Weeks 78

SYN-OP-SIS. Synopsis. "General view" or "to see all at once". Greek, innit.77 78 There are loads of good blog posts about writing a novel synopsis: when to write it (before you've even started, or only when you're finished), how to write it (third person, present tense, keep it short) and why to write it (to bring your story to life and sell your book, mainly). This is not those posts. I do not give advice. I am in no position to write advice. This is the first time I've tried to write a novel, and all signs suggest I am doing it very badly.

So, don't expect any pointers here. I'm more interested in how a synopsis can help focus a story while you're writing it. And by "interested", I mean very keen that that's the case and I haven't just wasted a year and a half of my life.

How do you write a synopsis when you're not even sure what your story's about?

And how do you write a story when you haven't got a synopsis? "Just start writing". Sure - thanks. That's got to be up there with "cheer up - there's plenty more fish in the sea" and "have you tried drinking upside down?" for useless advice. I've tried just writing. And guess what? I've written. Words. Pages. Loads of them. But do any of them constitute a story? Does a story even = a novel?

Okay, let's not go there. Yet. This vagueness showed when someone asked me about my book, however. "What's it about?" I can answer that. "What happens?" Trickier.

A synopsis helps because it demands that you explain only WHAT happens, not WHY it happens, and refocuses you on the story at hand. It's an evolving document - in 79 weeks, I've written about five, and rejigged my story board as a consequence more than three times - that can sometimes raw your attention more than your actual manuscript (so much so that I've had to abandon my computer and write in longhand, to avoid the habitual drag and drop of chapter summaries).

At regular intervals I've thought my story was up to scratch, and even had a few eureka moments. Different phases brought a focus on different aspects of the novel, from character to perspective and all-out plot.

But there was always this nagging feeling that the story didn't hang together, and, I like to think it was this, rather than a last-minute attack of nerves and vertigo when I found myself 10,000 words from the end, that made me grind to a halt. I hadn't earned the ending I wanted to happen.

What ending had I earned? That would involve reading back what I've written, and I'm not strong enough for that (it's 08.52 in the morning - not late enough for the three strong whiskies I'd need to down before I could do that).

Having earlier worked out my central goal and the consequence if it's not reached, I devolved this pair into smaller units to work out a list of scenes. So if the story goal is that a character must get married*, then the events that need to happen are parties, visits to bars, dates, etc etc - you get the point. And if the consequence of not getting married is dying alone and afraid and unloved, then there need to be some credible intimations of that: the death of relatives, being snubbed, laughed at or jilted at the altar etc etc.

Binary opposites such as these helped me keep up the "suspense" - would she reach her goal? - and gave me lots of ideas for things that could happen. I wrote these longhand, and ended up with a synopsis of over 6,000 words, sprawling and varied, each chapter summary varying from a single line ("present day event here?") to paragraphs of description and dialogue.

* NB: Example only. The central goal of my story is NOT getting married. OR IS SHE.

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

Week 74, 75

I've got to admit I love that the weather is shit. It means that every day I'm cooped up with only my thoughts and a notepad for company, I can rest assured that you lot are indoors too. 74

Been plotting for the past two weeks, so no further with word count, but I've got a better structured plot, and a load of actually viable scenes that don't leave me so stumped and uninspired I start to wonder how to get a character from one side of the road to another (this happened - I seem to experience a weird response to a lack of plot where, rather than making leaps, my imagination breaks every action down into minute detail).


All because of the simple question, "what happens if they don't get it?".

At this rate, I'll have a scrappy, overlong first draft, and a good plan for the second by August.

Two articles grabbed my attention this week: this, on writing every day. "A true writer writes every day". "Find time for yourself, even if it's ten minutes, and write." Yeah well, sod that. This post calls those sort of platitudes out, and I love it:

To write every damn day means that we never fall ill, or have an impromptu date night, or sleep in, or have kids or family need our attention. To write every day, the rest of life must take a back seat, no matter how full and interesting it becomes.

Day 75, 365

Preach it, sister. (Small voice: though I suspect writers are not meant to have lives.)


