Week 97

I was going to be all, yay plain sailing, I'm outta the woods, everything feels like it's falling into place, because - for a few days - it was. It did feel like that. The shaky first half, during which I was constantly wondering if I was even telling the right story, let alone telling it well, was finally paying dividends. I was almost at my goal of 80,000 words (that's not the entire draft, mind, just what I thought I could achieve in the 12 weeks I was out here), and after flexing its muscle every day for two solid months, writing itself was coming more easily, rather than scrape my way towards my daily word count goal I was swooping past it in a matter of hours. I am already thinking about the next draft; what needs to be taken away, and added to, so that it starts to take shape and all the joints fuse. It's in there, in the rough mess of the current draft, like a Russian doll. I even managed to write up a short synopsis, just a paragraph, but that's the first time I've been able to do it in almost two years. I'm three quarters in, and, despite a few changes, it roughly follows the plan I devised before coming out here and is about to get to the good bit (ie the end), when it all wraps up and makes total sense.

Right?

Then I woke up today and it was all terrible. Sigh.

Word count this week: 11,170 Second draft so far: 78,284 First draft: 128,661

Week 96

As expected, trailing last week's notes with the phrase "I give up" brought three times the amount of normal traffic to this blog, so I'm going to take that as a barometer of public opinion and be brief. Week 96 already, need to finish this draft by 100, will she make it? Oh-whoa. < SUSPENSE

So. Here we go.

96

This week I finally got halfway through the story (not the halfway mark of my wordcount, mind - a fair bit of that has been shunted to later in the book) and decided to write the rest in a different mode. There are at least two stories going on in my book: one in the past, one in the present. The one in the present has caused me the most trouble by far: first, making it powerful enough when the initial interest in this book for me resides in the past story (and, indeed, the first draft was mostly just that), second, giving it a plot of its own, and now, third, how it is being told.

So far I have told the present story in just that, the present. I do this, I do that. The result has been surprisingly impressionistic; I love writers such as Woolf and Faulker and Morrison, but I did not expect my writing would come out trying to emulate them and the "stream of consciousness" style. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with it, either.

This week I wrote an intro I was really pleased with. Just a few paragraphs, but it not only zipped up my first chapter, it changed how I thought about my main character too. I've been struggling with making her likeable, and this may be the way. It gives her way more control over the narrative than a mere imprint of her thoughts does. It's a lot more fun too.

So for the second half I'm going to try and write like that: in the past tense (whoa) and more deliberately manipulative. Tell a bit more, and show a bit less, and create the sort of gaps in the narrative that means it doesn't take hold entirely. The only complication is that the next bit is where the story all goes wrong, and starts to spiral. She loses control of her situation, and that should affect her narrative too, which means, ironically, a more impressionistic style is required. I need to rewrite the preceding narrative in that case; not the whole thing, just the narrative, the style with which it is told and the way in which it all hangs together.

Now that I know it needs changing, the temptation to rewrite from the start is strong. I'm trying to push forward and keep to my goal of writing a full second draft. I hoped this one would be inches away from being readable, but it'll need another quick redraft to smooth out these kind of irregularities before anyone can do that.

Word count this week: 9,717 Second draft: 67,114 First draft: 128,661

 

Week 94

In the middle of the swamp; this week I passed the putative halfway point. 94

I say putative, as I expected the final word count of this draft to be roughly 100,000, but every day it gets longer, and concluding scenes get further and further away. Word count is rarely a useful barometer for your story - sometimes I hit a word length target, but am still way behind on where my character should be.

In the middle of the swamp I can see as far back as I can forward. The story to come is exciting still, I think it will work, I think I have something. The story written so far needs work, but there's something there. Where I am right now feels the least stable. I could go in any direction. All those potential ideas and brilliant moments of thematic significance and plot twists turn like putty in my hands into, well, clay.

There is vast disappointment at the heart of anything creative: turning something imagined into something real, with all its flaws and inadequacies, is inevitably disheartening. If I were feeling pretentious (guess what - I am), I'd say it was an intimation of death. THERE I SAID IT.

You have to keep working it, throwing the pot until it resembles the shape you want.

Okay, that's it; I'm out of pottery metaphors.

The whole process makes me think more and more about the question of the author's control on a story, and the debate about interactive fiction. I wrote about this once before. Now that I am trying to write something, I am no longer just a reader, and I find my whole way of reading has changed, maybe forever, maybe just while I am in the middle of a story myself (I hope it's the latter). Writing has given me an insight I don't feel I had when I wrote that blog post, and definitely didn't way back when I was 20 and encountered the idea that the author is "dead" for the first time at university ('way back'? let's just say 'back', shall we?).

