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.

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Hubris

One of the joys of modern life is that someone somewhere has probably started a podcast on your favourite topic.  Literature is no exception, and I’ve found recently than one of my favourites is The Moment, hosted by Brian Koppelman, co-creator of the TV series Billions.

The reason I like it is because it endeavours to get under the skin of the guest and find out how and why they do what they do.  It’s not just committed to writers, there have been actors, even politicians, but I find the author based episodes the most revealing, and the latest, with Don Winslow, author of The Force and The Cartel (one of my books of 2016), to be one of the best so far.

Writers talking about their creative routines are an endless fascination for me, despite everyone doing it differently and there being no magic bullet. Winslow started on yellow manuscript paper with nothing more than a title for his first book, no outline, nothing. Now he writes for ten hours a day starting at 5.30am, which makes me feel positively lazy.  And a phrase he used really hit me between the eyes – write like you’re afraid of getting caught.  Exactly how it is.

What really interested me is when the discussion moved on to hubris.  Because wanting to be a writer is very much a tale of opposites.  You need the ego to say with confidence that your writing is worthy of the readers money, and more importantly, their time.  When you are struggling, as I am now with my latest novel, it’s difficult to approach your work with this confidence, almost arrogance that your work is worth it. Once you have success under your belt, which Winslow does (and well deserved it is too), it is easier to come to the page with less fear, and he talks really well about this.  The danger of course is when this slips into hubris. Hubris is interesting because it doesn’t necessarily stem from high self-esteem, it’s more an inflated sense of self-importance compared to a perhaps more modest reality.  The conflict between these two extreme states is a pitfall many writers experience and is one I can really relate to.

There are tons more titbits to chew over from this episode and all I want to do really is give the podcast my whole-hearted recommendation.  Two writers talking candidly about the craft is a joy to listen to. The back catalogue of episodes has some great archive material too – Salman Rushdie and Lawrence Block are two that stand out in my mind.  It’s a podcast that makes you think, and best of all for any budding writer, helps you realises that a) you aren’t alone and b) the bad times and the rejection letters are something every writer goes through. Which is nice to hear when you really need it.

Squeeze

Finding time to get stuff down is the age-old problem for any writer, as real life tends to get in the way, most notably employment. For the last six months I haven’t had that problem and have enjoyed the luxury of writing whenever I want, but I’ve just got back into full-time work and so my opportunities are more limited. As I discussed in my last post, I’m still wading through the first draft of my third novel, and I’m desperate to get it finished so I can take a short breather and work on something else. But now I’m working again my writing time is shoehorned into a few frantic minutes in the evening.  This is having a notable effect on two things, one of which is certain and the other is more tenuous, but both worthy of explanation.

To say that work makes it more difficult to write is a bit of a misnomer, if I’m honest. Only the very best make a living out of fiction, the rest of us muddle through as best we can. But if you want to write every day, you can.  Elmore Leonard used to write two pages before work every morning, getting up at 5am to do so. I suspect some snatch small periods of time whenever they can, regardless of location or time of day. I wrote my second novel Playing with Fire whilst working nights, and this suited me perfectly. Home at 5am, sleep until lunchtime, write for a couple of hours every afternoon, then do it all again. This suited me well and I think helped shape the narrative. Once it got to around 1pm I started to focus on the upcoming writing period, the problems of everyday sliding into the background somewhere, trying to encourage the muse to show up. Having this regimented structure I think was the difference that got the first draft completed. It’s hard when you’re unpublished and halfway through something that has grown bigger and scarier than everything that went before.  It’s a weight, and one than can be so daunting the fear can inhibit. But for me, having that couple of hours, that thousand to two thousand words a day to work on in a specific time window, got it done.  It made it more manageable, breaking it down into one session at a time, and I managed to overcome my doubts.

Now though, I’m on a more regular nine-to-five schedule. Due to the travails of commuting, I’m up at 6am and home over twelve hours later, Monday to Friday. Unlike Mr Leonard I’m not much of a morning person, so getting up at the crack of dawn to write would see me flagging with exhaustion after a few sessions. So my only chance comes post-dinner in the evening, once the thoughts of the working day have cleared and there’s space up top for creativity to flow. But even that this period seems to have squeezed into an hour at most at the laptop. I can barely write for more than that before fatigue sets in. In days gone by, two to three thousand words per session was achievable. Now I’m lucky to get a quarter of that.

I also worry if my physical state is affecting the quality of the manuscript. I like to hope that the characters voices will push themselves through regardless, but as tiredness takes me over the concern is that whilst I’m getting the bare minimum down, it could easily be of such a poor state that it will need to be discarded or heavily edited in the rewrite. I used to have brilliant days where I’d look at the clock and two hours had gone by and somehow three or four pages had been written like it was an elaborate magic trick. Now I clock watch and get frustrated when in my short time frame I’ve written barely a paragraph.