The other article was this one about plot without conflict. I'm not sure I agree with the argument (the interpretation of "conflict" is too literal and a little too easily applied to this thing "the West"), but the concept of kishōtenketsu is an interesting one. The prefernce of a "twist" over "conflict" reminded me of how Film Crit Hulk describes story development.

I wonder how it works in narratives longer than a four-panel cartoon. Comic fans, can you shed any light?

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

Week 73

DPP_1303 I've had a sneaking suspicion the whole time I've been writing this draft that my plot wasn't sufficient. That my story, like this bus, wasn't going anywhere.

That's right. Almost 130,000 words into the first draft, just 20,000-odd off the end, over 73 weeks in, I'm still not sure where it's going.

I thought I knew what would happen in the final few chapters of my book (it was about all I knew when I started), but now I have that niggling feeling that your characters have to earn their ending. Have they?

Character - that mantra of storytelling bibles and how-to books - was safer ground. It wasn't easy, but the kind of books I read were steeped in character, and I felt more at home when I was writing dialogue or the sort of detail that gives the reader a sudden insight into the sort of person a character is, or their real feelings. The way they claim something, then flick their hair. The things they notice. Their mannerisms.

I'm not really fussed what colour their hair is or what jacket they're wearing.

Most writing guides recommend character charts, long, detailed descriptions of every character, from birth (or earlier - their parents and ancestors, maybe) to the end of the book, beyond even. These guides do not anticipate that you shall use the fact that they have stamps from Thailand and New York in their passport, or that they are registered with a GP surgery in Islington. Recording these minutiae is meant as an exercise in getting to know your characters. Authors should know everything about their characters, even if only a fraction of that is included or hinted at in the narrative they are composing.

Well, yeah. Sounds admirable.

I got very bored writing character charts. Sometimes ideas for plot came up while I was scratching away about their shoe size, but more often or not, the outcome was narrative noodling of the worst kind, paragraphs of thoughts and sensations and dimly felt emotions. Yawn.

It occurred to me that this kind of narrative onanism is exactly what some of my favourite writers - Henry James, Virginia Woolf - are accused of. Not very much happens in their novels, it's true. But the reason I enjoy them so much is that I suspect, rather than character plans, James and Woolf had plot plans hidden away, where a myriad of possible events were scribbled down, or hidden, or written then elided, to manage the effect of development without plot that they and other writers like them seem to achieve so effortlessly. It's not character development on its own - that's the mistake I'm making - but the knowledge of the different turns in the road Mrs Dalloway could have taken, or the sudden realisation James' characters undergo when they see they have been naive, deceived. They are alternative plots.

I've felt uncomfortable that I haven't developed plot sufficiently, and found it difficult when I've tried to lift my story from its origins of personal experience (again: yawn) into something tangible, propelled by hope and foreboding.

I've tried the snowflake method, writing up "goals", working out the "acts" of my story, attempting short synopses to get at the heart of my story, all the while circling that most difficult of things, and the element of storytelling character-fans and non-genre readers like me get most squeamish about: plot.

I have a card pinned to the wall in front of me with a list of five questions on it, which I ask myself at the start of every new scene (which won't be any surprise to anyone who's read Story by Robert McKee):

  1. What's the lead character's goal
  2. Why?
  3. Who or what stands in their way?
  4. What strengths will help them achieve it?
  5. What weaknesses will hinder them?

Nice, but they didn't help me develop a plot. When I got to the stage of working out chapters, each one contained notes about hazy concepts like scenes (a word more suited to screenplays than novels), or the effects I wanted to achieve (she has reached a turning point, for instance), rather than things that actually happen to develop and frustrate the plot.

Or then there's the three dramatic elements every scene needs according to David Mamet:

  1. Who wants want?
  2. What happens if they don't get it?
  3. Why now?

This is better. This is getting somewhere. The second question in particular was one I hadn't asked myself: what's the peril in this story? Why should I keep reading? What could happen?

So I was surprised when sitting down to write this week for the first time in a while, and googling "plot outlines" and "how writers plot their novels" for some inspiration (hey, it takes me a while to settle down, okay? I can only go offline in stages, babysteps), to find one of the first results was actually quite useful.

Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps (yes, I know) is the first guide I've come across that suggests thinking about things in terms of plot.

