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.

Coronavirus and Creativity

For those of us who write, being in isolation isn’t too much of a problem. You shut yourself away, call up the Muse, and by hook or by crook, get your 500 words done or whatever your target is. Sometimes the words come tough, but you push on through. You’ve made your voluntary commitment to be alone and work.

Now that Covid-19 has struck us, isolation feels like a whole different thing. On the face of it (and I hope I’m not sounding flippant by saying this) those who work in solitary creative fields should be able to carry on despite living in what is a once in a generation pandemic, the sort of thing historians will be evaluating years from now. It’s an extraordinary situation – bars and restaurants closed, people advised to stay indoors, and working from home is the new norm. Public gatherings are not recommended, people should stay 6 feet away from each other when outdoors, and those over 70 or with underlying health conditions shouldn’t be going out at all. All of which is a huge hit to the economy, and the likelihood of a full-scale lockdown isn’t too far away.

So, unprecedented stuff. With millions now isolated at home, talk turns to how to stay occupied, and writing is near the top of the list of activities to get through the days. I’ve seen many say they are starting a diary to record the times we are living in for posterity. Others talk of learning a new skill or reacquainting with an old one – letter writing, poetry, and drawing are popular ones I have seen.

But I fear these well-founded ambitions are likely to remain unfulfilled. On the face of it, spending hours at home frees up time to get loads of writing done, but for me, this is the first work I’ve done since the outbreak. I think this is because the whole situation is pretty terrifying. I live with my elderly father, who is in the high-risk group of catching the virus. He’s fine, and has pretty much been indoors the last week, but I’m anxious about him nonetheless. And the everyday tasks are proving more difficult. I’ve spent two fruitless shopping trips trying to buy toilet paper thanks to the stockpiling idiots, and these setbacks play on the mind. I’m very conscious of not coming into close contact with others on these trips, and on the whole outings are somewhat nerve-wracking. My sister lives abroad and I worry about her too. So when I’m at home I want to escape with a Netflix show to take my mind off things rather than try and write, which feels like a huge task at the moment. This is without turning on the news and getting a daily dose of worry as the worldwide case and death numbers continue to spiral. Low-level anxiety is not conducive to anything, let alone good writing.

I appreciate this comes across as a first-world problem when our heroic NHS workers are putting themselves on the line every day. I wanted to take a break after the first draft of State Line, and I am having one. Maybe I will settle into a better mindset as the weeks pass, and I can at least do some editing of previous drafts to keep ticking over. I guess we all have to bear in mind that this global pandemic is something none of us have ever experienced before, with its inherent dangers and restrictions. We’re all feeling our way forward, trying to do our best. It will still be there in the morning.

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.

Ego vs Humility

I saw an interesting tweet from the author Joanne Harris the other day, which talked about the often opposing emotional responses that a writer has to wrestle with once they are serious about putting their work out into the world.  One, to possess the ego to talk positively about their writing, pat themselves of the back a bit and be confident to say that yes, you are worthy.  And on the other, have the humility to accept criticism without flying off the handle.

Neither of which I’m very good at.

To start with the latter, I’ve not had much experience of strident criticism of my work. I remember somebody whose opinion I respected saying they didn’t like the ending of one of my novels. It hurt, because it was someone I really wanted to wow (I was kind of in love with her to tell the truth – which is not a fair position to put someone in to start with!), but once I’d calmed down, it was OK. If 100 people had all said the same thing then I would have had a problem with the novel which needed addressing, but you can’t please everyone all the time, so I let it go.

But to be fair virtually everyone who has read any of my stuff is friend or family.  There have been a couple of exceptions, but it mainly holds true.  And this feeds on to the ego thing, because I’ve been reluctant/lazy to really make my work accessible, and to self-promote.  You can find the majority of my stuff on this blog, but only if you persevere. So I need to start getting better at that.

With that in mind, in the next couple of weeks another page will be added to this blog. I’m envisaging it as a kind of bibliography of all my writing so far.  I’ll list my novels, novellas and short stories and where they can be found.  I want to try and keep a vague record of all the writing I’ve done in my life, so this will include some work that isn’t fit for human consumption, but I want to have it there anyway, even if only for personal nostalgia.  I’ll also link to my social media feeds, Goodreads profile and anything else I can think of. This is only scratching the surface, but I’ve got a body of work behind me now, and if I can generate some interest, then hopefully I can work on that whole humility thing.

So, keep an eye out and the page should be up soon.

 

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.

Stalling

Me and my big mouth.  I wrote in a post last month about a new novella that I was writing, and whilst I’m paraphrasing, wrote something along the lines that I was certain I would finish it.

Well, famous last words.  It’s not complete despair, as I’m still struggling along, but any momentum I had has virtually stalled. I wrote how I was working with a new narrative voice and the troubles that arose from that, and trying to keep that voice consistent is certainly part of the problem. But mostly it’s the same old affliction as always – getting the character’s actions to mirror their motivations.

When the story came to me it was in its essence very simple. A young girl falls for an older man, stakes her life on him, and is in the end let down.  A pretty well-worn furrow, but I had some nice detail in my head and the overall tone felt melancholic and yearning, which I wanted to bring out. But as other characters were introduced this straightforward plot has turned into something a lot more complicated, and all the usual worries about convolution and unrealistic plot development have reared their ugly head.