Still, the draft will be finished by hook or by crook if I’m drawing a bus pass by the time it’s finished – I am nothing if not stubborn. I guess it’s impossible to quantify whether my new lifestyle has helped or hindered the work, or if it would have come out the same regardless; it doesn’t stop me wondering, though.

The Right Words at the Right Time

That’s a line from a Tracy Chapman song, and its one I think about a lot when discussing the vagaries of writing. In my experience, when the right words do come, it’s never at the right time.

I, like virtually all writers I suspect, have little way to predict when a good idea will strike. I’ve dreamed a great subject for a story and then forgotten it on waking, I’ve had ideas at work, on the toilet, and in annoying moments when I don’t have a pen and paper to hand to scribble something down before I forget it. It’s how to process these ideas that I struggle with. Obviously most can be discarded as being ridiculous, but there is the odd one that I run over in my mind for a few days, trying to get a handle on the characters and what they want to say. I take a few notes, nothing too concrete, just a few possible scenarios, and if it all sounds promising, make a start. I have no clue about length, very little finalised plot, just a blank Word document and hope that the muse will come.

Which is exactly how I started Novel 3 (which is all I can call it, as I still don’t have a satisfactory title!).  And within a week or two, I knew it was going to be longer than I had first anticipated, a lot longer. Now I’m coming up for half a year on it and I’m only at 90,000 words with no end in sight. A poor work ethic really, only around 20K a month of writing and I still have no clue how I fell about it. Half the time I dislike the characters and I’m sure there are gaping plot holes along the way too. I just want the first draft over. And one reason for that is another idea is pushing at me to be written.

I was listening to a song and by its conclusion the idea was almost fully formed in my head. It fit in with my state of mind at the time and I could picture a few scenes very vividly in my head. Yet there it remains, some lines in a notebook and nothing further. Unfortunately I don’t have the ability to write two things at once, or stop writing one thing and start another. Perhaps I should have left the novel for a while to write this story, while it was still immediate and fresh. Now I worry that I won’t be able to get that feeling back when I eventually come back to it.  I feel I’ve made a mistake which may have cost me a great story.  When I’m writing the novel I’m conscious of a growing concern that by neglecting the story I may have ruined both; the complexities of the novel are dragging me down and the story is fading ever further into the background.

I hope I can resurrect it in the future, and I’ll do my best to. And then maybe Ms Chapman’s words might be right after all.

Taking A Risk

It wasn’t exactly a New Years’ Resolution, but I made a vow for 2017 to try and take my writing more seriously, and treat it like a job. I think it’s very difficult to convince anybody else of my desire to write if I don’t devote as much time and energy to the craft as possible.  In fact, when I meet new people and they ask what I do for a living I call myself a ‘freelance writer.’  I felt quite embarrassed the first time I did this, I find it comes across as self-indulgent, but it does start some interesting conversations if nothing else.

To what end is it a factual statement, though?  Well, to be honest I’m bending the truth a little by saying it.  I am only working part-time at the moment and this is as much by design as circumstance.  Since returning to this country I’ve been floundering around trying to find work, and it’s been tough.  My big problem throughout my life is that I have never really followed a specific career path.  I wrote my first novel in my early twenties and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.  Of course this doesn’t help with paying bills and keeping a roof over my head, so real life has gotten in the way of chasing that dream.  I’ve fallen into jobs as they have come along, mostly in the print industry, where I spent nearly a decade, but that career only really begun on a whim and progressed from there.  And the writing has stayed in the background, catching the odd hour between shifts, cramming in a couple of hours late at night or first thing in the morning, before the work day begins.  Sending off my SASEs and piling up rejection letters, you know the drill.  And it was OK.  I didn’t really expect anything to come of it, and I was content enough to just be doing it.

But now, I’m approaching it differently.  It has all the symptoms of a mid-life crisis, but I’m trying to throw all I have into my writing and see what happens.  I have one short story being published in the next few months which is my first success and one that I’m proud of, so maybe the hard work is paying off.  I’m writing a novel at the moment that has mushroomed from novella length to a much more complex story.  It’s hard graft, and the characters are forever expanding the narrative in their own directions, but it’s good to be in deep with something again.   I expect to have the first draft complete by the summer, then I’m going to throw everything I have at getting it published in some form or other.  I’m 40 in 2019, and part of me thinks this could be my one last shot at it.  It’s scary, and I’m having sleepless nights over it.  I’m broke virtually all the time, and I generally think I’m taking a massive risk that could cause me loads of problems down the line.  I’m single and childless so I don’t have any financial responsibilities other than to myself.

I’m not completely going off the deep end – I’ve done the odd freelance work through Upwork and as I said earlier, still doing the odd shift of menial work to get some pennies coming in.  The struggling writer thing feels like a terrible cliche, but that’s where I am right now. It feels reckless, but enormously exciting.

