On achievement

Snowdonia

I was thinking the other night. Dangerous, I know, but sometimes unavoidable. And what I was thinking was this: should I get this WIP finished it will be a real achievement.

No novel is easy to write, and whilst I lament the general quality and fear the work I have still to do, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I’m 75k words into a story that has no real right to exist. It’s been born out of a breakdown, has suffered through many, many interruptions and re-starts and changes in direction.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve struggled to get into the flow of the story, that I’ve agonised over sections and have taken an age to write single chapters. It should come as no surprise that I’m unhappy with large parts of the narrative, and as for the quality of writing, of course it’s not as good as it can be.

Pratchett quote

Now I’m nearing the end and I’m taking a moment to turn around and cast my eye over the view. I have climbed giddy peaks and it’s time I took a moment to acknowledge the successes. I have done this. I have made it. I have hewn a story out of the very rock; I have mined and delved and, whilst the statue is still rough-carved and ugly, it exists where nothing existed before. And I have done it in the face of many personal and professional difficulties.

It’s easy to be hard on oneself; to feel like you’re never good enough. It’s much harder to see your successes. If you’ve ever written anything, be it a poem, flash-fiction, short story, novella, novel or epic, you’ve achieved. Even if it’s objectively not very good, you’ve still worked miracles – and you’ve not lost the potential to make it good, and you’ve not lost all you learned through the process of writing.

And if you’re still in the process of creation and you’re finding it difficult, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your work. It just means you’ve taken on a challenge. Whether it’s just a case of carving out a little piece more every day or if you need a little background noise to die down or you need to take a step back and think about the bigger picture, remember that you’re not in a race and you’re not competing with anyone else.

What you’re doing is beautiful and unique. No-one can do it but you. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

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Must try harder

copyediting (1)

I had my first virtual writing group on Sunday. I read and I’m feeling a little disheartened as I write this.

Reading to a critique group is one thing I never seem to get right. Either one takes something that’s over-edited and thus defeating the purpose of the criticism, or one takes something raw and unrefined that will get too-obvious criticism and there’s not much to be learnt from it.

I chose the second route. Turns out I’m an overwriter. My writing is full of redundancies and repetition – and I’m supposed to be the published author who’s past such silly mistakes (not that anyone in the group knows I’m published).

That’s what gets me. I should be better than this. I’ve done my apprenticeship, logged the hours behind the computer, read the writing instruction books, had the feedback. Why aren’t I a good writer now? Why doesn’t the prose flow error-free? Not perfect, because no-one is, but competent. Surely my editing time should be spent on finding the perfect words, not on hacking and slashing and thrashing around in amateurish prose.

Tom Gauld bad writing

Copyright Tom Gauld

What it means is that, instead of trenchant criticism on individual sticky spots, or where the passage moves too slowly, or some particular imagery doesn’t work, attention was all on the obvious things that I’d like to think I’d have spotted myself on a second pass.

Well, I will do the work. I will do what is necessary and I will strip the beast back to its bare bones if that’s what’s necessary. I never said the WIP was good; not in its current state, at least. The first draft is just you telling yourself the story, after all. There is a good yarn hiding within, that I know.

I’m just feeling a little down. I should be better than this.

One at a time

Stepping

A quiet week here in quarantine. The paid work is dispatched and out of the door. The novel advances one scene at a time, with only limited awareness of where I’m going or where I’ve been. Which isn’t great, really; an idea of where we’re ending up has always seemed to me to be an essential part of writing a novel. For though it may change hugely from the original vision, some idea of our final destination is key to ensuring we move forwards to a killer ending and don’t spend an age just wandering around.

With all my other projects I’ve had my set-piece finale in mind from the start. This time I have too many threads and piecing them all together is my major challenge. My ideas for a great last battle are hazy; there’s so much I want to say that getting it all in in an aesthetically pleasing fashion is going to be difficult.

Which is one reason I’m taking things scene by scene. I’ve created a situation where my characters are under almost constant stress, and if I get stuck I’m trying to imagine just what they’d be doing in this situation: what their individual aims are and how they’d go about it. It’s taken the novel in a direction I hadn’t imagined (three new POV characters have appeared), and is fun and satisfying to write. I’m not exactly sure it will be the same to read, but that’s what editing is for.

Domino question

Writing like this, in piecemeal fashion, has also helped take the pressure off me. We live in interesting times and life is giving us new challenges – not the least of which is staying sane, all cooped up as we are. Writing for the moment feels a lot less intense than trying to corral everyone into a set formation for some set-piece climax. I still have to do this, mind; but I’m letting the characters take me forwards in their own sweet time. The more I write, the more I collapse phase space into certain directions, the more ‘real’ my future options feel. The story coalesces and focus tightens.

Forward motion both limits and creates possibilities: by writing like this, one scene at a time, I am allowing myself to work out just what I need to write next. Each scene shapes a future, and that future inevitably leads to a climax.

That’s the theory, at least. For now I’m just trying to discover that I still enjoy writing.

And I do that one scene, one page, one word at a time.

Calmer waters

Calm waters

After last week’s cri de coeur I return to calmer waters. Progress is slow. Work is frequently interrupted, patterns nascent, yet to fully form. There are images in the maelstrom but they are vague and shifting, unpredictable and ill-shaped.

I am managing to get enough work done to stave off the wolves – to make it possible to write this blog post, for one thing. I’m even managing to do a bit of creative writing – just a few words here and there, you understand.

These are strange times. We can’t measure ourselves against what’s normal. For some of us this is a chance to get a lot of writing down, a lot of art produced. For others it’s a time of shutdown, where nothing is possible. Thanks to a spot of timesharing with my wife I lie somewhere in the middle. What I’m trying to do, to cope, is to take the pressure off myself. Anything I do is a bonus. But I expect nothing.

There are odd spots of normality. I managed to record a podcast with Jane from Dumpy Little Unicorn, which was great fun and lovely and strangely unreal, to be talking of ordinary things whilst the world is collapsing around our ears. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s up, should you wish to hear me rambling about books and writing.

But this just serves to heighten the oddness of these times we find ourselves in. Be kind to one another, I entreat you all. Be kind to yourself most of all. My method, as I said, is to stop measuring progress in words or even in time spent on a project. My success is simply to be sitting at my desk and having my documents open. Keeping a project in the subconscious is a win; any words added – or deleted – is a bonus.

So yes, this is just a little ramble, a way of coping and of sharing a few little thoughts with you. I think this is how the next few weeks will be; no normality save that we make for ourselves; and then one day we’ll turn round and find that this is normal and the real world will seem like nothing but a distant memory.

How are you doing?