"Write two rough and shabby drafts of a novel in 100 weeks" doesn't have the ring of "write a novel in 30 days", does it?
But that's what I've done. The first draft was terrible, and the second - a rewrite, done in three months in Greece - is merely very bad, so there's improvement. Writing both I had a niggling feeling that things weren't hanging together right, and by the 90% mark had figured out how the next draft *should* go.
It's very hard to carry on to the end of what you perceive to be "wrong", but I managed it, and now I want to be sick on my lap.
I'm going to take a break from writing weekly updates, as it's becoming more of a chore. I started writing them as a way to loosen up my writing, and empty my brain after a week of writing. Increasingly though, as I get more stuck in to my story and it starts to follow me around, I don't want to empty it.
Writing is boring too. Boring to write about, I mean. Mostly I sit at my desk amid a haze of thoughts and self-recriminations. Yeah, I know. Fun. When's the sequel due out?
If I'm honest, I thought two years down the line I'd have cracked it, bar a few insertions and cuts and tweaks, and I'd be able to document the public side of writing: rejection, and querying, and rejection, and editing, and rejection.
In reality writing has taken much longer than I expected. It's been a humbling experience. I thought I knew a lot about writing, but actually doing it, I've had to learn as many tools of this craft as if I'd decided to take up woodwork, and make just as many useless boxes.
Here's what I've learned so far.
Mistake no 1: Writing without a plot
Stephen King argues that outlining – or “developing the plot,” as he calls it – is “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and laboured".
Well, now. His approach is to sit down and simply write the story, allowing the situation and characters to take him where they will. He is a spontaneous writer:
I don’t take notes; I don’t outline, I don’t do anything like that. I just flail away at the goddamn thing.
This is the kind of statement that got me sweating when I first started writing my book. Staring at a blank page, I thought what could he possibly mean?
Others refer proudly to themselves as "pantsers", ie they write by the seat of their, ahem, pants, but when I tried it, the story veered off into the first ditch it could find, wheels spinning. I wrote out a list of things that should happen, but each plot point was general and lacked detail, saying things like "she grows up". It was too thematic: i was too preoccupied trying to get a point across that I forgot to write a plot, and it meandered until it had clocked up a hundred thousand words or so, about people buying apples and reacting tensely to each other for no apparent reason.
Mistake no 2: Writing with a plot
While watching a programme about Pixar last week, I realised the technique of "storyboarding" was a good metaphor for the way I tried to marshall this morass of ideas into a coherent second draft. Even better, the storyboarding process for a single film can apparently take up to two years, which made me feel better.
Story is hard. What I used to think was writing - placing words in the best possible order - now seems relatively straightforward. Much, much harder is developing a story that works, that clicks into place and emanates meaning. Writing these two drafts has given me a newfound respect for a writer such as Dan Brown. He cannot write a sentence very well, but he writes story in abundance.
That's not to say story is the be all and end all. There's something too facile in the idea of "story"; it's at the heart of everything we write, but it doesn't account for the diversions and asides and descriptive passages that make a novel so enjoyable to read. It can also be too demanding: I read a book recently - an extremely capable first novel that made me gnash my teeth with envy - which was promising and beautifully observed, but as soon as story came crashing in at the end, stacking its conclusions like pint glasses, unwrapping the hoover cord and calling "time, please", the characters withered away, limping along the final few pages until the author deemed it appropriate to finish up.
Relying too heavily on story produced two effects. Sometimes the plan I spent months working on felt too restrictive. Sometimes I felt it in an individual line: the pulse of a sentence was too seductive, and I wrote something that sounds right rather than was honest.
So writing these drafts has also given me even greater respect for writers such as Geoff Dyer, who follow their own path, and don't care about hitting a Second Character Turning Point or achieving Climax or whatever else is demanded by the rules of "story".
Mistake no 3: Conflating plot with "story"
Here's Stephen King, a writer whose work is adapted so frequently for screen that you'd think he'd be a devotee of plot, on the distinction:
“Novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B… description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life. You may wonder where plot is in all of this… My answer is nowhere… I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless… and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible… stories pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow.”
This isn't the usual asinine distinction between "plot" and "character" - plot is demoted, and character isn't even mentioned. Not because it's not important, but because it's all of it. Narrative, description, dialogue; it's in every word.
Martin Scorsese makes a similar distinction:
They both seem to be making the point that narration - or viewpoint in film - is the thing, far superior to plot, more important even than story.
What I realise now is it's all about character. It's taken me two drafts - one all over the place, one more structured - to get to the point where I've developed a character strong enough to carry a story. Halfway through writing my second draft I broke off to rewrite the first chapter, with a new understanding of my main character. It was the 500 words of which I'm most proud. Perhaps once I have a character figured out and their voice on paper, writing without a plan will be easier.
Rather than forcing myself to blog every week, I'll only update when something interesting occurs to me. I plan to put this draft to one side for a month or two, read it, then start another rewrite. And this time I won't have any plans.
Word count this week: 10,564
Second draft: 97,666
First draft: 128,661