First: the goal. Not character goal; story goal. More often than not it's the same as your man protagonist's goal, but it's also a goal that affects your other characters as well.

The flip to the goal is consequence, ie what happens if the goal is not achieved, or what your protagonist is afraid of. It's still thinking from the point of view of character, but in terms of outcomes and events.

The following six elements work in pairs just as the goal/consequence do, from requirements (what the character needs to do to achieve the goal) and forewarnings (the things that happen that suggest they won't manage it), to dividend (the unexpected return to seeking this goal, or what the character learns) and cost (what they have to sacrifice in order to achieve it), and, the smallest plot elements of all, prerequisites (the things that need to be in place for requirements to happen) and preconditions (the rules that make those things difficult). Oscillating between these pairs is what keeps the suspense high - will they, won't they - and your readers turning pages.

Taking some time out to list a few of each of these helped me see the events in my story much more clearly. It might not seem quite right to you (there are so many guides out there, it's inevitable), but it nudged me in the right direction when I needed to bolster and clarify my plot.

I've said it before and been wrong, but I now have an outline that feels like a story that develops and antagonises in equal part. It's a long way away from what I thought it would be when I started this process. It's a lot creepier, too: my main character especially. Something tells me I would never have got to this development in her with character charts.

Word count this week: 849 First draft: 128,661

Weeks 69 - 71

69 Well. It's one of *those* blog posts.

"As you can tell I've not been writing here very often..."

"Sorry I've not been updating much..."

No updates for quite a while then. It was bound to happen.

I got a bit caught up with a short story, and am working full-time again for a spell, and, and - you get the picture.

Setting yourself a regular task requires discipline, and, as anyone who's ever committed to an exercise regime will know, as soon as you start missing one session, then two becomes easier, three, and before you know it, you can't face restarting. It's the same with writing, the same with blogging. You feel like a failure, and returning to it just deepens that unease. So those runs around the park, or daily photographs or weekly blog posts fade and disappear, ready for the next project or New Year's Resolution.

I'm determined to see this one through, so I thought I'd tackle the sense of failure head on. Don't ask me why, but somehow thinking about failure can make you feel more optimistic. Not thinking about it means it threads itself into your psyche.

I've written before about the wax and wane of a novel in your life. It is, for some, the green light at the end of a pier: always on, more noticeable at some times than others. For others it is little more than a dream, a nurtured idea. There is at leats one in all of us, some say.

I was determined to get mine out, and write it as solidly as possible, not to be one of those people who talk airily about "their novel". But, 70 weeks on after embarking on this project, I am becoming one. And this blog is becoming that hand waving in the air.

"How's the book?" my friends ask, but now I can tell they're not expeting much of an answer. It's been over a year, for goodness sake! How could anyone maintain their interest in it? For a month or so I devoted my time to writing a short story - just under than 5,000 words - and it felt good to know a story so fully, from start to finish, and all the bits that happened but go unwritten.

My novel, in comparison, sags in places, bending over itself with the weight of its own narrative and propped up with the odd read-through. And much to my chagrin, my life continues too, taking me away from writing. Once you've lost the discipline of sitting down every day, writing slips further and further away, and your story feels starts to feel distant and not worth it.

There are still some flickers, though: stories I read and watch in films make me think of my own, and I email myself ideas in between meetings and trips to Sainsburys.

There's not just one narrative arc to keep suspended: there's this one too. I wanted this blog to capture what went into writing a novel, and expected it to go from strength to strength. That there would be bad weeks, sure, but I'd learn from them, and be all teh more enthused. And that has happened, from time to time. I've also wandered off and gone on holiday and been left wondering if it's all worth it. How will it end? Might I be writing this forever, another person with only a half-tended dream of writing a book? Maybe I'll finish it. But then what? Will I document my heart-crushing attempts to get interest from agents, or find a publishing deal?


I've written a lot about knowing how my book ends, and how that knowledge helped me come up with a story. I think actually, having had some distance from it, the ending is where the story is. What I thought was the ending may very well be the heart, or even the beginning of the book.

Knowing the ending has helped me with this story immensely: there's still a lot to fill in, and a lot of tempting diversions and procrastination to be had before I get there, but at least I know where I'm heading. I'm not alone in thinking this helps, either. Among the list of storytelling rules recently tweeted by a Pixar animator was this one:

"#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front."