Of course some of this goes back to my lifelong aversion to making any kind of notes before starting, even anything as basic as character profiles. I’ve written tons on here about that so don’t need to repeat myself, but maybe I do need to be more organised before starting. I just worry that the natural flow of my prose will be stunted by too much forward planning.

It doesn’t help that I’m fucking tired all the time, either. I’m up at 6 every morning for work and the days of a good 8 hours sleep are pretty much over. And I’m a man who suffers with less than that.  So in the evenings I’m weary, my productivity is less, and cutting through the tangles seems a lot harder.

Fuck it. I’ll finish it eventually. Maybe.

Changing Tack

I tend to find my blogging pattern over the last year or so is to write a post once a month, usually in the last few days of said month.  Sometimes I’ve quite a lot I want to say, but in others I’m scratching around for a topic.  As you may have guessed, this is one of the latter moments! So I’m going to call this something of a ‘check-in’ post, which is my polite way of saying I may be going on a ramble…

Anyway, the writing, and the point of the title. Thankfully, I’m back writing on a frequent basis.  I’ve had a little idea buzzing away in the recesses of my mind for a little while, and I was reluctant to act upon it because it seemed so different to anything that has gone before.  The usual procrastination and fear, basically. First up, a first-person narrative, which I feel much more unaccomplished at than I used to.  Second, a female narrator. Gulp. And third, a female narrator who is 16 years old.  An unholy triumvirate if ever there was.

I always feel a complete fraud when writing a female narrator.  Of course women are human beings too (so I’ve been told, arf arf!) but I do struggle with getting the voice natural and realistic.  The third character of my novel Gaslight was a woman, and in some ways she was the easiest to write, because the character appeared almost whole and was ready to take me on a journey whenever the muse showed up and sprinkled her magic dust around.  But this narrator – she’s a lot more slippery.  I can’t quite get a handle on her, or what she’s going to do next. And her age makes me feel a little bit of a voyeur, too.  Particularly when writing about sex (already done) and violence (likely to come).  All you can do is tell the truth, of course, which will always offend someone.  But I’m not getting a huge amount of enjoyment out of it currently.  Leading me in directions I’m not looking forward to going down.

What does make me happy though is that it’s going to end up novella length, certainly Momentum in word count, perhaps even a short novel.  Which I think is probably my optimum scenario. Of everything I’ve ever written, Momentum is the one that has stayed with me the most. This is partly because of the difficult personal circumstances that I was under when writing it, which made it different in style and tone to anything I’d ever done.  But also it came out exactly as long as it needed to be.  My novels are certainly too long, and some of my short stuff lacks depth, but that one came out perfect.  And I think a 25 to 40,000 word count is just right in many ways.  Long enough to get your teeth into but a first draft that can be written in a couple of months, so not daunting like a novel can be.

So it feels likes this current story is a sea change from what’s gone before. The setting is similar to that of One Night Rebellion, but that is a cosmetic connection more than anything else.  And despite this change I’m certain I will go the distance and finish it, which is a niced feeling to have. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will turn out.

 

Why I Write

Apparently it’s National Writing Day today.  So, here’s ten quick reasons why I love writing, off the top of my head, slightly tongue in cheek, and in no particular order.

  1. You can write about people you know and they won’t realise. Enormous fun.
  2. You can write about people you hate and they definitely won’t realise. Cathartic.
  3. Living out your dreams. You want to fantasise about winning the lottery or finally getting the girl? Write about it.  It’s almost as good as the real thing.
  4. Better sleep. Seriously. I sleep great when I’m writing every day.  It’s satisfying going to bed knowing you’re one step closer to finishing.  Better dreams, too. I’ve worked out a number of plot snags through dreams.  Honestly.
  5. Talking of plot snags – when you have a work in progress that’s going nowhere and you can’t see a way out. You feel like giving up, and then without warning (usually out walking, in my case) it comes at you like a thunderbolt and another piece of the puzzle has been completed. Maybe the one that will solve all your narrative problems.  Guaranteed to leave you with a big grin on your face. If I could bottle up that feeling and sell it I would.  It’s almost like magic.
  6. Obvious point, but seeing your work in print.  Scarcely believable the first time it happens. Also when a stranger pays money to read your work. Can never be taken away from you. Plus that makes you an author.  Bonus!
  7. Knowing it gives you an excuse to read whenever you want. You can’t be a good writer without being well-read. So don’t worry about missing all those boring social events.  It’s for your art!
  8. Not knowing how it’s going to turn out.  One day at work, daydreaming. A scene came into my head from nowhere. Wrote 2 pages of A4 longhand as fast as I could.  Didn’t think much of it.  Turned into my second novel. (this one, if you’re interested…) That voyage of discovery is what I live for.
  9. Similarly, characters taking the story in unexpected directions. One minute it’s just lines on paper, next they are up and about and doing what the hell they want, and I’m just running along behind taking notes.  Nothing more exciting.
  10. Finally, because it gets to the core of who I am as a man, a sibling, a friend, and a human being. It allows me to express my hopes, fears, wants and needs. It’s my lifeblood. It keeps me going when I don’t have anything else. It’s my art.  It’s my life.  It’s who I am. It’s writing.