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Been here before

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

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

Does it matter?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about one of the fears when writing a book that makes unreasonable psychological demands of the author – that someone else will get there first. The other fear for me is whether I can answer this question about the book: Does it matter?

Does it have to?

For me, yes. I’m not going to get all existential about it, though, and delve into what even the question means. Matters to who(m – pedant)? How do you decide if it matters? Define your terms, man! Actually… no.

It has to matter to me first and foremost. Which means it has to be more than ‘just’ a story. But let’s wind back a bit first… it has to be first and foremost a story. That’s what my current edit is about. If the first draft is finding out what the story is (believe me, I wasn’t sure for a long time…), or telling yourself that story, the second is about telling the story to someone else. And doing it better. A lot better. And – this, I suspect, is the real bit – getting out of the way of the story.

Seriously, you would not believe the amount I can cram into one book. Cryptic references that almost nobody else will get. Oblique parallels between different cultures and societies. Specific words and phrases that mean way more than anyone is going to twig. All of which means that in my first draft, way too much of it was my voice. Yup, pretty much all of what I just listed off. It’s not that I don’t think that’s fascinating and everything, but it’s not Natalie’s story, and that’s what I’m writing. Her story. Not mine. (Note to self: got that yet? – and yes, just take that other line out that you liked so much. Or the paragraph. Actually, that whole scene isn’t actually doing anything, is it? Honestly, it can go. Highlight. Control-X.)

So is that it? It’s just a story?

Not for me. It can be enough, though. Some stories ‘just’ entertain us. Nothing wrong with that and I’ve read and enjoyed many books that are not trying to be anything more. Others are written in a way that challenges us with the writing itself. Fine, if that’s your thing. 

And me?

It has to be a story I think needs to be told. There are so many that could be told. Someone else can write them, and I’ll be happy to read them. But the ones I need to write? – I know them when I see them. They just out at me when I read or hear or see something. There are enough other fragments of stories kicking around in my head that I know I’m not going to end up sitting down and writing, but there are four that I’m pretty sure are going to make it into a full blown story. Because I think they tell us something about ourselves. Which starts with – they tell me something about me that I need to figure out.

What did I need to figure out in the current novel? Ah, that would be telling. But don’t worry. I know. And now I am busy taking that back out again and letting Natalie tell her story. Because it’s way better than anything I could tell you. 

Will anyone else care? I hope so. But I’ll write the story either way. And that’s because I also know why I am writing it. As Simon Sinek says, you have to ‘Start with Why’ you are doing something. Once you know that, you’ll figure the rest out. And that’s a lot of fun.