Weeks 81-82

I've been thinking about pace this week. Of all the elements of story, it has to be the one I had least interest in, the chapter I was most likely to scan or speed-read in any books about novel writing. Surely pace is built-in to every sentence, a stylistic tic I have no control over? "81"

After the story started to come together last week, I've been continuing working on it in outline. That means lining up scenes in a spreadsheet, building them up, entwining them with others and creating rough chapters. The order changes too, as I shuffle events so that they build up to a crescendo or unravel.

This narrative momentum is hardest to plan, but the more I think about structure, the more pace becomes important. It requires a simultaneous look forwards and backwards - where the story's going and where it's been - and a focus on locking each scene into the story.

Too often a preoccupation with pace is equated with a novel being fast-paced. I've come to realise that it is not just the province of crime or thriller novels, but every novel, even those of my favourite authors. I've always admired the leisurely pace of Henry James' novels, and the way they almost always crack three quarters of the way through, and it's only then you realise how much was weighing them down.

In his brilliant book On Writing, Stephen King has an unsurprisingly sharp insight into the art of pacing:

"The leisurely luxury-liner experience of a long, absorbing novel like The Far Pavilions or A Suitable Boy has been on of the form’s chief attractions since the first examples—endless, multipart epistolary tales like Clarissa. I believe each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, and that pace is not always double time. Nevertheless, you need to beware—if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive.”

That pacing, whether fast or slow, is core to the novel form comforts me. All this focus on plotting had me nervous. Something about it felt inauthentic, as if working out the perfect turning point of the a story, or the scene in which everything came together and formed a kind of resolution was somehow too commercial. Too easy.

Ker-bloom! #82 cover

In fact the exercise has helped firm up my story: some previously key scenes have lost significance, whereas new ones have come to mind and taken over. It feels like they are finally slotting into place; that, as well as being scenes of interest in and of themselves, they lead the story on to its conclusion, the one I've had in mind from the very beginning.

I stopped short of the end of my first draft, as I did not feel I had earned it. The nib of my pen scratched drily at the paper, filling lines with aimless sentences. There was no feeling of momentum. Scenes that diverted from the story carried as much weight as those that developed it. The ending approached, and the only way I could make the one I wanted was through some pretty lengthy exposition.

Now, after weeks of reworking the story, I've hammered out a narrative arc that I think works. Not only that, but the story has changed so much it is not worth finishing the final 10,000 words of the first draft.

I'm wary of eureka moments however, as I think I've had a enough of those in the past 80 weeks to know I might not be there yet. But this week I realised how a significant scene wasn't working, and how it must be altered drastically, so that everything else clicks into place.

The new outline has me excited - it brings a new dimension to my main character, a reason for the two narrative strands, a clear viewpoint, and space for other characters and subplots.

Now for the detail.

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

Week 45

How long should a first novel be? I realise being almost 80,000 words into writing one probably isn't the best time to ask that. I started out thinking 100,000 would be a good length for my first draft, taking Stephen King's dictum that:

2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%

...but I'm rapidly approaching that and nowhere near to wrapping things up. I'm only just getting things going, and I've already written 203 pages according to Scrivener. At this rate I'm facing a book of War and Peace proportions, and as a first-time writer that's never going to fly.

A friend told me this week that 40-60,000 was a good length for a first novel. 40-60? I thought that was a novella.

My first draft is a sprawling mass of notes, with nothing that looks even remotely like chapters, let alone a neat structure. I start new documents for every new idea, tucking ones in earlier that fit nearer the start, and scribbling notes for ideas that come later. Every time I think I'm going to nail a scene, it runs away with me, and I;ve bulked it up by a few hundred words and not got any further with the story.

I can't wait to get to the rewrite and start tidying it up. I think my equation will be more like "second draft = first draft - 40%". It's way too long, and the first draft is a hard slog, not made any easier by the knowledge that I will cut a lot of everything I write. Sometimes I know as soon as I finish a sentence that it'll go. But sometimes it leads to another thought, and another, that I like and I'm proud of, and stumbling my way through new sentences suddenly seems worth it.

Here's to the next 80,000!

Word count this week: 5,200 Total word count: 88,751 First draft: 78,735

Week 25

(Late this week too! I'll get back to my schedule of publishing these on Sundays next week, promise.) I envy other people's way with words: their brevity, economy, or perfectly pitched descriptions. This is why I love reading so much. In a few words some writers manage to describe an often-felt but barely expressed sensation, and I have to stop to let it sink in. Something about their writing has made me want to reread it, savour it, gnash my teeth with envy and wonder how I'll ever be able to say anything that well.