In my mind, as I write, I am aware of a vast potential story. It includes every inference, every thought I have ever had about my book and every detail that led up to every event, and makes every possible statement about my theme. It covers the back stories of all my characters. It includes every bit of dialogue and every sentence that wakes me up in the middle of the night, however terrible. It is huge.

While writing, especially now as the story progresses beyond the mid-point and I have a Janus-like view of it, behind and in front of me, it becomes increasingly overwhelming. But I can only write one narrative, one angle on that story, whether it's a particular character's viewpoint or told from a particular point in time. That one narrative can have echoes of the wider story, sub-plots, diversions and dead ends (in particular in my favourite form of storytelling, the novel), but for the sake of the reader and the world's trees it has to be relatively succinct. Art and the a reader's enjoyment demands that it has shape, too.

So at any one point, as a writer, you are writing the narrative you think should be told, carving your way through a morass of ideas, picking scenes and dropping others, and choosing one narrative over a multitude of others. And at the stage I'm at, there is a nagging sense that you could be (maybe should be) writing another version of this story.

Word count this week: 8,175 Second draft: 54,100 First draft: 128,661

Week 93

Major wobble at the start of the week. By Monday lunchtime I had decided to bin the whole 35,000 words I'd written thus far as it was all rubbish, and I'd scribbled a back-of-the-fag-packet version I should have been pursuing instead. 93

Confidence in my writing expands and disintegrates with the regular irregularity of a uterine wall. Is it the moon? Is it my mood at the time? Is it booze? Is it the actual quality of what I am writing? Nothing seems to correlate.

Current complaints: it's a patchwork, a bodge-job, too complex, not so much a "ferment of ideas" as a muddle. It's obvious, too.

The latter is an interesting one: I have been writing this book, in one form or another, for almost two years. Everything about it seems obvious: the setting, certain turns of phrase that have stayed with me through the drafts, certain scenes or character responses feel right, and then the thought occurs, do they feel 'right' because I've heard them used before? Are they cliched? And after so much thinking and planning, either in the forefront of my mind, or at the back of it, a dull throb, it feels as if I am writing out a story that is finished, albeit in my head. The very act of writing it has become telling something I've 'heard' before.

The writing itself feels obvious, too. When I look back at it, they are not words over which I can cast my eyes objectively. They are words that I wrote, just now, or yesterday, or last week, so recently that I remember what I had just eaten, where I was sitting and that I thought they were good, or bad, or needed filling out, or whatever. The context is galling, distracting. I am too much in the words. I suppose this is why people say you must put work to one side for a few months before reading it back and starting the edit.

What's more, certain words stick to others. It is a constant battle to avoid using the obvious ones, but what is language if not a common currency?Curiosity is either sheer, morbid or naked. It isn't dark, or full-figured. Tears brim, prick and start but they shouldn't flood or ooze, unless there's something medically wrong. And eyes don't rock from side to side, they roll.

Who knows what cliches await me when I reread this draft. I pushed on this week, despite wanting to throw the whole lot in a bin.

A couple of steps away from my computer and a few well-placed calls made me think it wasn't completely unsalvageable, then I read this post about the so-called '30,000-word doldrums' (I was at that point, approximately), and by Tuesday I was back to the grindstone, doing whatever it is people do to grindstones, which apparently involves putting their noses to it, which I can't imagine because I'm not entirely sure what a 'grindstone' is anyway.

Okay, I looked it up. It's one of these. Let's carry on shall we.

Word count this week: 12,016 Second draft: 45,925 First draft: 128,661

Week 92

92 I may not be doing NaNoWriMo, but I still have a word count aim: 1,000 a day. Sometimes I hit it no problem, sometimes I really struggle, and sometimes I cut more than I write and don't quite manage it. I don't want to make the mistake of chasing words rather than a story - some days I find myself checking my word count every few words - so I don't take it too seriously, but, like NaNoWriMo, it's a useful prop and motivator.

And this week I finished Part One, the first of three! Woohoo! A couple of days off target, as it's too long, but there are some scenes I think would do better later in the book, so I won't have to cut, just delay them.

While planning I split the book into three parts. I'm not sure if they will remain, but they helped me to plan key points in the narrative, not to mention how splitting up a 100,000-word document into three makes things feel, you know, manageable and a little less daunting. Chances are when this draft is done, I can remove the Parts structure like Jenga pieces (and hope the whole thing doesn't fall down).

