Bereft

Finishing the first draft of a novel is not necessarily the moment of joy you might expect it to be.  On the occasions it has happened to me, I’ve mostly just felt exhausted. Emotional, certainly (especially if the ending turned out contrary to expectation) but in need of a good rest.  And knowing that there is still an awful lot of work ahead to wrestle the manuscript into something presentable.

But once the final draft is done, the whole range of emotions come out.  I edited the last pages of Gaslight in the early evening yesterday, re-read the concluding sentence, saved the document and shut down the laptop.  And that’s it.  Three and a half years of work finally completed. I think back to the man that I was when I started in late 2016, how unhappy and unsure he was, and how I thought a nice little novella was on the cards. And if I knew what was going to happen, whether I would have had the mental strength to carry on.  I think sometimes it’s better not to know, otherwise the challenge can seem so daunting. Head down, concentrate on only the next step, that was how I tackled it, as the novel took on a life of its own.

The books origins, the struggles to write the words, the dark places the characters trod, once the final draft is done all those become part of its legend.  Now I’ve decided its over, and the manuscript is ready to be read, it’s no longer mine.  It’s out in the world and I no longer have any control over what happens.  It could be despised.  Loved.  Controversial. People could be outraged by it.  But my job is done. The characters can disappear into the sunset and carry on their lives, and I can remain grateful for seeing part of their world for the months they carried me with them.

That kind of sums up the overwhelming feeling I have once a novel is completed.  I just feel bereft. A sense of loss. Knowing that for all the heartache it took, we went on a journey together for a long time, had a relationship even, and when it all comes to an end, and you know you will never see or hear from them again, yeah, it’s sad.  I often wonder if authors with extensive back catalogues think about characters from old novels going back 40 or 50 years.  I’d like to think that they do.  That the awe and the thrill stays with you for the rest of your life, along with the privilege and just being grateful for the opportunity.

So, Gaslight is over, in a creative sense at least. What I do with it now is a watch this space. I think I’m going to try as hard as I can to get it published. So for now, I’m going to refrain from leaving a copy in the bibliography.  Just until I’ve given it a go.  The odds are stacked against me, particularly the length of the novel, which will put a lot off.  But in the end I’m proud of this one, and whilst my relationship with the characters is done, hopefully in the future it will just be beginning for others.

Finding A Path

I’ve written a fair amount on this blog about revising and re-writing of a novel.  My main aims are twofold: one, to get rid of any extraneous words (always too many, always too many) and secondly, to crystallise the main themes and try to bring them out as much as possible through the character’s actions. Using the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle can fulfil both these aims if applied stringently.

So this is the crux of what a re-write is for, and the ideal mindset you need to be in is for the writing to not feel like it’s yours. It’s much easier to be critical and ruthless if you can approach it in this way.  And the only foolproof method to achieve this is to leave as long as possible between drafts.

I’ve been working on the final draft of my third novel Gaslight for a few weeks now, and the experience has been unlike any of my previous re-writes. It’s the first time I’ve read any of it for at least six months, if not longer. It’s over two years since the first draft was completed, and the 18 months it took to write seems impossible to believe, now. This sense of the surreal is so much higher for me with this book than any other. Reading back, I don’t know where most of it came from, and it’s a tiny bit scary to have that feeling.

I have a shocking memory at the best of times, and the origins of this novel are pretty much lost to me. I remember starting about a month after I moved back from Australia, and mentally I wasn’t in a great place, mostly heartbroken at splitting up with my girlfriend and with the added upheaval of leaving the home I had grown to love and where I wanted to spend the rest of my days. Where the idea came from, I have no clue.  After a few sessions I thought it would end up novella length. That was the most rubbish prediction I ever made, but I’m grateful for my naivety, because if I’d known what struggles lay ahead, I would have abandoned it. Because it turned into a 200,000 word behemoth. Writing that feels ridiculous now, and was then too.

The characters took on a life of their own pretty quickly, which was a good thing, as reading back now I can’t even begin to process how fully-formed they feel. And one particular character is very dark indeed. It’s honestly a little frightening. He’s so persuasive.  Clever.  Manipulative. I’m reading it going, ‘Come on, why can’t any of you see what he’s doing?’ Then I remember it’s my creation, and I’m amazed. The character appears in the very first scene, and he felt friendly, the life and soul of the party.  That all changed pretty quick.  Considering I had no idea what he was going to do, how it all ended up feels more like a miracle than it ever has.  And if I’m having that reaction, then fingers crossed a reader will do as well. So I’m cranking up that tension as much as I can without descending into repetition.

This might sound like self-indulgent bragging but I hope it doesn’t come across like that. I guess my point is that you can surprise yourself, even scare yourself with what you can create.  What’s hidden away inside.  The most telling question an author is asked is, ‘where do you get your ideas?’ My experience from Gaslight is that it’s somewhere beyond the subconscious, impossible to define, where story and myth can be mined.  How to get there is anyone’s guess.  But if you attack the blank page with all that’s in your heart there will be a path.

Crossing the Line

So, novel number four is in the bag.  First draft at least. I say novel, but it’s in that slightly strange territory of being too long for a novella, and much shorter than a standard length novel. Came in at 55,000 words, so I would expect to lose at least five thousand of those once the whole thing is done.  We shall see.