So far I haven't. When people ask me about the progress of my book, I say it's getting longer but not any better. It's not what I want it to be. It is patchy and full of notes to myself ("expand", "another childhood memory here", "make this better!"), and through writing it I'm finding my way a bit. It won't be until at least the second draft that it's even legible, let alone any good.

I've taken some solace from a few things I've read this week, however. Jane Wenham-Jones admits that her first draft is often way short, and full of notes. So far the only writer I'd read who'd gone into that level of detail was Stephen King, who is sickeningly prolific and has a rule: the second draft = first draft - 10%. It was therefore heartwarming to read someone else who comes up short at this stage.

I also read that DH Lawrence said that he wrote his entire first draft, threw it away and then started again from scratch (I can't find where he said that, but I'm going to hope ferociously it's true). The first draft is almost a training ground for me.

I have in my head a vivid sense of the whole of my book - what I want it to be about, the story I want to tell. I have practical goals too: I want to write x,000 words a week, have a first draft done by Christmas.

The trouble is, none of that helps with the daily chipping away at a story, knocking at an idea until it reveals itself fully formed. My ideas may be vivid, but they are not clear. When I actually sit down to write it, my attempt at expression of all these wonderful themes and stories ends in a few abrupt words or a lumpen paragraph.

This week I wrote a scene that ended after a few paragraphs, when I ran out of ideas. None of the delicacy of thought I had in mind was possible in such a short passage, and I was disappointed, but determined not to garnish the story unnecessarily (every sentence should either "add to the plot, or reveal character", is the common advice).

Besides, I had no time to elaborate, as I was getting it down. I wasn't even sure I was able to get down what was in my head, the mass of thoughts and ideas, into anything as coherent as a story.

A few weeks ago I realised there was nothing coherent about the story in novels - they are messy things - but where did that leave me? I fretted about my structure. I got bored at the scene I was in, and wanted to jump to others. More than anything I felt anxious about moving on, getting to the next bit. At this rate the first draft of my novel would be about 50,000 words (the average is 100,000).

Then I saw the brilliant Hugh Garry give a talk at the BBC, in which he talked about the limitations required for creativity. Sometimes, he said, the best ideas come from the worst of circumstances, pointing at one of Kurt Vonnegut's story charts, where it suddenly flatlines towards the end of Cinderella:

The trajectory of a fairy tale is relatively simple: a red line surging forward like one of those bikes in Tron. Come to think of it, there's something fairy tale-ish about Vonnegut's books. His characters are unable to change anything, are powerless in the face of the world (is this true of sci-fi in general? I haven't read enough to know). The moral of Cinderella and Cat's Cradle is the same: so it goes.

At the same time, I'm reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith, who is one of those writers who makes me throw my book down with jealousy. Reading it made me realise the careful and deliberate way Smith reveals character and conflict, and all those storytelling buzz words. They are present in every sentence she writes. One scene was so fraught it had me bracing my shoulders, as if the tension were above my head, weighing it down.

It made me think my story should look a bit more like this:

Conflict is not the progression of a line; every scene should bristle with it.

Particularly for me, it meant characters shouldn't spend long on their own. Not enough happens that way. They shouldn't buy coffees and think about things in cafes (one of my godawful early attempts). They should bump into each other, have words, not say what they mean.

Interiority for interioity's sake is boring - it should be used as a brief respite, an interlude that casts more light on character, a pause between scenes in which the conflict (story) unfolds, not in a straight line, but like a flower. (Or a big ugly red cross, if you've only got Microsoft Paint on your shitty Dell.)

And most important: as a reader, I am not aware of the overarching story. Perhaps, as I often do, when I finish the book I'll think about all that, go over the structure in my head, break it into turning points and crises and climaxes. But at any one point in a book, I am in the moment, in that particular scene, reading as a very real problem or insight unfurls.

So I took the few paragraphs my first attempt at my current scene had produced, and unfurled each one, like tightly rolled cigarettes. A scene of three paragraphs became 26, but the action remained the same, I just followed the densely packed ideas a little more thoroughly, and a little more leisurely.

I'm getting better at writing in the scene, to coin a poncey phrase. Not worrying what comes next, but thinking about the situation, what's going through the mind of each of my characters, how would they react? It'll need editing, but that's for draft two.

