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 It’s hard when you’re unpublished and halfway through something that has grown bigger and scarier than everything that went before.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.

 

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.

playing-with-fire-final-final-draft-for-publication

Re-write to get it Right

So, I’ve taken the plunge and entered the Wheeler Centre’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. A good friend of my partner’s sent me the link for it, and after a little consideration, I thought I’d give it a go. Nothing to lose and all that.
However readers of this blog will know (if there are any) that I haven’t written anything of note since its creation and far beyond that. Indeed, the irony is I’ve spent more time blogging about not writing than actually writing itself. Go figure.
So not having anything fresh to put forward for the competition, I was reluctant to enter. But after thinking about it for a while I decided to go with my second novel, that I wrote around 2006/7. This meant of course that I had to do a substantial re-write to get the novel up to date, polished, and ready to be scrutinised.
Re-writing is a peculiar experience. Reading the manuscript again after all these years felt extremely strange; Some of it I could remember, some not. I smiled at some bits, cringed at others. And throughout I had this feeling that the novel had been written by someone else – someone very much like me, but somehow not. A mirror image, perhaps. Although that sounds ridiculous, I think there is an element of truth to it. Any piece of writing reflects in some way the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the writer at that time. I’m obviously a different man to the one of 2006, I’ve shed a few skins since then. If the characters came to me now instead of then, would the novel have turned out differently? Almost certainly. So every novel is a product of its time, and I got a strong sense of this on re-reading.
When it comes to editing there are loads of problems to address. The main one is length. I think every writer is guilty of padding, particularly early on in a novel when the pace of the story is rough in the mind. I have probably done two edits on the manuscript before this re-write and I still managed to knock another 2000 words or so out. I enjoy that part of the process actually; every novel is collapsible to some degree and it’s good to get into the habit of deleting stuff that is irrelevant to the story, no matter how well written. You have to be ruthless in this regard. If I find it boring or extraneous, the reader surely will too.
Continuity errors crop up on a regular basis too. It is amazing how these things can be missed, even on revision. It’s the usual thing – incorrect colours of clothing, a character entering a scene when it is impossible for them to be there, etc. Errors of knowledge came up quite a lot in my manuscript. I had a couple of occasions where a character said or did something which they should have had no knowledge of. For example, towards the end of the novel there are chapters that run at virtually identical times from different viewpoints and a character had knowledge of the protagonists location without any justifiable reason for doing so. I only noticed that this time around and added some extra content so that it made sense.
The novel was set at the same time it was written so I had to remember that in my editing. Although it’s only 9 years ago a lot has changed since, particularly in the world of technology. I had to remind myself that it was plausible to still have a Walkman in those days and that not everybody had a mobile phone. Prices of things had to be correct too. These are only small details but they stand out a mile if they are incorrect. Having to do this gave me added respect for authors who write historical fiction. Making sure everything is historically accurate must be nigh-on impossible, for readers do notice and they are not afraid to point it out.
The main reason for editing in my mind is to take out everything that isn’t to the point of the story, and make sure everything that remains is taut, and hopefully well-written. The most oft-repeated question asked of writers is: ‘So, what’s the book about?’ You should have an answer, and everything in the manuscript should highlight that answer.
With regards to the competition, the shortlist is announced on May 19. The judges may well have already read and discarded my manuscript, most likely in fact. All the same, I’m glad I entered and I learnt more about the craft in the process, which can only be useful.

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…

The Plague of Self-Doubt

Today I received a very much-needed message from a dear friend of mine. We have been friends for 30 years (not bad considering I’m only 34) and he got in touch on Facebook to wish me a happy birthday for tomorrow. Another year slips by etc…

Anyway, we were exchanging messages and the conversation turned when he asked me if I was still writing. I told him the usual excuses I’ve already outlined on this blog, saying I was giving it a go and trying to get back into it, hard to find the time and so on.

What he replied was something of a surprise. To paraphrase, he said that I have got where I have with determination after a few ups and downs, and have always shown talent as a writer. That I had to let go of the self-doubt and just believe in myself.

Which was a lovely thing to hear, and reminded me why this guy has been such a good friend over all these years. But what it also reminded me was how important it is to have someone who believes. Writers are constantly plagued by self-doubt. An extra dimension for me is that I feel I’m letting my partner down in some way by toddling off to write for a couple of hours in the evenings. Most of this guilt is because we work different shifts every day and only on the odd occasion get evenings off together. And then I go off to write rather than spend time with her, and all for something which will probably only ever get read by me.

But she is very understanding and very supportive. If at any point she had said to me, ‘Is it really worth it, this seems like a waste of time’, a lot of my heart for it would have died there and then. I have enough trouble not getting deflated at the best of times. So now, I have to try and repay the faith, which will add extra pressure as I don’t want to let them down. Because then their faith will have been misplaced.