So I’ve finished the draft I started in February and have had some THOUGHTS, y’all.
Here we go.
Writing fiction is about making decisions: choosing the path, out of an infinite number of possibilities, your story should should take. And I am terrible at decisions. Menus have the power to turn me into a gibbering wreck. Buying a scarf leads me to question my very existence. The simple act of choosing a bottle of wine leaves me paralysed for hours in the supermarket aisle.
At first I felt like I was making progress on my draft simply by filling the page. I wrote every day. Loads of them. Thousands. Too many. They piled up. I tried to cover every possible angle of my story, meticulous: starting new strands of thought, adding ideas, setting things up rather than getting on with the story.
To do that, you have to make a decision. It’s what takes you from scrawling ideas in a notebook to pursuing just the one; it’s what lets you develop an idea, following it to its logical (or completely illogical) conclusion.
Instead I rewrote scenes; wrote alternatives; employed slash marks between ideas, and left others hanging; all in the hope that I would never have to decide. As I pushed on, other thoughts occurred to me, and I wrote those up, slotting them alongside scenes I had written a few weeks previously, in the sure and just hope that A Better Kat – the version of myself that will one day wake up and know exactly what to do – will make the decision for me. Or some external circumstances will force me to decide: just like when the waiter arrives, or it’s December and so cold I have to buy a scarf no matter what, or the security guard at Sainsbury’s has been reduced to switching the supermarket lights on and off.
At this stage I had abandoned multiple drafts. Roughly 30,000 words in, I would realise it wasn’t working, and try it again, this time from a different angle or a different starting point.
So this year, frustrated with myself, desperate to finish a draft, and wondering why I had ever told anyone I would do anything so stupid as write a novel, I pushed on instead.
Soon I noticed there were fewer and fewer decisions I needed to make. Once I’d passed the midway mark, I stopped writing so many alternate scenes, and worrying about perspective, and voice, and whether or not I’d got that bit in about iron filings that was super clever and I was very proud of (I had, four times).
My little toboggan reached the top of the writing hill, perched there for a bit before hurtling down, and finally – thank fuck – I could see the end.
The rest came much more quickly than the start, partly because my confidence grew with the sheer amount of words piling up behind me. Surely some of them would be good enough to keep? My writing became leaner and had direction: rather than feel overwhelmed by the amount I had to write, I now wondered how I would be able to fit it all in.
At the start of the draft, each chapter was about three times too long; by the final section it was more like 10%.
About 80% of the way through I realised an entire character and storyline was cluttering up the story. She could go. Fwip. Just like that.
I sped up. All the set-ups I’d included near the beginning needed resolving, and I followed my nose as best I could, partly by choosing, partly through sheer forgetfulness (in some cases it had been three+ months since I had written a scene, so rather than deciding which idea was worth continuing through to the end, I’d simply forgotten the others).
Forgetfulness. Illogic. Unthinking. Sometimes I caught myself thinking ‘what?’ ‘you can’t-‘ at something I’d just written down and it was like when you’re running fast and suddenly with a shock you can feel the road as it slides down your face and tears the skin off your knees, but you’re still upright – you’re running – and your legs are still peddling.
It was at the 95% mark on drafts 1 and 2 that my story fell apart (draft 1 because I’d done next to no decent story planning; draft 2 because I’d done too much). This time, however, when I reached the fateful spot, albeit 30,000 words further along than I meant to, the final few scenes I needed were laid out and waiting.
When I finished the draft there were a few holes and gaps to fill but I was just too excited by the final line to do anything more, not because it was good (it is a pathetic attempt at a Gatsby sign-off and the first in line to be expunged in the edit), but because it told me the story, right there, in that line – this, I realised, is what the whole thing is about.
Of course I’d known it was about that all along, but I’d also thought it was about impossibility and potential and success and love and death and female emancipation and joy and lies and all manner of other stupid things that meant it was impossible to see the wood for the trees.
I wanted it to capture everything I’d ever thought about everything ever. I thought my topic could encompass it all, and therefore I’d never have to make any decisions, but now, at the end, I saw it was about one thing – and that one thing made lopping off all the extra bits, sanding down joins and winnowing out the bloated passages seem easy. I wanted to start the edit straight away; to cut, cut, cut.
So next day I sat back at my desk. Everything about my story had emerged clearly now: I knew what had to go, what needed to change, what gaps needed filling and, finally, what decisions to make.
You don’t know the beginning until you’ve reached the end. I can’t remember who said that – I’ve got a horrible feeling it was Eliot, or Dylan (I don’t know who’s more pompous) – but it’s true.
Something stopped me, however. With my laptop open in front of me, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The thought actually made me feel sick.
So instead I took a screenshot for posterity:
I realised I was at the end and, more importantly, I needed a lie down.