I had a similar feeling when writing the conclusion that I did for the denouement of Gaslight. My work ethic for this novel has been atrocious – 500 words a day, if that. I always tend to speed up once I near the finishing line as I start to see how it’s going to pan out. I think this happens for two reasons. One, I’m genuinely excited to see what’s going to take place. And two, I just want to get it done so I can have a rest!

These reasons are perfectly understandable, but I’m not sure they encourage good writing.  It took me 8 months to write the first 50,000 words of this novel. 2 days to write the rest.  For Gaslight I wrote 4,500 words in one frenzied afternoon to get to completion. And my nagging feeling is that both endings feel a little rushed. I’m going back to do a final edit for Gaslight next, after a much needed break, and I know that the last 10,000 words or so will need the most revision. I’m certain this novel will be the same. The balance between getting it done and doing it well is one I’m not sure I’ve mastered.  I find the emotion of the moment makes it difficult to focus.

Still, I feel the same mixture of pride and relief that it’s done, and the usual privilege that the characters let me into their lives for the duration. I think this novel has a nice, primal quality to it, and I’ve written in a style I’ve always wanted to – part road movie, part chase, part Bonnie and Clyde style romance.  It’s been a hell of a lot of fun. It’s called State Line, and I’m glad I crossed it.

Abandoned

Over the course of my writing life, I can think of very few occasions when I’ve given up on a piece of work and gone on to something else. I’ve seen the mantra repeated in tons of writing advice online – if it’s not working put it down, you can always go back to it later, ete etc. But I’ve never really heeded this advice (or been able to!)

I wouldn’t consider myself a stubborn person at all, but when it comes to fiction, once I start something I’m by damn going to see it through. My current novel (and it will end up a novel, a short one but a novel nenetheless) is proving extremely difficult to get done. I’m not even sure it makes sense anymore to be honest. My output is horrendous (about 6000 words a month, which is scandalous), and most days, I drag myself to the computer with a sense of dread, knock off a torturous 2 or 300 words, realise I’ve dug a few plotholes for myself, and repeat the cycle the next day.

So why not just quit and work on something else? This isn’t enjoyment, it’s tough. And you may be right. I guess I don’t get ideas that often, and the initial idea for this novel I still think is a good one.  It’s got lost in the morass along the way, but a re-write can help to bring out the main themes, so hopefully it’s still buried in there somewhere.  My time, of course. Countless hours have gone into this, and I’m loathe to let them be wasted. I know any writing time is valuable, but if I gave it up, I’d feel terrible about it. And lastly, if I get it done, that’s another one. My 4th novel. It will no doubt gather dust and be read by no-one like the others, but I’ll have a true and real body of work. Me. And I should be proud of that fact.

So on we go.  Given myself a loose target of completion by Christmas. Never going to happen but yeah, I’m carrying on. There’s a little stubborn streak after all.

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.

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.

Just Cutting

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I think the time I feel closest to being a writer is seeing sheafs of paper scattered about the floor with various scrawled red lines on them. Because that means that A) I’ve got something of substance to edit, and B) I’m actually having the responsibility of omitting sentences of my work for the greater good, for the overall story rather than the great one liner.

The pic above is a pretty accurate example of where I’m at (and no spoilers, it’s the first page!). Tons of alterations. A lot of this is losing the extraneous material. Anything that’s too much like exposition, well that’s gone straightaway. Of course as many adverbs as I can do without. Spelling mistakes. Tweaking clunky dialogue. Most of this is actually quite fun, especially as parts of the story I’ve forgotten, so reading them through again is a surprise, almost a delight. The joy of re-reading a paragraph that sounds far better than I could have imagined is one of the greatest pleasures I have with this whole writing gig. It really does feel like magic that has come from somewhere else.

But, of course, a big problem will become apparent. This mostly comes in the form of structural problems with the story. A character might do something explicable, where I shake my head and say ‘where the hell did that come from?’. Often these faux-pas can just be deleted, but if they are connected up with developments further down the line,  you have a problem. On a first re-write I tend to star them and scribble a brief note in the margin, reminding myself that this bit needs an overhaul. Part of this is kicking the can down the road, I freely admit. But untangling the knots requires time and energy, and on the first read through, I mainly want to get a feel for the piece. The overarching story and themes (the what’s it all about? question, in essence) can be fleshed out and strengthened in future drafts.

So far I’ve been lucky, touch wood. I haven’t experienced any major deficiencies as yet. I know the novel is far too long, but I’ve found the cutting back a lot easier than I remember for my novel Playing with Fire. I think I’ve learnt that dialogue and the actions of the characters can show narrative without reams of further explanation. The reader can work it out for themselves – I might need to give them a nudge every now and then, but they don’t need everything spoonfed to them. I’ve also noticed how often I use certain words. Every writer must have them.  Mine? I use ‘just’ as an adverb a ridiculous amount, which is an awful habit I’ve picked up from God knows where. I even start sentences with it. Ugh. ‘Still’, is another I overuse as a shorter version of the horrible ‘nevertheless.’ So I’ve tried to kill as many of those little festerers as I can.

All in all it’s slow progress, a few pages a night at most, and there are 298 in total, so I’ll be here for a while yet. I’m not writing anything else at the moment so my full creative focus is on this, and it’s nice having that direction. If all goes well I might have another stab at getting the final manuscript published, but that’s getting way ahead of myself. Best to not get too greedy and try and make this the best novel that it can be.

Oh, and I STILL haven’t got a title!

 

 

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.