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I am feeling for the characters in my book right now. Everything they knew is disappearing around me, building by building, brick by brick.
It was a strange experience going back to places I was last in over twenty years ago and finding that I recognised next to nothing there. Entire streets were gone, replaced by shiny new buildings that bore no resemblance to the places I had once studied or eaten in or just walked outside of. Admittedly, the new buildings have moved on a bit since 1950s East Germany architecture was being realised, but all cities change and after a while, we can often not even remember what was there before.
That’s one of the problems of trying to go back to somewhere we had an emotional connection to. I had to give up on anything much in Leipzig being as useful to me as photos of the city in the 1970s, but it reminded me that it is those personal associations which make a city for us. The buildings might go or change, but we remember what we did there, and with whom, and it is those memories which matter most. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t sad when what we knew is no longer there, and that’s one reason why there are some places I probably will never return to. I prefer them frozen in time in 1992 (Tübingen) when the restaurant underneath the town hall served huge savoury pancakes and we met an American couple on holiday, acting as (probably rubbish) tour guides for them for a day or two. The restaurant is (I am told) gone now, but in my mind, it’s still there and we can go there any time we like in our memory.
This one used to be a rectangular block of cement. But the new building means nothing to me. It’s just a building. In time, however, it will bring back memories for the students now at the university there, and that’s all as it should be. Nothing stays the same forever. I have my memories, and they have theirs, and maybe some time we can share our different experiences of the same place.
In the last six months, the last two buildings two of my characters worked in have either been demolished (cue heart sinking as I arrive at the spot and just know that hole in the ground is the building I wanted to see – the perils of thinking ‘I’ll go there next time’!)…
… or are losing their old occupants. The Berliner Zeitung newspaper is moving out of the building it has been in for decades:
As well as those two, this landmark university tower in Leipzig is now being used by a media organisation rather than the university:
I have the luxury of several sets of memories of these places, some of them even mine. And the buildings might go or change, but the memories stay and, in some cases, are captured in stories where they never disappear. But sometimes I am still sad to see them go because it feels as if a bit of me goes with them.
There is a reason for my blogging silence for six weeks. That, it turns out, is how long it takes me to write the first draft of the novel from beginning to end, and it doesn’t allow for an awful lot of head space devoted to anything else.
Right now, I’m back in Berlin for a week. It gave me the total space I needed to do nothing but write and walk (not at the same time) for the first few days, eating when I remembered to and just doing one more scene…and one more…and just one more…maybe one more before I stop… then it was done.
I spent a long day walking through Leipzig reacquainting myself with the city where Natalie (all names you’re hearing for the first time are of characters in the book, and all bear no similarity to etc etc etc) went to university, and finding the place unrecognisable from when she was there (because it was unrecogisable from when I was there – they have been knocking down all the parts I knew over twenty years ago). I could still retrace her route between the two university building she was in, but as for the rest – too much has changed to be able to see where anything else happened, until, with an hour before my train back to Berlin was leaving and a 45 minute walk from the station, I finally found the place I needed, unchanged in forty years and exactly where she would have gone with…ah, no, not telling you that bit. The lights, I admit, are a modern addition, but this was what I had been looking for – the kind of thing you know when you see it:
Today, I walked for hours through Berlin tracing routes to make sure they worked, to see what became obvious only when I actually retraced someone else’s steps, and then I checked what I could see when I stood on the corner of a street I had previously only imagined, and saw that it was slightly different when I got to the spot. Ninety something percent will never get written down, but I will know that the descriptions I do include will be right, even if I am not going to start listing off every street name (seriously, some people do that, and when it’s set in Berlin and they get it badly wrong, I get pretty grumpy).
I think I am finding that this part is also helpful to allow me to let go of some of the characters. I have way too much invested in them and spend too much of the last couple of days of writing bursting out into tears as I got towards the end. I’m sure I’ll go over it again and think, what was that bit meant to be about?, but right now, I’m just reliving events that happened here when I was only just born.
Here’s what I’ve learned over the process of getting this far:
- No matter how good or bad any of this turns out to be (and everyone’s going to have an opinion!), it took me a lot longer to get it even this far than I had ever imagined. A lifetime – and a career – of writing non-fiction is not a good preparation for writing fiction, except for the part that means I get a kick out of the research!
- Over the last few years, I think I have probably written around 500,000 words. That’s five times the length of To Kill a Mockingbird (told you I liked the research part) and most of it will sit in a folder stuffed full of handwritten pages or in computer files – but all of it was useful because all of it was part of the learning process.
