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?

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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.

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.

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.

Novella -The Ongoing Rewrite

OK, so it’s been a few weeks since I got the first draft of my novella completed.  I have always found it best, despite the constant temptation, to leave it completely for a couple of weeks so you come back to it afresh. I love the feeling when you read the first few sentences after a break, especially if it reads better than you were expecting! What you want, of course, is for the words to not feel like yours any more, so you can look at it more objectively and be as ruthless as you can with ridding the prose of the extraneous bits.

And this has always been part of the struggle for me. It can be quite disheartening to read a paragraph which is well-written, but deep down I know has to go for the good of the story. Having said that though, its very good for my development as a writer to be able to have the confidence and discipline to do it. It was Faulkner who used the phrase ‘Kill your darlings’ and he was right, no matter how much you love the prose in question. There is no time for self-indulgence, especially in the shorter form of the craft.

Anyway, so after all this tinkering, I haven’t even been able to collapse the novella by 10%. I’ve gone from just over 31K to about 28.5, which is far less than I wanted. I know I have the opportunity to go back and work on it more, but I worry that constant fiddling with it will lessen the overall tone and atmosphere that I want to convey. I feel like the story has a bit more bite to it than before though. It is amazing how much a polish of the dialogue can sharpen things up, and there are always adverbs to get rid of. I’m still a little unsure about one particular piece of plot development, the timing of it seems off to me, and I’m sure I will have to address it again. But, by all intents and purposes, I’m pretty much there.

Of course, the question now is, what’s next? This piece could easily go into the metaphorical filing cabinet in the office, never to see the light of day. There’s hundreds of thousands of words of stuff already in there, gathering dust. Obviously that’s not what I want, but I don’t have much of a clue where to go from here. I’m an unpublished writer sitting on a novella of a difficult length to market, with some graphic content and some fairly controversial subject matter. Not exactly the greatest bet in the world.

But, in the end I’m glad it’s basically complete, and overall I’m pleased. Which is the main thing, I guess. But if anyone has any suggestions on where I could go next with it, do let me know.

Novella and Trying to Stay Positive

I recall writing a few months ago that I was working on a short story. Well, in the last couple of days I’ve finally finished it. Problem is, it didn’t end up as a short story, it’s now a lengthy novella of over 30,000 words. I hate the word novella, it seems like a clunky publishers term to describe something of a vague number of words. I’ve no idea how many. Novelette is even worse. Is 15,000 words a short story or a novelette? Is 25,000 in novella country or not? Who cares? For this post I have used novella just for clarity, but I despise the term. Anyway, I digress…

First up, the good bits: the story didn’t turn out as I was expecting, which is always nice. The idea behind it was sparked from a song by one of my favourite bands The Hold Steady, and a couple of scenes came into my mind more or less whole. The rest came with the characters. It has a noirish, offbeat style that I like. I have been reading a lot of hard-boiled stuff recently and I think some of that has flowed into my work. Which is never a bad thing. The relationship between the two central characters is, I think, interesting and goes off in an unexpected tangent.

So far, so good then, right? So why do I feel so bad about it? For a multitude of reasons which I’m sure most writers are familiar with. First, I’m sure there are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. I don’t tend to do any plotting before starting a piece of writing, I just let the characters take the story where they want. I guess following this method makes it impossible to avoid plot tangles but I feel disappointed whenever i do it. I know the obvious answer is to plot more, but I want to resist the temptation of I can. In my opinion plot is anti-creative and a barrier to story, not a help to it.

Next up is the age-old problem for me, length. I always aim to get rid of 10% or so in the rewrite, but even then I’ll be left with approximately 25,000 words. I guess every story ends up at the length it needs to be but this feels like too much for mine. I have a very bad habit of over-describing, particularly in dialogue. I tend to drift too much too, especially early on when I am still struggling to find the narrative voice. I know a lot of this will be pared down in the rewrite though, and I’m going to have to be extra ruthless when I go back to it. I have been guilty in the past of keeping stuff in because I think its well-written, despite it probably being extraneous to the story. I cannot be self-indulgent this time around.

Third is continuity errors. I know everyone has them but I get really downhearted when I find one, more so when it’s something completely stupid. Again, these are normally ironed out but I always worry that a whopper will slip through the net.

So all in all I’m a bit dispirited on completion, which is new for me. Usually I feel at the very least relief. I should be more pleased as this is the most fiction I have written in years. I am my own harshest critic.

Once the rewrites down I’m tempted to put it up on this blog and get some feedback. If anyone out there would be up for that, feel free to comment and I will give it some thought. Fuck it, I may do it anyway…