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.

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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…

Brevity

One of the mediums of writing that seems to be going through a decline at the moment is the short story. I rarely read them these days, mostly due to their scarce nature. I’m sure in days gone by the library would be full of short story collections by emerging authors, and reading them was an excellent way to discover new talent.
Of course some of the old masters know a thing or two about writing a good short story – Stephen King is a passionate advocate of the shorter form and publishes a collection every few years, and going further back in time, I got into both Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler through their short stories. It’s rare to find a stand-alone collection from one author around anymore. Most short stories end up in anthologies, particularly in the crime and horror genre. I have read some superb anthologies over the years which are great places to delve into material from authors old and new, but my feeling is that writers of the modern era don’t have the volume of short stories available to release collections of their own.
The reasons behind this are probably numerous. I tend to believe that after writing a full-length novel an author tends to produce something shorter in the interim. Perhaps these musings are little more than practise, to keep the writing eye and brain ticking over before returning to something more substantial. There could well be some snobbery towards the shorter form from some. But I think the main reason could well be that simply, short stories require an awful amount of craft and discipline to create.
I’ve had a few ideas scribbled in a notebook for a while that are waiting to be developed. There is no plan for these, no idea of length and so on, I just make a note to jot down any semblance of an idea that comes into my head. At the library the other day I stumbled across a short story collection that looked interesting. It was called Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers. Much like I used to with cigarettes when I smoked, I devoured the book in an evening and it lit a fire within me. The stories in it are so polished and amazingly confident for a debut collection. The overarching themes of loneliness and solitude linked together by a humble cigarette is a clever idea and Evers pulls it off in some style. It reminded me of how the short story can breath life into an otherwise mediocre day, how so many intoxicating ideas can be swept up into a few pages and give the reader a shot of pleasure in the time it takes to smoke the aforementioned cigarette.
So I had a look back in my notebook and one of the ideas started to take on more shape, and I’m now in the process of writing my first short story in many a year. And in my writings I’ve gained utmost respect for the medium – it is so difficult to write in concise, clear language where every word counts. I’ve always had a tendency to over explain things when I write, and I think many writers do. It’s probably fear that drives this, fear that an extra sentence is needed to explain what you mean otherwise the point is lost. In a short story there is no room for waffle. Everything has to be cut back to the bone. It requires an almost pathological discipline, particularly to discard ultimately unnecessary writing no matter its quality. The best short stories are surely those that get up to speed quickly and never let up their pace.
So, maybe this difficulty puts a lot of writers off. I’m glad to be tackling the format again, it’s a challenge I’m enjoying. To write with a view to brevity and clarity can only help me improve.

Impasse

OK, so the main news is that I’m writing again. It’s tentative, it’s flat, it’s probably not very good, but it’s writing. I’m only about 5000 words in so I haven’t even left the foothills yet and it has been slow progress so far. On a very good day I can write 2000 words but at the moment I’m struggling to reach half that. Part of this is down to my work ethic – I need to be writing 6 days a week minimum and that isn’t happening yet. It’s too easy to come home from work and find excuses not to write – tiredness being my main one. Generally I never sit down at the desk raring to go and with ideas flowing out of me, and I suspect much the same is true for most people. It’s work, like any other, and it has to be treated as such.
My other problem though is that the story has hit a wall. Already I seem to have written myself into a corner. I have a character that is pretty well developed in my head and the writing so far has concentrated on his story.
The difficulty has come with the second character. I envisaged the story moving between two characters who shared a brutal, life-changing experience in their teenage years which caused deep-rooted issues between them. The novel would switch between flashback chapters showing the build up to this incident and chapters showing how the characters are coping in the present day. With all of this leading to some sort of revelation and resolution at the books’ conclusion.
All well and good – but that second character is just not forming a clear picture of himself. I don’t need very much, just a flash of something or a snap of dialogue. I remember when writing my second novel a tiny part of a scene came to me out of nowhere whilst I was at work and I frantically wrote 2 pages longhand in illegible handwriting. There was no context to it, just a conversation between three characters in a house, but it was the basis for the 130,000 words which came after. I shouldn’t be hoping for the same thing to happen again, but it would be nice.
The main reason I struggle with dead ends is because I have an active dislike of plotting. I really believe that when you have living, breathing characters they write the novel themselves. That I am not only the writer, but the novel’s first reader too. Going back to that second novel, I would say that about 10% of it was plotted in advance. I had no idea what was going to happen in 10 pages time, let alone the ending. But all books have to end up somewhere, and you generally know when the characters have told their tales. So in general I don’t have any preconceived ideas of plot written down – I want the characters to tell me where the story is going. This probably flies in the face of a lot of writing advice but it’s what I think. And I know that I’m not the only one – Stephen King says much the same in his terrific book for writers ‘On Writing’. (King has written reams of brilliant advice for writers, far too many to list here. Well worth seeking out. Perhaps this time though I may have to go against the grain and write some stuff down in the hope that it unties the knots in my mind.
There are other ways to flush out the story tangles too though – running has always been a good one for me. It’s a great way to clear the mind of everything and concentrate on enjoying fresh air and getting the blood flowing. And sometimes this process allows the story room to breathe and suddenly the halves become whole and you are away again.
Perhaps it’s time to put the running shoes on…