But what about this one, where there is potentially no ending? I might just fizzle out. Perhaps you are one of the two or three people who noticed I hadn't updated my weeknotes in a few weeks. Maybe you thought this was it. You've seen many a blog die before - the inevitable posts, five or six months apart, acknowledging and then apologising for the lack of updates - until one day you notice the date on the final one is more than two years ago, and you stop checking.

The knowledge that you have set up and abandoned a blog, a tiny section of cyberspace, that will be there forever, untended, its 0s and 1s still out there, bearing your name and directionless thoughts, and spiders crawling all over it, picking at its hidden significances with their computerised feet.

It is like watching a helium balloon soar on its own into the sky, still able to feel its string in your hand, or the bob of a bottle, your message folded inside, on the gentle waves of miles of ocean. You know the outcome - a withered slither of rubbery plastic in the field next door, or a swampy bottle wedged in sand on the ocean floor, its bit of paper long disintegrated - but you are still entranced by the sight of it.

This one.

This one.

Oh god. This one. 71

And so it may it be with this one, and with the novel it documents.

Starting out, my focus was on the end and finishing, and the new career and even accolades it might bring. I admit that. But what makes writing so frustrating and so impossible to stop altogether, is the realisation that it is everything that comes before the ending that counts. Working out an ending sets you free to focus on the meandering middle, whether it's the ending to your story or simply an acknowledgement that all things end.

And looking at that balloon, or that bottle, there's a part of us that hopes the outcome might be different, though we know it won't. That's where story is.

I suppose that's a very convoluted way of saying I am back in the saddle, getting back into my story again after a break, and trying not to beat myself up too much that the end is not so much nigh, as certain.

Here's another rule from the Pixar animator:

"You admire a character for trying more than for their successes."

So basically, I'm saying this blog is flying and I'm Buzz Lightyear. K? To infinity, and beyond!

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 127,812

Week 55

Late this week, due to illness. Last week I worked on my story. As much as a first draft is experimental, mine was beginning to resemble a bunch of asynchronous notes and additions and tangents, and not a draft at all.

So (for the first time) I started to think carefully about chapters. How many would there be (roughly). What would happen in each. I had avoided establishing even the most basic structures of a novel -the chunks it's split into - thus far, as I worried I would become too preoccupied with the ebb and flow of each, rather than that of the whole story. It also meant locking down how the two stories, past and present, worked together. And that's hard.

So I avoided it. I wrote "scenes" instead, but novels do not benefit from the momentary shift of blackouts, the pace of scene changes, and they give away too much with words. There comes a point where you must ask: where is this all leading? Why this, now? I find it hard to write without it (though I know some don't).

At the same time, a few people asked me those tricky questions: how's your novel going? I've publicised my intention to write one here for long enough, so I can't begrudge them that one. But then: what's it about?

I have a one-liner, but that doesn't tell you anything. It's a tagline at most (yeah, I've imagined it on the fly cover of a book, I don't mind admitting it - even the blurb on a film poster, if you must know).

So I set to work braiding my two stories together, a card per chapter. For some reason, I had not considered them so closely together. For every memory, there must be a context in the present day, and ever current event must fuel those memories further. It's the engine of my story.

Story board 23.02.12As I created cards and scribbled the scenes and lines of dialogue I'd written as notes only beforehand, the story started to stir, and move, like iron filings after a magnet.

I now have 19 cards in five rows from left to right on my story board, each representing a chapter, though that's not rigid. I expect some chapters will grow, diminish and break into two or three over time.

I can add scribbles and post-it notes, photos even, to each card if I think of more ideas, and then when it's the chapter's turn in the draft, I take down its card and read.

So now I approach each chapter like I used to start exam essays: study the premise (the question, synopsis, whatever), make notes for a few minutes, then start writing.

Word count this week: 1,752 Total word count: 97,728 First draft: 87,712

PS. Do you remember Wooly Willy?? I hadn't thought about him for 25 years until writing this post...