Word count this week: 2,375 Total word count: 44,343 First draft: 26,879

Week 17

Finally finished a scene that's been dragging for a week or two now. Okay, not dragging, but I started it with not much idea of where it would go, and things developed to such an extent that I had to go back and add to previous bits. It was flat and boring too, and didn't suit the conflict that emerged during it, so needed rewriting.

Sissy Spacek as Carrie

I learned from Carrie that it's not what happens that's important, it's how you tell it. Not much happens in the book that isn't almost completely pre-figured in the first pages, and yet King comes at events slowly and from one angle after another, until the inevitable is terrible to read. That comes naturally to suspense writers, but it's something I have to work at.

I normally try not to edit as I write, as this is my first draft and I just want to get it down, in the knowledge that soon, at some horrible point in the future, I'm going to have to read it with a red pen in my hand and edit, edit, edit. But the chapter quickly developed a shape I hadn't anticipated, and I had to make notes and write a few extra paragraphs at the beginning to make sense of what happens later on.

Sounds haphazard? It is. You think you're going to write one thing, and it changes altogether as you write. Forcing yourself to give up on an earlier plan and close the scene is a discipline of itself.

The strange character who appeared in Week 10 appears to be sticking around, and has a name. On the whole I'm not giving character names too much thought (the one I have for my main character might not even stay the course), but it was almost like this one appeared, held out his hand and introduced himself. Daniel.*

So now I have a story that's getting away from me. I'm going on holiday on Thursday, and part of me doesn't want to go, I'm so absorbed by writing this down and seeing where it goes.

It's unlikely I'll be able to write as continuously as I've managed in the last few weeks. I hope to write a couple of short story ideas as well as continue thinking about my novel, and I'll be updating this blog as much as I can in the three weeks I'm away.

* I know at least four Dans or Daniels. If you're one of them, don't worry - there's no connection as far as I can tell!

Word count this week: 3,420 Running total: 34,891 First draft: 19,523

Week 16

Bit late this week, as I spent the weekend visiting family in Munich. Leberkas'

The time off got me thinking about my progress with this novel. At the start of the year I aimed to have a first draft done by the end of the year, and I think that's still possible.

A few people have asked me about reading it, and, to be honest, the idea fills me with horror. I'm not happy with much that I've written so far. There are some good ideas in there, the odd nice turn of phrase, but on the whole it's a fraction of what I want it to be. My approach so far has been to plough on, get a first draft done and have something to work with, hopefully improve upon.

Others have suggested I rewrite as I go, or at least the first few chapters, so that they're in a state I'm happy with and can hand out to a few early readers. Doing that might tell me if I'm on the right track, and motivate me to get it finished.

The trouble is, who should I hand it to? Am I risking them telling me I'm not on the right track? I'm not sure that would keep me going, especially after the three-week break from writing that’s coming up when I go on holiday next week.

Stephen King has this thing he calls the "Ideal Reader":

"He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating ideas of the first draft, when the door is closed."

For him it's his wife, Tabby. He writes with her in mind, tries to make her laugh and raise her suspense, and she is a stern critic of his first drafts. I thought I'd try it to help with the pace of my story, but I don't have a wife. I don't know who my first readers will be.

So I wonder, do other people write with an Ideal Reader in mind? Who are they? Are they real or imaginary? Perhaps you do. If so, does it help you keep on track? When's a good time to get others to read it?

Word count this week: 1,041 Running total: 31,471 First draft: 16,103

Week 15

I've got a couple of holidays coming up, and was getting a bit anxious about whether I'd write enough before I go. I know, right? Nightmare. South London blue skies

At the moment I set at least one day aside every weekend, and go to the local library, which has two benefits: 1) it is beyond the range of my flat's wifi, and 2) if I ever run out of ideas for characters, I just have to look around the computer room of Dulwich Library.

Trouble is, stretches of a week between writing doesn't work. I get antsy after a day of not writing, and lose confidence in my story. My attempts at working in the evenings after work weren't going well either.

A few people suggested I try working in the mornings. So for the past week my alarm has gone off at 6am (note, this is not the same thing as me getting up), and I've worked at least an hour every morning before work. It has some extra benefits too: I drink my morning coffee at home now, instead of buying one in town, and I leave the flat earlier and on a bit of a high that I've already done something significant with my time. The rest is just a bonus. I dare say anyone who sees me walking through the park at that time sees someone insufferably smug.