- In the process of writing all that, I gave up twice. As in, totally decided this was never going to happen and I should just accept it and move on. Then the next day, I decided to have another go. Dealing with the emotions of this kind of writing is part of the challenge.
- You can spend a lot of time finding out how other writers ‘do it.’ Stephen King, for example, says write 2,000 words a day, no matter what, then leave it. It works for him, not for me. But what all successful writers say is read a lot and write all the time. It turns out that, for me, I scarcely read anything else once I’ve started for real, and all I do is work from beginning to end, getting down 8-10,000 words a day towards the end of each of the main sections because I just could not imagine stopping for anything. I had to find out what happened (there were some things which only came out towards the end, which answered questions I had been trying to figure out since the beginning) and I just had to get to the end of the story.
- Plot it out. Oh my goodness did I fight against that one. Many, many times. Then I saw a plot outline which James Patterson did for one of his novels, and something clicked. It worked for me. I just opened up the outline and wrote what I had said happened in that scene. No worrying about whether it worked or not, because I knew I had already dealt with what came next, and that there was an ending it was all leading up to. I did change the odd thing as I went along, but that was more as I was finding out things myself. But even with that, I kept telling myself, I don’t know how this works out – then I went through all the scenes ahead of me and realised that I did know. It turned out that I actually plotted the whole thing while I was ill for two months and thought I had got nothing done at all, then I had a look and saw that, somewhere in that time, I had managed to get from beginning to end. I had just forgotten that I had done it.
- Fast works for me. I probably already knew that, but I did try being disciplined, along the lines of so many words a day and then stopping. And it did help on the days when it just wasn’t working and I said, you just have to get it down and change it later. But I found that too many days were either, I don’t know what to write for this scene, or I don’t want to stop now. So I accepted that I was always going to have to up the intensity massively and immerse myself in it. It’s addictive. Deal with it.
- Write every day. Sorry, family. Yes, on Christmas Day as well, but it was only about 1,000 words.
- Yes, you will start to think and feel like your character sometimes. Note to self: stop writing characters who like cigars and French wine. It’s not my fault, it’s just who Theo was. And I dealt with Theo’s character not by drinking and smoking but by telling LoLo what Theo had said recently and judging whether it would stay or not by how much she laughed. When she said weeks later, ‘what was that thing Theo said?’ and laughed all over again, I knew I had at least one line that was a keeper. When your teenage daughter goes around quoting what one of your characters said…wow.
- Delegate. Yes, seriously. I wrote a lot by hand until I simply could not write fast enough without every word looking like a line with a few bumps, and I paid the girls to type it up for me. They almost got it all done as well. As I said to them, at least someone is making some money from my writing. Pity it’s not me!
- All those words I wrote along the way… there’s at least one other book in there and I figured out on my long walk today how I can use it. I have a good chunk of the next book sitting there, and it’s something I care enough about, I just needing to turn it into a proper story and written like that now. And then there’s the other book I plotted out in the course of a 14 mile run a few weeks ago. Running is good for that. Got the main character, got the set up, got an idea of how it might play out, and got the historical (1800s for a change) period it might mirror. Oh, and a title for that one. Emma. I tried writing a few scenes the other day to see if I had her voice, and I started to like it. So there’s a pipeline for the future.
- The main thing I think I’ve learned is that it’s the story that matters, not everything you know. You want to show someone how much you have learned about the facts, write non-fiction. You want to tell a story which brings it to life? – write a novel. The remake of Battlestar Galactica was memorable for me for the writers’ comments on the final episode where they said something along the lines of, We knew it was all about the characters, and that final episode is just beautiful as a result.
So, first draft done, now it’s on to the editing. Which I keep saying to myself is ‘rip it all to pieces.’ I already know (because I peeked) that I am going to hate some of what I wrote at the beginning, and that’s fine. I have a better sense of the characters at the end than I did at the beginning, some things have changed along the way, there’s the odd plot hole I created later on that I need to fix now and I already have one character who is just going to disappear, that you will never know anything about. Sorry, Max, love you but you didn’t add anything I needed, and did I mention that the first draft is waaaaay too long for you to be in the next version? 215,000 words is too much. So now I get to be ruthless. I am so looking forward to that.
See you again in another six weeks when I’m through with the big edit. Then I get a holiday. Literally. In the meantime, I get to eat again. And read books. This is going to be weird…