The Story

I went to The Story on Friday, a one-day conference about stories and storytelling held at The Conway Hall. First, a few disclaimers: we all have a definition of story, and I suppose my one is the arbitrary application of limits to a set of events or experience that gives it structure, a certain symmetry, a rise and fall, a longing and release, and, therefore, pleasure.

It is neither definitive nor real. It can be subjective and objective. It changes with who's telling it, and with who's listening.

I went with a quote in mind, from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, which I recently reread (or read for the first time properly - seems odd to think I'd not read it before, but really those were cartoons and films). Peter does not understand stories - he and the Lost Boys live in the moment at all times. They do not understand the passing of time and growing up, as they live in the present constantly, in a never-ending childhood. Just as Blake had done a hundred years before, Barrie is contrasting "story" with "experience".

And here is my third disclaimer: I am currently a little past midway through writing a novel, and the only truly certain thing I know about it - where it's going and where it's been - is what will happen at the very end. Not the final scene, I mean the last few pages. I know I have to get to a certain point. The whole thing has to build up to it, so that it's nor a surprise, and not expected either.

Unfortunately there is masses of stuff that has to happen first, and that's the really hard bit. Making something appear both obvious and sudden is something our brains do all the time, but creating that effect with a little over 90,000 words or 300 pages is hard.

So, disclaimers out of the way, I am going to say that the theme that stuck out most for me on Friday was The End. Endings. Stories and The Sense of an Ending, as Frank Kermode once described and Julian Barnes recently used for the title of his recent Booker Award-winning novel.

The End

Oh well Kat, you would say that. You're obsessed with ending, getting to a particular ending in your book, and the struggle to get there or even motivate yourself to write in the first place.

Yes, it's true. I think about The End a lot. So I probably noted down mentions of it a little more than others, but it seemed to me a few of the speakers suggested that a story can only exist when there is an ending. Here's what I mean.

Matt Sheret and Simon Thornton started proceedings, and established the (my) theme pretty quickly. Thornton, a musician and producer who's worked with the likes of Fat Boy Slim, Beats International and Freak Power, described the art of sequencing an album. Every track needs to be placed in relation to the others so that it tells a story, and he described the sometimes agonising process this becomes.

Not all are so difficult however: "the last track," he said, "is often the easiest." In choosing the final song, there is one golden rule: the biggest hit should never go at the end. Other than that, the final track, epic, providing resolution to the rest of the tracks, is usually clear from the start.

Anthony Owen, Head of Magic at Objective Productions, the production company responsible for The Real Hustle and Derren Brown's TV shows, and a former magician himself, quoted Teller from magician duo Penn and Teller (and I paraphrase):

magic tricks deceive you by ending with something you want to happen.

If anyone knows the exact quote or where it's from please tell me.

Even Tom Watson and Emily Bell (squee! we use the same Wordpress theme for our blogs!), talking about the progression of hackgate from a disparate collection of evidence into a story every newspaper wanted to cover, discussed an "endgame" of sorts. Tom Watson decided he was prepared to see the story through til the end, even if that meant making enemies and being forced to leave parliament. One gets a clarity and focus, he explained, "once you know how it ends".

In contrast, the artist Ellie Harrison seemed intent on avoiding an ending to her artwork, and its inevitable commoditisation. She is securing funding for her piece 'Early Warning Signs' to remain on the streets of Shoreditch, reminding us of climate change as we go about our energy-sapping business, and is seeking someone to adopt her 'Vending Machine'.

And then, of course, Phil Stuart and Tom Chatfield discussed their philosophical game 'The End'. By this point I'd eaten my entire dark chocolate speakers list, and was feeling slightly hysterical as a result. I've got it! I thought. What all this means! And here I wrote in my notepad the word ENDINGS, with three lines under it and a full stop, though strictly speaking it wasn't a sentence and therefore did not require punctuating. But it seemed fitting to bring this single word to an end, though, if I'm honest, it was the cocoa talking.

I hope I'm not misrepresenting Phil and Tom by saying that their talk was about how the game gave a binary choice to people, a dilemma, that forced them to think about big philosophical issues: what happens when I die? Is there such a thing as a cause worth dying for? AND SO ON.

It started to seem to me that the first thing you establish in any story is the ending. One you know your end, you give yourself the freedom to browse, play, experiment, get diverted.

