Weeks 64, 65

Commodore 64So late I'm running two weeks together. Why so late? I got bored. 120,000 words in, with just 20,000 words to go, I started feeling a bit like I was tying up strands. I've felt like that watching countless films, and reading a few books, and wondered how a writer could let a story slip from their grip in that way - but I didn't expect it to happen to me when I came to write something.

Well, it did. It's pretty galling - surely, this story I've been thinking about and writing for almost TWO YEARS couldn't be a it, well boring? What does it say about it if the person writing it can't be bothered?

That's just it, though. People bang on about this thing called storytelling as if it's a couple of hours round a camp fire, but if you've got a job, a finite number of hours in your day and things like 36 episodes of Community to catch up on, it can take a little longer than that. Two years longer. And, tucked away in an hour or two here and there, between waking up and breakfast, or after work, or at weekends, your story can start to feel like it's slipping from your grasp.

That's okay, right?

That doesn't seem okay.

When I started writing this, the stat that horrified me the most was the number of authors whose first published book wasn't necessarily the first one they wrote. Sometimes it's picked up later, reworked after a few publishing successes and sold, but more often than not it's a training ground for writing something as long and complex as a 100,000 word story.

The novelist Lloyd Shepherd was recently the guest for a podcast I do (and right interesting he was too). He's written a wonderfully evocative and swashbuckling tale about slaves, buccanneers and 19th-century police, and everything in between. It wasn't the first book he ever wrote though; there was another one, not quite finished, some years ago.

Another friend told me how, on submission of his first book to his publisher, they replied, "this isn't your first book". Before he managed to reply ("it bloody well is!" being his most likely response), they explained: this can't be your first book, it won't sell. Once you've made a name for yourself, then maybe it will.

When I started out, looking at an empty document on my screen and the prospect of filling it with nigh on 100,000 words (at least 80,000 more than I've ever had to write), the thought of writing one of these, and then having to write another one filled me with horror.

Now, 125,000 words in, it doesn't.

Perhaps this one will go unpublished, unremarked upon. Perhaps it'll be taken up and rebranded as my "juvenilia" at some hugely successful point in the future. Or perhaps it'll remain as it is: on my computer, a little bit unfinished. The majority of novels embarked-upon do.

65 ClubFinishing it will be the icing on the cake. I've already learned so much in the course of writing it that it would be worth it for that alone. I'm desperate to get it finished, so I can take a look at it, read it through, see what works and what doesn't, feel the pacing.

This far into a manuscript - after two years of life's continual stops and starts - it's almost impossible to tell.

And yet I found myself stalling, and unsure why. Another story formed in my mind, one I'd had the idea for years ago, but now was running through my mind when I should have been setting out on the resolution of my novel or remembering what I called that guy, the one who's so-and-so's boyfriend from a few hundred pages back (this happens).

I decided to write it. I scribbled down some notes about the beginning, middle and end, and then (because it's a short story, and a snapshot of a much longer one), what's happening now, what just happened, and what might be about to happen. Hopefully over the course of about 5,000 words my confidence in my ability to tell a story will grow. I hope it'll also give me a bit of a punch in the right direction and get me over the finishing line with the novel.

I'm writing both alongside each other, and already it's working. Taking the pressure off one story seems to help. If things work out, I'll find my original passion for my novel again, and get it done. Maybe it'll get published. And maybe it won't.

Word count this week: 3,700 First draft: 125,212 Short story: 2,000

Week 57

I don't know if it's down to writing longhand, or the relief that the writing drought has finally been broken, but my ability to write returned with a renewed vigour this week. Writing by hand in a book focuses you on the turning of the page. There's something competitive in the physicality of it; you want to get to the end of the page, turn over, fill another with black scrawl. It also discourages looking back at what you've written so far - not least because I can barely read my own handwriting. Being hunched over a notebook and pen and not faced with a blank screen feels more conducive to that horrible phrase storytelling, which should be the number one aim in my first draft.

Don't get it right, get it written.

And there's something about the scrib-scrib-scribble of my pen that gets me thinking about the next line, and the next, and the next. It's still shapeless, with as much not going for it as going for it, but it's a start, and it gives me something to cut, amend and improve.

I'm also at the heart of my story, which might account for my sudden speed and fervour. There's lots to tell, and, suddenly, lots of people crowding in on it. I've previously worried that my main character is too solitary, but now she is a mere observer, a participant in action, and the relief is vast. She interacts with other characters, slipping from the present situation to remembered ones a little too easily, in a style that might be too bewildering.

But it is fun and lots of ideas crop up in the process.

This style also has, infuriatingly, a different tense and more focussed viewpoint. I try not to think about how the immediacy of this narration contrasts with the rest of the book, and plough on, out of tense and out of joint. This might represent a new style for the whole book, or it might remain dislocated from the rest. I don't know yet.

And while my writing method took a step back a century, my reading leapt into the 21st century. I bought myself a Kindle.

"Real" books will always be number one for me. I read The Tiger Who Came To Tea this week too, turning each page to reveal an illustration that wasn't a surprise but oh-so-familiar: I had seen and studied every stroke of the pen, colour and facial expression before, long ago, as a child. How could something electronic compete with that?

