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.

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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.

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.