La petite mort

The end

The novel is finished. Done. The completed manuscript is on the computer and in the cloud, ready to be chainsawed and steamrollered into some sort of shape. I have 95k words down after the longest period I’ve ever spent on a single draft.

It’s hard to say how I feel about this. A little empty, I guess. This draft has been with me for such a long time that I can barely remember not working on it.

I’m also hyper-aware of all its flaws. Whenever I’ve done first drafts in the past I’ve always felt the arrogance of completion; I’ve always felt like ‘this’ll need a polish and a few coats of paint but it’s otherwise fine. It’s great! The best thing I’ve ever done, hands down.’

This time I don’t feel like that. As I’ve been writing I’ve been aware of all I need to go back for, to retrofit and add in, and, I’m sure, there’ll be bits I need to remove as well. I have produced a mess, an overcomplicated, overwritten heap of words that needs industrial processes to salvage.

Dickens-Great-Expectations

This is in part because it’s the most complex piece of work I’ve ever attempted – it’s much less linear than my previous novels, more of a mystery than an adventure, with several overlapping themes and subplots.

I’m not beating myself up too much about this. I’m sure there’s a good story in what I’ve produced. It’s just not there yet.

The question now is this: do I go straight back to the start and try to fix all my problems, or do I leave it for a few months so I can see it with fresh eyes? All opinion goes with the latter; it must be left to moulder, to be forgotten and revisited afresh. But I am torn. I wonder if I should get straight back into whilst I can remember all that’s wrong with it and try to make good before setting it aside for a while.

It’s not like I don’t have other work to do. I have two other novels to edit and a four-volume epic has just arrived through my commercial editing factory doors.

Maybe I could use a break. I’ve been very close to this work for such a long time, a little recovery time might be wise.

But first I must set down a few notes for future Rob to decipher. That’s the least past Rob can do to make things easier.

Then it’s on to the next thing. For we never rest easy, not in this job.

Write on!

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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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The many problems

writing

I am slowly nearing the end of my as-yet unnamed work-in-progress. The end of the first draft, at least; there is much more to do. Here is a brief look at the things that are wrong with it:

  • The subplots are woefully underdeveloped: my serial killer thread needs putting in earlier whilst my Breton court intrigue thread basically needs to be written from scratch
  • Breton court intrigue means introducing a new POV character, which will be fun
  • Writing over a long period like I’ve had to do, what with interruptions and the like, chances are the novel is totally dislocated and misjointed. A general smoothing out is needed
  • And along with that, some threads (character A’s mental state, for example) might not be consistent. Has he shown remarkable improvements between scenes?
  • It’s about 20,000 words too short
  • Most of the words are wrong. The first draft is about getting the plot and themes down, not about finding les bon mots. The actual writing will need to be mostly rewritten
  • Speaking of bon mots, there’s a significant amount of French in this novel. It needs checking to make sure I’ve not accidentally insulted the whole of the nation. Or simply embarrassed myself
  • Similarly, this novel is set in Brittany. I need to check I’ve not inserted details that make no sense in this foreign milieu, or created a landscape that a French person would immediately recognise as fake. This includes descriptions of architecture and social concepts like fairs and markets and those that embody both like industrial estates
  • Some ideas – like the name of the bar and the fact that there’s a stream running through the (fictitious) town – have only occurred to me late on in the process and need retrofitting into earlier parts
  • Characters B and C have far too little to do. Given they’re the ones with extraordinary powers you’d think they’d be front and centre in this novel, but they’re very much background. I need to decide what to do about this
  • Did I mention it’s about 20k words too short?
  • It needs a name
Tom Gauld bad writing

@ Tom Gauld

Doubtless there’s a lot more problems than this; this is simply all I can think of off the top of my head. It’s enough to be getting on with, don’t you think?

First drafts aren’t meant to be perfect and this one certainly isn’t. I’m a long way short of where I want to be – I want to write a brilliant, compelling story and there are way too many holes in this one to be even of acceptable standard.

But I do have a framework. And hopefully some of the writing will stand up to scrutiny, serving at least as a scaffold to hang better words upon.

So there is hope. There is hope, and there is belief. I have nothing to be proud of but proud still I am: I have nearly completed a draft of a novel and that’s no small achievement.

So onwards I go! Onwards, to write the climax and the denouement – and this’ll take me months – and then it’ll be time to set the darn thing aside for a time.

Then the real work will begin as I try and fix the many problems I’ve saddled myself with.

The beginning of the end

Calvin
I’m writing a short story. I am, in fact, writing the same short story for the fourth time. I’m not editing – changing one word here, switching a character there – but actually writing the story over, from scratch, for the fourth time.

There are reasons for this lunacy. The first is simply that I can. I have no pressing work, no great inspirations, no editor beating down my door for work as yet undelivered. I have lacuna-ed and I’m just taking a quiet moment to do as I damn well please, thank you very much. Sometimes it’s fun just to write.

The second reason for all the rewrites is that this story is teaching me even as I try to get it down. The original idea was of a terrorist attack and its immediate aftermath from the point of view of one of the attackers, but as I wrote it I realised that the event itself wasn’t very interesting. The escape is where it’s at.

