefully avoid mistakes of motivation and emerge from the rabbit hole with a coherent story intact.