Then Danny O'Brien took to the stage with a energetic talk about "everything", covering anarchists, Buddhist monks and Adam Curtis. It started with a slide of the observable universe, a picture of a mass of white dots with a red "you are here" note helpfully added.

The photo is the result of panning out until everything is homogenous and boring. This, O'Brien explained, is what scientists call "the end of greatness". Every definition and distinction in our world is removed. To understand anything, he argued, you must pan out and zoom in constantly, and constantly change your angle, not settle on a story and stick to it. That, he warned, is to behave like you're "in the middle of an Adam Curtis documentary".

Small things can change big things, he seemed to be saying. They are not at the mercies of wider patterns (though they fit into them from time to time).

As all the best talks are, it was inconclusive and fascinating throughout. There is something about establishing one's end - signalling a certain type of story - that removes its significance and lets you play. A story, rather than something to be found and distilled, is constantly to be fought against.

And so I went back to thinking about my project, my story. I find it the most elusive part of writing a novel, is pinning down that story. And now I realise that's as it should be: a novel is not a story. Storytelling is at its heart, but it must always struggle against fitting neatly into well-trodden narratives, falling into well-trodden grooves. There is a will to and against story in the writing and reading of a novel. Good art should always fight against story.

And, as if to perfectly demonstrate my point, I have not even mentioned my two favourite talks of the day, by Scott Burnham, an 'urban strategist' and creative director who told the story of a Stefan Sagmeister installation in Amsterdam, and Karen Lubbock, publisher of the wonderful Karen magazine. I wrote barely any notes during their talks, just listened.

I don't think they mentioned the end or endings once.

Thank you to Matt Locke for a great, thought-provoking day.

Week 51

So this week I decided I needed a bit of a kick up the arse with my story (not least because I realised with horror that, a few weeks since writing properly and regularly, I had forgotten where I was in the plot). The work situation continues, so I've had to grit my teeth and bear the fact that I won't get to write much for the next week or two, but I needed to get that excitement about writing back.

I took matters into my own hands and turned things on their head. By which I mean, I turned my storyboard on its head.

Old story board New story board

It was surprisingly invigorating.

I had been feeling with alarm my interest in the story ebb - perhaps it wasn't any cop after all, not worth pursuing - and found it hard to get going again after the Christmas break and with so much other work.

It is interesting how tightly bound a story's integrity is with its regular exercise. The way some writers fetishise "story" above all else gives the impression that it is a thing, tangible and independent, that either exists or does not exist. Well, that's not entirely true. Leave a book for long enough, however much you were enjoying it, and its grippingness (grippidity?) starts to pall.

It's the same when you are writing one. I was starting to lose interest in those flimsy white cards on a board, but reordering them helped me dig back into my story. I also visited an old spot I used to frequent, now empty and passed by a stream of mindless cars, back in the days that inspired my story in the first place. It all worked to remind me what impact I want this story to have.

"Impact" is the best word I can find to describe this proto-story before it's written down - it doesn't (unfortunately) appear before me in a list of scenes or acts. It kind of suspends itself - unfurls uncertainly like those delicate paper chains I used to make at Christmas - this tight, brilliant story that I can feel but not quite (yet) express.

More important that reinvigorating the story, turning my board on its head and seeing it from this angle, in three columns rather than four or five wobbly rows, I could see where in the story I was. See that yellow star towards the bottom of the second column?

I was at the beginning of the end!

Though it feels somewhat more like the end of the beginning. There's a lot still to go.

Word count this week: 0 Total word count: 95,028 First draft: 85,012

Week 35

I know I’m in trouble when I start picking out the crumby fluff from underneath the buttons and edges of my mouse pad. There is nothing like the sight of my wooden cuticle-pusher poking between the plastic keys of my laptop to make me realise there’s nothing doing.

Not much written this week.

I’m still trying to finish off section three, but after finding it difficult last week, I thought about it some more and realised the problem was a lack of drama, that the defining scene – one that changes my main character’s thinking about how to solve her conflict, and prefigures a later, more significant decision – was dealt with too early.

I started re-ordering scenes in my head.

This, of course, is anathema to story. Or so I’m told. The advice for the first draft I’ve been working to is, just get it down. Don’t think, don’t rewrite, don’t restructure.