This draft is... not perfect. It needs straightening out, cutting back and reordering, but, unlike the first draft, I feel the components are there. They need to be expanded on and explained, they need improving and rewriting, but they are there.

Word count this week: 7,008 Second draft: 33,909 First draft: 128,661

Week 91

This week has been a lesson in killing babies. Not literally of course (aHAHAHAHAHA), but in this sense:

In writing, you must kill all your darlings.

- William Faulkner (though some say it was Mark Twain - make your mind up, some!)

Or, as Stephen King puts it:

kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings

The idea is that if there's a part of your writing that you're attached to and the idea of editing it is hard... cut it loose. It is likely in the way somehow.

Lancs Cycleway 91

My first draft is a rag bag of ideas, but, it turns out, some of them aren't half-bad. Not always an entire paragraph, not always an entire sentence even, but sometimes there's something I look back on that's not part of the plan for the secodn draft but too good to ignore.

So copy, paste: and voila. An agonising day of trying to force it into my narrative.

After doing this a couple of times I realised I have to cut my first draft loose. I'll look back on it, but not just yet; first I need to get this draft coherently written and in one piece. Then the transplants can begin.

Word count this week: 9,823 Second draft: 26,901 First draft: 128,661

Week 90

90! Another week, another theory. This one's is monomyth, or the Hero's Journey. I did this one just for though - having planned so much before starting this draft, it's useful every now and then running through a pattern in your head and seeing how your story compares.

Writing and planning - the constant battle. Too much of the latter and my story starts to wilt, and too much of the former and it can go off on one too many tangents and literally lose the plot. I've got quite a good compromise going at the moment, where I write for a while, and return to my scene tracker when I feel I'm heading in the wrong direction.

There's a lot of criticism of universal systems like the monomyth, and I'm not sure it would have been much help when I was working out my story. But as a comparison tool it is useful: it's gives you confidence to know your story has echoes in a mythic structure, and it gives you ideas and new angles for how certain scenes relate.

Getting there; I'm about halfway through the first part. Or "Refusal of the Call" ;)

Word count this week: 6,986 Second draft: 17,078 First draft: 128,661

Week 89

This week is a bit short, on account of posting late last week. For the sake of consistent and comparable weeks, I'll try to post every Sunday from now on. As I thought, writing the new stuff is considerably easier than rewriting old material and fitting it into the new draft - I wrote the first two chapters in a way I liked. The situation and characters are so changed that it seemed like starting over. Which is fine, but the temptatation to start over is always strong - introductions and build-ups are fun to write, it's the bit in the middle that gets tricky.

89

Third chapter - which I knew last week would be hard - was just that. I've still not cracked it. The voice isn't quite there, and the narrative falls apart a bit.

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day this week (so far only the second book of his I've read, and oh my God, I am in awe) reminded me again that flashbacks, memories - whatever you want to call them - ought to be prompted by character, not similar-sort-of-things happening in present-day life. That's made me rethink some of my plot and focus again on my main character.

It also made me think about narrative and first-person narrators. It's not the first time. Those two books I've read of his (Never Let Me Go being the other one) are both written in the first person, as mine is, and it struck me that that old maxim "show, don't tell" doesn't quite work with first-person narratives. Everything is in effect, "told".

I often realise that I have written a scene that works, or feels like it does when you're close up and writing, but doesn't make sense if someone involved is describing it. They are woken from a daydream, say, or they go back and forth in time, remembering things that have happened that have a bearing on what is at hand.

Whereas in third-person narratives like Hilary Mantel's - infamously so, given criticism of her exclusive use of the personal pronoun "he" - or Woolf's experiments with consciousness, these flashes of memory can be associative, immediate, like the flicking of a switch.

First person - and Ishiguro's butler narrator in Remains of the Day, full of cavils and self-abnegating pomposity, is an extreme case of this, admittedly - requires narration at all times. Describing a scene too faithfully should be avoided - the reader should always be able to hear the narrator's voice: "why am I telling you all this?" they might say "Well, let me explain..."

The way the narrative is ordered takes on another significance - what is being let on and when indicates character development as well as story. Of course all this is managed by a third-person narrator in other books, but they have more of a free wheel to express things there. Their principle motive (if they are objective) is to tell the story as it happened. Or, in Woolf's case, as it occurred to a character in terms of thought and experience.

My point is, I still wonder if first-person isn't right for me. It makes things like this *really hard*, especially as my story is already fragmented into at least two different narratives, past and present, real and not-real. I'm plagued by the thought that perhaps I should revert to third-person narrative. I could maintain the claustrophobic and partial perspective of my main character (which was my main reason for preferring first person), but write in terms of she not I, just as a writer such as Anita Brookner so beautifully does.

