Stalling

Me and my big mouth.  I wrote in a post last month about a new novella that I was writing, and whilst I’m paraphrasing, wrote something along the lines that I was certain I would finish it.

Well, famous last words.  It’s not complete despair, as I’m still struggling along, but any momentum I had has virtually stalled. I wrote how I was working with a new narrative voice and the troubles that arose from that, and trying to keep that voice consistent is certainly part of the problem. But mostly it’s the same old affliction as always – getting the character’s actions to mirror their motivations.

When the story came to me it was in its essence very simple. A young girl falls for an older man, stakes her life on him, and is in the end let down.  A pretty well-worn furrow, but I had some nice detail in my head and the overall tone felt melancholic and yearning, which I wanted to bring out. But as other characters were introduced this straightforward plot has turned into something a lot more complicated, and all the usual worries about convolution and unrealistic plot development have reared their ugly head.

Of course some of this goes back to my lifelong aversion to making any kind of notes before starting, even anything as basic as character profiles. I’ve written tons on here about that so don’t need to repeat myself, but maybe I do need to be more organised before starting. I just worry that the natural flow of my prose will be stunted by too much forward planning.

It doesn’t help that I’m fucking tired all the time, either. I’m up at 6 every morning for work and the days of a good 8 hours sleep are pretty much over. And I’m a man who suffers with less than that.  So in the evenings I’m weary, my productivity is less, and cutting through the tangles seems a lot harder.

Fuck it. I’ll finish it eventually. Maybe.

Changing Tack

I tend to find my blogging pattern over the last year or so is to write a post once a month, usually in the last few days of said month.  Sometimes I’ve quite a lot I want to say, but in others I’m scratching around for a topic.  As you may have guessed, this is one of the latter moments! So I’m going to call this something of a ‘check-in’ post, which is my polite way of saying I may be going on a ramble…

Anyway, the writing, and the point of the title. Thankfully, I’m back writing on a frequent basis.  I’ve had a little idea buzzing away in the recesses of my mind for a little while, and I was reluctant to act upon it because it seemed so different to anything that has gone before.  The usual procrastination and fear, basically. First up, a first-person narrative, which I feel much more unaccomplished at than I used to.  Second, a female narrator. Gulp. And third, a female narrator who is 16 years old.  An unholy triumvirate if ever there was.

I always feel a complete fraud when writing a female narrator.  Of course women are human beings too (so I’ve been told, arf arf!) but I do struggle with getting the voice natural and realistic.  The third character of my novel Gaslight was a woman, and in some ways she was the easiest to write, because the character appeared almost whole and was ready to take me on a journey whenever the muse showed up and sprinkled her magic dust around.  But this narrator – she’s a lot more slippery.  I can’t quite get a handle on her, or what she’s going to do next. And her age makes me feel a little bit of a voyeur, too.  Particularly when writing about sex (already done) and violence (likely to come).  All you can do is tell the truth, of course, which will always offend someone.  But I’m not getting a huge amount of enjoyment out of it currently.  Leading me in directions I’m not looking forward to going down.

What does make me happy though is that it’s going to end up novella length, certainly Momentum in word count, perhaps even a short novel.  Which I think is probably my optimum scenario. Of everything I’ve ever written, Momentum is the one that has stayed with me the most. This is partly because of the difficult personal circumstances that I was under when writing it, which made it different in style and tone to anything I’d ever done.  But also it came out exactly as long as it needed to be.  My novels are certainly too long, and some of my short stuff lacks depth, but that one came out perfect.  And I think a 25 to 40,000 word count is just right in many ways.  Long enough to get your teeth into but a first draft that can be written in a couple of months, so not daunting like a novel can be.

So it feels likes this current story is a sea change from what’s gone before. The setting is similar to that of One Night Rebellion, but that is a cosmetic connection more than anything else.  And despite this change I’m certain I will go the distance and finish it, which is a niced feeling to have. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will turn out.

 

Why I Write

Apparently it’s National Writing Day today.  So, here’s ten quick reasons why I love writing, off the top of my head, slightly tongue in cheek, and in no particular order.

  1. You can write about people you know and they won’t realise. Enormous fun.
  2. You can write about people you hate and they definitely won’t realise. Cathartic.
  3. Living out your dreams. You want to fantasise about winning the lottery or finally getting the girl? Write about it.  It’s almost as good as the real thing.
  4. Better sleep. Seriously. I sleep great when I’m writing every day.  It’s satisfying going to bed knowing you’re one step closer to finishing.  Better dreams, too. I’ve worked out a number of plot snags through dreams.  Honestly.
  5. Talking of plot snags – when you have a work in progress that’s going nowhere and you can’t see a way out. You feel like giving up, and then without warning (usually out walking, in my case) it comes at you like a thunderbolt and another piece of the puzzle has been completed. Maybe the one that will solve all your narrative problems.  Guaranteed to leave you with a big grin on your face. If I could bottle up that feeling and sell it I would.  It’s almost like magic.
  6. Obvious point, but seeing your work in print.  Scarcely believable the first time it happens. Also when a stranger pays money to read your work. Can never be taken away from you. Plus that makes you an author.  Bonus!
  7. Knowing it gives you an excuse to read whenever you want. You can’t be a good writer without being well-read. So don’t worry about missing all those boring social events.  It’s for your art!
  8. Not knowing how it’s going to turn out.  One day at work, daydreaming. A scene came into my head from nowhere. Wrote 2 pages of A4 longhand as fast as I could.  Didn’t think much of it.  Turned into my second novel. (this one, if you’re interested…) That voyage of discovery is what I live for.
  9. Similarly, characters taking the story in unexpected directions. One minute it’s just lines on paper, next they are up and about and doing what the hell they want, and I’m just running along behind taking notes.  Nothing more exciting.
  10. Finally, because it gets to the core of who I am as a man, a sibling, a friend, and a human being. It allows me to express my hopes, fears, wants and needs. It’s my lifeblood. It keeps me going when I don’t have anything else. It’s my art.  It’s my life.  It’s who I am. It’s writing.

 

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.

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.