I grew up in Surrey, by which I mean I used to ride horses. So I know that when a horse doesn’t want to make a jump, it doesn’t matter how many times you turn him round and kick him on towards the fences, he would veer to the side or come to a sudden halt an inch in front of the crossed wooden posts.
It’s been like that for the past week. Knuckling down to write has worked: I’ve sat down (tick), started my computer (tick) and sharpened my pencils (unnecessary, but a tick nonetheless). That’s half the battle, according to Steven Pressfield. I’ve opened all the documents I need (first draft so far, list of characters, list of scenes). I’ve rejigged my plot, deepened my characters, rearranged my story board (not wasting time), and I’ve moisturised my hands numerous times (important at my age).
The problem is, every time I get ready to start writing, I throw my rider. (They should invent a proverb about it being impossible to get horses to do something, they really should.)
Before I went on holiday, I had got into a good habit: writing most days before work, a little at a time, following a thread and, as Stephen King describes writing a first draft, getting it down. It took me a while to get there. Lots of planning, thinking, drawing up spreadsheets (really), but when I started writing, I felt a little less on shaky ground and had a vague sense of where I was going.
It’s taken me this long to get up to that speed again. After a break from my book, and a few weeks contemplating its awfulness thus far and how it's probably best to junk it and not think I could do anything as laudable as writing a whole novel, I returned to my document titled “all.doc” and read the last few stringey lines. Hmm. Not sure where to go from here, I thought.
Hemingway recommended stopping writing in the middle of a scene, when you know precisely where you’re going, to avoid this kind of situation. It's good advice, but that’s hard to do. When you’re writing at full pelt, it’s enjoyable and difficult to throw off all of a sudden. I think he also recommends a few mojitos at that stage, which I can totally get behind.
So I revisited my characters and plot, and realised the lack of momentum resulted from there being two narratives.
I always knew there were, as my story is told in the present-ish day, and an extended flashback. I was more comfortable with the latter, as it was based partly on my own experiences, and had a trajectory I’d been thinking about for some time. The former – set in the present day, the result of the earlier narrative, and in some ways, the beginning of the end – was harder. Beyond some hand waving about being grown up and dissatisfied, I didn’t know much about my main character’s situation then.
No matter, I thought; it’d come out eventually. So I started on what I did know, and wrote some patchy introductions as a result. I thought of the structure of The Kite Runner, which opens in the present day, when the narrator is prompted to remember his childhood. I’m a little further along in the story now, and a few ideas have cropped up in the writing, so I thought I could redress this lack of characterisation in the second draft, and expect to be happy with maybe 40% of my first draft. Writing is rewriting, after all. Writing is hard. Rewriting sounds more up my alley.
The problem was writing the first draft in the first place. And when I did, there’s something lacking. A lack of direction perhaps, or lack of drive. It’s just not gripping enough. Where is this going?, I keep thinking to myself. Do I really want to get into what colour his car was?
Then I realised that, though I enjoyed it, The Kite Runner lost its power for me when it returned to the present day and issues of redemption and putting things right became paramount, and the whole colourful world of growing up in Afghanistan became black and white.
I am obsessed with the idea that the end is inherent from the beginning, that the charge of a story is the interplay between the possibility of unlimited choices and an inevitable and unavoidable ending. In my reading experience, that idea is best explained by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending, but I recently came across a definition of story that summed that up that double consciousness - that there's a chance but no hope - pretty well too.
I realised I had to work on my story as a whole, and work out how my main character’s conflict works not just in hindsight but in the present day too. It’s where my story begins and ends. That’s where the charge must be.
That part is a bit of a chore though, as I haven’t thought it through. What has happened to my main character now she has grown up? What is interesting about her now?
Those parts of the story need to function more than mere book ends bracing the main story, like the final fight with the evil Taliban in The Kite Runner or that bit with the scary bookseller at the beginning and end of The Never Ending Story. I hate that guy! Don’t end it like that! What's with the flying dog? Answer the questions!
Perhaps this is what writers talk about when they say they fear getting to the end of their book, having to write the final chapters and do justice to everything you’ve written so far. I’ve never had much sympathy with that fear as I'd love to be that far through my book, but I can see now that I should be thinking about it from the outset.
And because my story has two narratives that intertwine, I need to think about it sooner than others. The use of a flashback means it’s back-to-front anyway; in my beginning is my end, as Toilets would say. I had an epiphany in the first few weeks of what should happen at the end, and that has helped me with the structure as a whole. But now I have to fix those gaps, and make sure my story in the present day doesn’t let down the story told in flashback.
So I sat down today and started writing about what had become of my main character since she had grown up. I managed over a thousand words and had a few ideas. It’s a bit wobbly and I'm not sure where it's going, but it’s a start.
I also have the softest hands.
Word count this week: 1,778 Running total: 39,008 First draft: 22,015