Writing every day makes a big difference. I still think about it every day, but I get back to it before all those ideas drop out of my head, and I feel like I'm constantly in the middle of telling a story. That's something that Stephen King convinced me was imperative (especially on the first draft). "Get it down," he says.

I've written way more than my usual amount this week, and feel the story has a flex to it, isn't so bitty. I have to drag myself out of bed every day, but my writing warms up quicker, and I don't have to remind myself where I was in the story.

One day I wondered if I could bang out the story and how it unfolds in a page or two, it's changed so much since I last wrote a synopsis; so I did, I could, and I returned the next day to telling it.

I felt so much more confident that on Sunday I decided to write up a short story I've had knocking about my head too.

Some boring admin: I turned my several individual chapters (chapter_one.doc, chapter_two.doc, etc) into one big document called ALL. Dull, I know, but it's stuff like that I always want to know when writers talk about how they write: what's on their computer? What are they looking at? A Word doc, what? How do they start?

It's a small change, but I think it'll help me to feel like I'm writing one long, continuous story. Which I am. Previously I started every new chapter thinking I had to squeeze x scenes into it, and hit about 3,000 words, and found myself filling up space for the sake of it. Now I've got one long document, and I type a few dashes like this ------- when I think there might be a break or a new chapter.

This post is probably the most boring yet: my alarm clock, my new coffee routine, the naming convention I use for documents. Sorry.

I'm going to Munich next weekend so will do my best to do something exciting. I hear it's Asparagus Season over there.

Word count this week: 4,514 Running total: 30,430 First draft: 15,062

Stephen King on writing groups

"The pressure to explain is always on, and a lot of your creative energy, it seems to me, is therefore going in the wrong direction. You find yourself constantly questioning your prose and your purpose when what you should probably be doing is writing as fast as the Gingerbread Man runs, getting that first draft down on paper while the shape of the fossil is still bright and clear in your mind."

- On Writing, p.281

Week 14

I’m reading Stephen King's On Writing, which I'd been told was a good take on writing as a craft by a seasoned practitioner. I've never read any of King's novels (though I've seen a few of the films), and took a snobbish view that a purveyor of horror fiction wouldn't have much to offer me in the way of advice. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery

The book, however, has given me a new admiration for him and his funny, straightforward style, and makes me want to seek a few of his books out, especially Carrie and Misery, the germ and cultivation of which he describes really well.

His approach is direct and no-nonsense. There are great, thought-provoking rules - only ever use "said" in dialogue attribution, never use adverbs - and an unswerving dedication to character and story.

He's also one of the "don't plan, just write" school of thought, which usually makes my heart sink, but he described it in a way that was a little less obscure.

Rather than start cold, he focuses on a situation first (something I've heard Graham Linehan say as well), then works out a backstory, and starts writing. A situation could be a scene, or conflict, or just plain weird circumstances, something that starts with the phrase "what if".

He admits to having an idea of where he's going, but nothing's set in stone. "Please remember," he says at one point, "that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honourable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest."

I like that phrase 'shifty'. Plot shifts while character develops; it should always come second. I also like this distinction between story and plot, as it makes me a bit more comfortable when I struggle with an issue that's likely to come far later in my story. I have an idea of the points I’d like to hit, as my friend Tom put it in a comment last week, but not an unwavering list of scenes.

King is surprisingly spiritual when it comes to the notion of inspiration too, talking of muses ("the boys in the basement") and an external force that pushes his pen along. I suppose it's shouldn't be surprising that a writer so concerned with the supernatural and inexplicable side of life should think like this. "...If you do your job," he insists, "your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own". Spooky.

I've read it before, and even studied it as a theory, this idea that fiction isn't directed by one single imagination, doesn't have one single meaning.

I'd heard writers talking about their characters as independent from them, as if they didn't invent everything they did, type every sentence and piece of dialogue. They're suggesting their characters live somewhere beyond the story, that it's the characters who control the story, not them. I always thought they were being cute, or pretending to be modest.

Without getting too carried away, it's only by writing long-form over the course of a few months that I've come to understand what writers mean when they say stuff like that. Things come out as you write and you have no idea where they come from. Sometimes they're perfect, like you must have been thinking about them all the time. Sometimes they're a bit far out, and only make sense later. Sometimes they're no good, but give you another idea.

This is fun.

Word count this week: 2,070 Running total: 25,916 First draft: 12,158