Week 67

67I'm taking a break from the novel to redraft and polish a short story I've written. This is the first time I've tested the process I've been using for my novel: namely, writing a first draft long-hand and as fast as I can (she says, ahem, in week 67), before typing it up and redrafting on a computer.

Half of my novel is already typed, but after about 80,000 words I decided to jump ship and try writing with a pen and paper to avoid the note form, constant revisions and thoughts about structure I felt were being encouraged by my writing software. Much as I have heard the "zoom" function is not great for designers, I wonder if the "zoom out" function isn't useful at the first draft stage, when all you need to do is get it down. Don't worry about what happened then, which word to use or what that character was called in the earlier chapter, just get it down.

So, the short story I wrote long-hand and estimated was about 5,200 words long is actually 7,304.

(Which makes me wonder about the 40-odd thousand words I think I've added to my novel since writing long-hand. It's already way too long - almost 130,000 in total - could it be in reality more like 150,000? And I've still got a couple of chapters to go...)

I tried to type it up without thinking, but in the course of doing so had to open another file called "outline", to record the scenes and ideas I liked. The temptation to leave the passages I didn't like on the page was strong, but I forced myself to type them up nevertheless. I twiddled with a few sentences here and there, and wrote up ideas as they came to me.

In short, it was ore than an exercise in transcription. The redraft started almost as soon as I started typing, with the story changing shape as a result. This is a good trial run for when I come to do the same for my novel.

Cutting it down won't be hard - there's barely a third of it that I actually like - but that leaves a lot more rewriting than I anticipated in the second draft. I've heard the phrase "writing is rewriting" enough times, but it didn't occur to me how much that was writing from scratch, not honing and editing with a red pen.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 127,812 Short story: 7,304

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

To hell with suspense

The Atlantic quotes Kurt Vonnegut's 8 tips on how to write a good short story this month. Rules 5 and 8 struck a chord with me:

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

and

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Read them in full here.