 

Small Steps

A couple of months ago I wrote a post detailing my desire to get my writing available online and my reasons for doing so. I haven’t posted for a while, and in the interim there has been a couple of developments involving my writing.  I hope that this post won’t come across as too self-indulgent or self-congratulatory, it is just an honest update.  The small steps I have taken are pretty inconsequential anyway, but I find noting them down is a record of how I am navigating the sometimes overwhelming ocean of options for publishing material. And if anything I say helps others on their journeys, then that’s all to the good.

After posting my novella ‘Momentum’ on Amazon I received an extraordinarily kind email from the organiser of my old book club in Melbourne.  Without my knowledge, he had talked with the rest of the group and decided to make my novella one of the two choices to talk about for their December meeting.  This meant a great deal for me and I am super grateful for their support, but it still filled me with some trepidation. The thought of fifteen friends sitting around dissecting my work was a scary one, even though I would be asleep on the other side of the world whilst they were having their meeting.  I’m happy to report that most of the feedback I received was positive, although of course the opinions of friends have to be taken with a pinch of salt as they tend to err on the side of praise to avoid upset.  Best of all was that a couple of members purchased the novella from Amazon rather than go through this blog, which means for the first time in my life I have made financial gain from my writing.  The royalty payments for an Amazon sale are frankly a pittance, but I still feel proud.  As the title of this post suggests, it’s a tiny step but worth commemorating, I think.

More exciting was the fallout from a novella competition I entered on the website Booksie, which is basically a portal to upload and critique work.  It was a lucky accident that ‘Momentum’ fulfilled the criteria for the competition, which was run by a small American publishing company.  I didn’t win, but shortly after the competition closed I was contacted by someone from the publisher saying how much they enjoyed my work and inviting me to contribute a short story for the next volume of their literary journal, due out in 2017.  I sent them my story ‘In The Doghouse’, and I’m very pleased to say that it has been accepted for the volume.  So I will see a piece of my writing in print for the very first time in the next year.  Which I am very excited about.  I’m receiving no payment for it but the exposure will be invaluable and now no-one can ever take the achievement away from me.  I have really taken more of a commitment to writing this year and to see it pay off, even in only this small way, is really rewarding.  I guess it’s like any other job – work hard and take it seriously and it really can happen.

So, a nice finish to the writing year for me.  I’ve been more prolific this year than in probably a decade or more, and I think this is down to pushing through when creative thoughts are hard to come by, rather than admitting defeat.  It makes an enormous difference.

Playing With Fire

Although I would consider myself a reasonably political animal, I have been reluctant to write too much of that sort of content on this blog. I’m a writer, first and foremost, and want my work to stand up on its own without my personal thoughts on certain subjects to seep in and jeopardise the relationship between the reader and the material. Any novel should be judged on its merits, the strength of its characters, and how their actions can be justified no matter how abhorrent. Knowing too much about the authors personal convictions blurs the lines in my opinion, which is why I’ve tried to avoid writing too much of my beliefs here. Let the story do the work, basically.

But this week has thrown up the most tumultuous and politically significant election result in my lifetime. Unless you’ve been living in a cave you will know what I’m talking about so there is no need to repeat it here. But all I will say is this. You might be nervous, worried, even frightened by the new American president. I am, a little. The world is taking a giant step into the unknown which is always scary, and some of the pre-election rhetoric has stoked very unpleasant discourse from certain fringe quarters who feel their ugly ideas now have mainstream attraction. To those who have fear, I say channel that fear. Be creative. Write. Paint. Be energetic. Art and literature are the best ways to express discontent and can never be silenced. Form your ideas, present them, respectfully. Attack prejudice through word and action. Shine a beacon into the dark corners and expose them to the light. Be funny. Popular culture is built on the creative elements of society, it’s up to us to provide the narrative.

So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to make my second novel Playing with Fire available to read. I wrote the novel in 2005 and after a fruitless search for a publisher, I consigned it to history. In the last year or two I’ve fiddled with the manuscript on a number of occasions, and I documented those struggles in an earlier post. Over the last few weeks I’ve revisited it and made some substantial cuts, removed a lot of clunky exposition, and given it a general tidy-up. I probably spent 50 hours at least on this, and I found it hard. Trying to keep the tone and atmosphere of the work consistent was a challenge. I wrote the novel in my mid-twenties, and my narrative voice has changed since then (matured, hopefully). Keeping the spirit of my decade-old self alive was the aim, whilst paring the story back to its roots. Even now, the novel runs to about 135,000 word, which is pretty hefty. I regard it with fondness and a certain disbelief that I managed to write it at all. It’s not perfect by any means, but it represents in some way the man that I was. It was the happiest time of my life creatively, the words flowed like wine and took the book in directions I never would have envisaged. For that I’m grateful, and kind of proud.

Enough of the rambling. Link to the novel is below. As always, any feedback is welcome.

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