Sigh. You'd have thought I'd have got this sorted by now, wouldn't you.

Word count this week: 4,782 Second draft: 10,092 First draft: 128,661

Week 88

There are days when I think I've cracked it, and inevitably those are the days I take to this blog and write posts glowing with hope and expectation. But there are also days when it just doesn't come, I start questioning every aspect of my book, and I don't feel up to the task. I reopen up the story, the plot I've so carefully worked out, and move the elements about, until they seem arbitrary, stuck there for the sake of it, and the whole enterprise seems a waste of time. 88

My second draft is really a whole new draft. The first draft wasn't really a cohesive whole, and the story has changed a lot, so with this one I wanted to plan it better, and write it from scratch. It's not totally from scratch of course - that first draft wasn't for nothing - and some bits are worth saving and sprucing up. But the task in front of me this week was to start another 90,000+ document from the beginning.

I made some head way. The first chapter is all new, and that's easier. I've been itching to write it for a while, ever since having the idea for the opening situation a month or so ago. The third is different - it's a crucial chapter, using material from the first draft, referencing past events for the first time and introducing the real conflict at work properly. The voice has to be right. The character has to be right. And I need to know exactly what's happening.

Bringing in the old stuff is hard, however. It is a feat of memory reading through my old draft, as some of it was written a year and half ago, and those early ideas are sometimes - some times - stronger than I remembered. That sounds like it should be good. It is. But it makes me want to keep them, and prise apart my current plan for the second draft to make room.

I've been thinking about memory a lot this week. My book relies on a present-day narrative, and a past one. I'm uncomfortable with the word "flashback", as that implies hackneyed techniques (think Wayne and Garth in Wayne's World), so I really liked what Hilary Mantel had to say about memory in this interview with the New Statesman:

She gets frustrated by how novelists represent memory. A character walks down the street, for no reason starts to think about how he met his wife and 50 pages of laboured flashback later you drift back to the present. It doesn’t work like that. To Mantel, it’s all about Proust and the madeleine – something sensory will trigger a glimpse of the past, and then it will pass. “Memory isn’t a theme,” she says, “it’s part of the human condition.”

She's right, and she describes the goings on in someone's head so beautifully - the glimpses of the past shifting imperceptibly in and out of their thoughts - in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. It's something I'm trying to emulate.

Word count this week: 5,310 Second draft: 5,310 First draft: 128,661

Week 87

Bit late this week, as I've had a few things to sort out. Specifically, moving to Greece for a few months. Turns out living in London for the next three months costs the same as flying to Athens, getting a coach to a remote part of Greece and renting a villa. So that's what I did. This was my view today:

View of the Messinian Gulf in Greece

I did it partly to avoid the distractions in London (biscuits, work, the internet), partly to stop indecision (can I come to drinks on Sunday? No, I'm in Greece.) and partly because of something I read in The Plot Whisperer:

Each time you write, you separate from your comfort zone, face ordeals, learn from them, and move forward.

Ye-esh.

I took that as meaning you need to confront your worst fears about writing. And mine is writing, which is a fairly big part of writing, actually putting pen to paper, getting what's in my head down on a page, finishing this book, or at least, starting a draft so it can be finished.

While it's in my head, or on my wall, it's perfect. The risk is that what ends up on paper will be in no way near as good. So I string it out instead, holding off the inevitable. Draft two might take as long as draft one, and draft three...

Normally at the formation of particularly drab sentence, or the thought of how many more such sentences lie ahead, I'd duck to my books for inspiration, go through my notes, or trot to the shop for a Twix, and get waylaid by some other thought, promise myself tomorrow would be better, and that was it. Gone. Contextualised. Leaving it all behind might force me to focus. That's the hope, anyway.

...and the decision was made totally worth it for my friend Cathy's response on Facebook:

Oh my god you are Geoff Dyer.

So far I've written a first draft of my novel, and gone back over it, unpicking it and putting it back together in a different order and with different emphases as a result.

It's now or never for the redraft. I'm writing it, start to finish, over the next three months. I hope by Christmas to have a full second draft I'm not entirely happy with, but one, unlike the first, where really I was just learning the ropes, I can start giving to people for some feedback. Otherwise known as, let's not get to Week 100 without a thing that looks even slightly like a book, yeah?

Wish me luck. I'll need it; turns out Greece has both biscuits (Caprices, no less) and, strapped to the side of my whitewashed villa and pointing its stiff little aerial up to the azure sky, the internet.

Word count this week: 0 Second draft: 0 First draft: 128,661