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I recognise this scenario:
Idea for book – yes
Research for book – yes
Characters – yes
High level idea of what happens – yes
Story – ummm, no. Not really.
Frustrating – yes, just a bit…
Do I just want to get on with the writing… oh, do I ever.
So I’m the ‘this is a total mess’ stage again. But at least I know this is normal (for me, anyway). I have a new stack of books I’ve ploughed through that get me maybe a third of the way there. Another stack for the next part, and about five more coming that might give me a different narrative thread. And I have sheets of paper with scribbled notes to myself. Like ‘Леся [I’ve just ordered a second keyboard and these little sticker things so I have have a Cyrillic keyboard. Going to save me so much time with character names – don’t worry, they’ll end up Anglicised, I’m just reminding myself all the time who these people are…wow, that was a long note] has something of value?’ ‘What’s the hook for the narrative?’ ‘Need a thread to pull through the first part.’
When I said ‘not really’ to the story part, it wasn’t quite accurate. What I don’t know is how to tell the story. Here’s what’s on the menu at the moment:
- Twin narratives of two characters living on different continents at first – from their perspective or all in third person? What do I want you to know when? What do they know when?
- Or three characters – but then I lose the sense of two stories heading towards each other. Unless, of course, I decide that they never meet. Just to annoy you.
- How many sub-plots can I juggle (a lot less than I
- Two time periods – no, done that. And not right for this story anyway
- Have overlap with character whose story comes out in another book
The biggest two lessons I’ve learned from writing the first book are probably
- This bit takes time, for a reason. Rushing doesn’t help. Drinking cups of tea does. Plus this is the part where I get to read loads, so who cares if it takes a bit longer?
- It’s a lot easier to write out the outline of a series of scenes and then think, nah, that doesn’t work, let’s try it a different way and see if that’s better. Writing out those scenes in full turns into folders full of scenes that don’t go anywhere. I tried the ‘write by the seat of your pants’ approach and it doesn’t work for me. I do need to know how I get from beginning to end. If I then change things (as I will, probably many times) along the way or afterwards, that’s fine because I have the main narrative to keep me straight. And the ending can always change anyway.
I will still cheerfully say to my family every morning, ‘Right, today I need to get this plot sorted,’ and every time, I fully intend to. Fortunately they don’t ask me how that went in the evening. As long as dinner is on the table, I can ruminate to my heart’s content on whether Serhii is going to be dead or written out the next day. And nobody will ever know what might have become of him.
And I get to learn some Ukrainian along the way. I’m still trying to figure out this alphabet and prove that the certain letters are most definitely not pronounced the same every time. Seriously, И sounds different every time I come across it. And I haven’t even got started on the grammar yet. Or verbs, for that matter. As I am patiently reminded, I’ve only been doing this for two weeks. This too, needs its time.
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…
Maybe there are just some things we have to learn over and over again.
I am not, and have never been, the most organised person. The piles of books I mentioned last week are just one small example. As is my general inability to find what I am looking for when I really need it. In fairness, putting a camera flash in the drawer where sundry running accessories go might not have been down to me.
It’s not that I don’t think it’s a good idea to have plans for some things, it’s just that it’s not how I think. I did my PhD by figuring out what I needed to know or find out as I went along, and then going and finding it out. It worked out fine and I was never bored, maybe because I was never quite sure myself what was coming next.
But it turns out that the same approach doesn’t necessarily lend itself to writing a novel. I have a lot of material I’ve written. An awful lot. And – despite the inconsistencies – some of it actually works together. But while some of the parts are, I hope, worth keeping, the whole doesn’t hang together and there is far too much that will never fit in.
So I have stopped churning out words for a bit. And the wallpaper has come out, which is an improvement on the A3 sheets I was using before to try to put some structure around my disjointed ideas.
Yes, it’s a piece of wallpaper – and some very small writing!
So before I write another word, I am figuring out how I get everybody from where they start to where it all ends, from one end of the wallpaper to the other. And this includes deciding where the starting point is. I can take it back two generations before some of the characters were born – useful writing exercises, but not helpful for the task in hand. But having a structure around everything is probably the only way I’m going to avoid the tangents I keep going down. Even though they are so interesting and I want to see where they lead. The trouble is they don’t lead towards the end, or even to what happens next. They just take me somewhere that I can’t get out of.
I have now accepted that I need the whole to work, into which the pieces fit. Otherwise it just won’t work. Then I can get back to the writing part and this time not waste so much time on fascinating irrelevancies! And I get to look at some beautiful paperweights at the same time – the solution to automatically curling wallpaper!
I’m starting to become obsessed with plotting. Not plotting some dastardly deed, but plotting a novel. It turns out there are two types of writers – plotters and pantsers. The latter being the ones who just start writing and figure it out as they go along, ie flying by the seat of their pants. It turns out I am not one of them. Or at least, I get lost in innumerable tangents when I try that approach. Now, I have to say that I’m not convinced that I’m a plotter either, but I’m willing to be open to the possibility that applying some conscious structure might be a good thing. Because I really do go off on the loveliest tangents, but then I realise they don’t go anywhere particularly helpful, unless you count introducing a pile of new characters and events which I found interesting and wanted to play around with.
So I’ve spent a while today trying to see how one of the masters does it. Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller is in my top [insert random number – it will be in there] books, and because she is telling a story in the present day and the past, I thought it would be a good one to take apart structurally and see how she does it.
I am now not so sure she was a good one to start with. What I need is something simple. Along the lines of ‘this scene serves the following purpose’, ideally as a header to each section. What I got was a crazy set of characters, all with their own stories, all coming and going in what, in isolation, seems to be without rhyme or reason. Except that there is both rhyme and reason and it all moves forward in a way that feels right. But it’s too well done to be capable of a quick ripping apart into different sections. But I am going to persist with this exercise anyway, I just need to look at everything that is going on and try to track what’s going on in more detail. One thing is clear already, though. It’s the characters that are driving it, as they always do. But I also want to see how the structure of the novel allows the characters to develop in a coherent way.
Part of me can’t believe I am willingly trying to analyse books in the way that I hated at school or university. Maybe the difference is that I’m now doing it for a reason I can understand. And one that matters to me.
But this exercise has frazzled my brain for today, so I am going to sit and read for a while before resuming my dissection tomorrow!