But the convenience of downloading books at your fingertips - especially ones you need for reference - is undeniable, and the reading experience hugely enjoyable. It brings a little bit of magic to reading that boring old paper just doesn't have. I don't think it had occurred to me how amazing it is - a little electric book that you can sling on your bed along with all the others or read while waiting for the pan to boil, and never get a sore wrist.

I bought it for two reasons: I wanted to reread Vanity Fair, a book I have on my shelves but is too big to carry to work every day, and I wanted to get my hands on The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd, recently published in hardback. I met Lloyd very briefly at the BBC, and have been interested to watch his experience of being published from afar. I bought both books straight away (although poor old Thackers doesn't get any royalties any more, so Vanity Fair was free).

I never buy hardbacks, which is why I haven't read Sense of an Ending yet, despite being desperate to. Having an ebook means being able to read books as soon as they are published, and while they still are being reviewed and hyped. I hope it brings extra magic to reading. It certainly has so far, as every turn of a page is replaced by a blink of the screen as it refocuses, the words surfacing in ancient ink shapes like runes.

Lloyd's book sounds fascinating. It was published last week. I can't imagine what that must have felt like. I hope one day to finish my book and find out.

Word count this week: 3,700 First draft: 94,212

Week 11

Writing longform is working well. I still have my structure up on a board in front of me, which acts as a kind of comforting blankie as I plough on from strange scene to strange scene. Ideas appear in a throwaway sentence, and I make a note to return to that idea on my second draft. Some of it develops the story a little bit more, and some of it will go in the bin, but it really is amazing what comes out when you just plough on without much thinking. Tortoise

The main thing I've been thinking this week is the need for patience. Getting used to the pace of a novel. I think all those books about plotting give you the sense that a story really rollicks from the word go, when it fact it's much more gradual than that.

Not only that, but my synopsis focuses so much on getting to the next turning point, or the next crisis, and an eventual denouement, that I forgot it takes time to delineate a character, to create the little scenes or turns of phrase that bring them to life. Chapter two has been about that.

On Lloyd's suggestion, I read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and can recommend it to anyone who gets easily distracted from doing what they want to (or, as they're also called, everyone).

And I came across this quote from Doris Lessing today, which sums up something I've discovered in the last few weeks. A book for Doris is alive "only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood".

That idea always used to make sense to me as a reader, but now I see it as a writer too.

Word count this week: 2,456 Running total: 18,535 First draft: 4,777

Week 9

So it goes Bit of a cop-out this week.

Since the end of January I've promised myself to write one day of every weekend, and at least two evenings a week. That's no mean feat: it means I also have to limit what else I do, and how many people I see. So those evenings are out, you know, those evenings that make living in London great: last minute plans, bumping into a good friend, unexpected fun. No, I must go home and write.

Well this week I went out instead. I desultorily tweaked at my list of scenes (the result of weeks of planning, and the one thing I insisted I couldn’t possibly go on writing without), meanwhile taking up every offer and invitation that got me out of the flat. It was lovely; I saw friends I hadn't seen for a while, I chewed the fat about work over a pint, I recorded a podcast (seriously, I will do anything to get out of writing…), I had a lasagne cooked for me, and I went to see a man about a statue in Fulham. I didn't write.

I have no excuses: I now have my list of scenes. The plot's not entirely there, but it'll do to get started. I have characters with names of their own. I have worked out a rough structure in acts, and pinned them on cards to a board. I have scraps of writing – passages, half-chapters, experiments – that, when taken together, add up to a whole lot of words. But I also have a blank document titled "chapter one". Okay, it'll actually be titled something like "chapter four" (I'm diving straight in to one aspect of my plot, in the hope that inspiration will strike for the first part), but that's beside the point.

This is the bit I thought I'd find easiest. I can write, I thought. It's just structure that I find hard. Or, I just need to work on my characterisation. The conflict.

It seems there are two schools of thought when it comes to writing: just start writing, or plan. I've tried both, and find the latter infinitely better when it comes to writing usable work. I read Lloyd Shepherd's post about Vonnegut's attitude to plotting (unsurprisingly, he's ambivalent) with interest. Lloyd's got a book due out next year and it sounds brilliant, the synopsis I've read describing a story dipping across time and place, but here he says he doesn't plot: "I have a sort-of shape in my head and I just get going and see where it gets me."

I admire this so much, but I have no idea what it means. And so many writers say it. Just start? Like, open a blank document, and write… what? A character's name? A neat opening line? A... description?

I think I've avoided writing so far. I mean, really writing. From the start. One sentence after another. My plot is a bit of a jigsaw, and I've been wrestling with it, but if I don't start writing it soon I'll lose heart. The thing is, when I start putting pen to paper, that's it. Having loads of ideas in suspension and the promise of something feels good; writing it down doesn't.

So I am forcing myself to start at chapter one (four). From now on, I will write from the beginning and not stop, not even to edit. By the time I go on holiday in June, I will have written at least two acts (about five or six chapters).

I guess what I'm saying is, if you see me in the next few weeks, tell me to knuckle down and write, and definitely don't invite me to anything fun.

Word count this week: 0 Running total: 13,197