So I rewrote it, losing the first half entirely. I got it down, knowing it wasn’t very good (get the ideas on the page then endlessly refine, that’s the writing way), and printed it off. But as I mulled it over I realised the location was wrong. I’d set it in a church, but it needed to be in a museum. And that I needed another character as an interlocutor.

So I started a third draft. And it was going fine until I started to think about how the story would end. And it occurred to me that this was the interesting bit. The aftermath of the aftermath. The characters. This was the story I wanted to write, not some faux-action cliché with dull people and dull arguments. I wanted an exhausted survivor with her hostage on public transport at night.

So this is what I’m writing. Not an all-action balls-out sausage-fest but a quiet, reflective piece on the nature of belief and causes, and let’s just throw in a little fake news there as well.

What I’m not writing is a novella. You might be reading this and thinking that I’ve been building and building and building a story and that I should just tell it all. But what I’ve done is tell myself the background (though that background has shifted somewhat from my first attempt), and this is incredibly useful: I know, in detail, how my characters got where they are now.

But my readers don’t need to see that background. Not because it isn’t very good – I have confidence in my abilities to make it good, with the help of my friendly neighbourhood writing group – but because it’s not the story I want to tell.

Maybe this tale will turn into a novella, but it won’t go back to the beginning; if anything it’ll extend from where I thought the end was. Or maybe I’ll just realise that I still haven’t found the right beginning and I’ve another start to find.

So I’m writing a short story. Maybe one day I’ll find where it ends.

Blocking out

There is, in theatre, a technique known as blocking. It’s when you go through scenes and work out where on stage you’ll be standing, where you’ll be moving to and how you’ll be entering, exiting and the like. It’s basically a walk-through, frequently interrupting the drama to discuss what’s coming next, where you need to be and so on.

Writing a first draft is very much akin to this process, so much so that I think of them in the same terms. So much of an initial run-through is taken up not with writing – and certainly not with story – but with asking yourself where and how this scene will take place: the physical environment, whether we join our characters mid-scene, or with an entrance or an exit. How important is this location to the story? Do we need detailed depictions of urban decay and political activism or can we take it all as read and crack on with story?

It’s the most frustrating thing about this stage of writing. All you really want to do is to get on with it, get on, move forwards, bring on the big scenes you have in mind.

But this stage is crucially important, and also allows for new ideas and circumstances to build in your mind. For example, I’m currently working on a scene for my new novel: it’s quite a big event and comes in three parts:

  • Late-night walker (protagonist 1) encounters a group of ‘bad kids’: conflict (not necessarily physical) ensues
  • The bad kids are run off by the arrival of a Citizen’s Patrol
  • The Cit’s are in turn run off by the protagonist – with the assistance of protagonists 2 & 3

That’s what happens. Simple, right? But before I can write it off and move on I’ve got to address a certain number of issues:

  • Location. I started with an idea of where this scene would take place, but now I actually get down to it I have to make decisions, to make concrete what may have only been a vague picture in my mind. What’s the lighting like? How much can anyone see? It’s an urban scene so sound will be affected: there’ll be echoes and traffic and ‘hard’ sounds. There’ll be hiding places and shadows etc
  • Characters: Many of the characters in this scene are ciphers and don’t need a great deal of ‘inner-life’. But they still need to be plausible within the world I’m trying to create. I need to decide how many ‘bad kids’ – and, in a world of half-light and shadows, how much description will be needed? I need to know their collective motivation. I also need to know at least a name or two
  • All the above also goes for the members of the Citizen’s Patrol
  • How much action do I want? Obviously I have a reason for putting this scene in the novel, but I also need to think whether this will be a high-octane scene of brutal action, or tense stare-down. That’s affected by the characters involved but also by what’s come before and what’s coming after. Of course, pacing can be tinkered with later but it’s nice to have some idea as you go along

So each scene of a first draft becomes a drag, the writing constantly interrupted by questions and queries. But there is tremendous value in the process. As well as the fact that you are actually moving forwards (never underestimate this: every word written is another you don’t have to write in your next session), this way of practically-thinking through your scenes does something to the writer’s brain. You envisage and describe a location: even if that description is later cut, it sharpens up the image in the writer’s mind. Locations then become solid and permanent and can be reused or linked with others.

Similarly, although some characters may be disposable, others may take their chance to shine. Sometimes it’s only when you’re painting that a particularly vivid image comes to mind. Some of these crowd-fillers may leap out at you and earn themselves greater screen-time. It’s a glorious feeling when that happens. You’ve got a shape in mind for a figure later on in your story, but sometimes they surprise you by taking a form earlier, in ways and places you didn’t expect.

This is the real value of the first draft. You may be desperate to move on, to leap forwards, but by working through one word at a time you’re forced to address some real issues, to solve problems but also to seize opportunities.

So by all means curse your ‘crappy first draft’, but never underestimate what it’s forcing you to do. Every word is making your world come alive, even and especially those words you delete. It’s a slow and painful process, but without it you’d have nothing at all.