My problem is that planning is constantly with me; I can’t seem to put it down, push it to one side and forget it. I try to focus on the screen in front, but I have a clear overview of my story (not to mention it on a corkboard in front of me), and refer to it constantly, in breaks from writing, on the bus, washing up. I find it hard to stick at the story for long.

I wonder if this is a modern malaise of the cut-and-paste generation, or if Jane Austen ever forgot what she was on about. I guess she had fewer episodes of X Factor to deal with.

Jane Austen multi-tasking by the pool

Knowing how much needed to be reworked meant I had little appetite for getting down the final part of what I knew would be a flawed section. The final scene was all wrong: the wrong setting, the wrong positioning of characters. I couldn't just carry on. When I tried, I was writing for the sake of it; billowing out sentences and following lines of thought in the hope it would all come together.

Instead I left the earlier scenes as they were, scribbled down some notes about my new, preferred order of events, and started the final scene - the one where a number of strands need to coalesce - from scratch, as if everything led up to it already.

I kept to my usual schedule: a crabby first hour and a half, full of fits and starts, then a quick break followed by another two hours, the best of the day. Usually by this point the ideas are coming much more easily, and I hammer away at the keyboard, distracted only by the rumbling of my tummy.

Lunch, and a final hour, but this is almost always disappointing. Not terrible, but no way near as good as the middle bit. I know there’s not much more in me after an hour, and try to finish sooner rather than later.

There’s probably a solid three hours of writing in every "day", more if I’ve kept momentum up by writing throughout the week.

That’s hard with a full-time job. So I made a big decision this week which I hope will make things easier (if a little tight)...

Word count this week: 1,070 Total word count: 67,022 First draft: 52,019

Week 24

(Wrote this on Sunday, but only now getting round to posting it, sorry)

Got a bit further this week, and feel better as a result. The breakthrough came after a few more mornings looking at a blank page and not feeling particularly inspired by the last section I’d written.

I write for an hour in the morning then get on the bus to work, and spend an hour on the top deck writing up ideas. In my experience it’s as soon as I put down my pen or leave my computer that good ideas come.

I realised my ideas don't necessarily lead on from what I was writing. They're not linear, but scattered across the place: a particular scene, or event, or character development that may happen way down the line. Normally I wrote them down in note form, then sat in front of my laptop for another hour the next morning with my head in my hands, trying to rewind my brain back to the stumbling block I was at the day before.

I worried that my inability to keep a story going from start to finish means I'm a bad or not very natural storyteller. Instead I over-intellectualise it, preferring to go over the structure and themes in my head and on here, than actually writing the damn thing.

I tend to think of conflict in too thematic terms, meaning I find it hard when push comes to shove and I have to write something compelling, a story. When I finally write a few hundred words it feels forced and lacks direction. The existentialist writer Paul Bowes once wrote that “Someone’s got to get in trouble, or no-one’s going to want to read it,” and if he gets it, I figured I should too.

Then the book I’m reading mentioned how the novelist Claire Calman writes her books in the wrong order, putting it all together at the end, and a light bulb lit up over my head. That’s exactly how I think about my story – while I’m writing about a mail depot here, I’m thinking about what’ll happen later backstage at a concert, or how this tendency in a character will first emerge in an earlier scene.

To be honest the idea of hacking away at ideas, seeing if they all string together at the end, and smoothing out the edges feels like a more likely way of “getting this book down” for me. It’s how I write most things.

I’d love to be able to write in a straight line, and maybe it’s a skill I’ll learn with the more I write. I try to practise it on here by just writing what comes to mind, and not editing too much. But the fact is I think about my book in bits – I know where it’s going, I know its span and how things work out. I imagine it all at once, in a whole, so it’s hard to write from scratch and in a straight line, moving from one scene to the next.

It’s like standing with a chisel in front of a massive 30ft block of stone, not sure where to start tapping. I suppose some sculptors start in one place and move in one direction around the block until they are done, whereas others tap away at different edges until they create the shape they want. The former has made me nervy, forcing myself to think of the next thing rather than the bit that excites me, and I feel there’s a lack of momentum as a result.

So this week I decided to try the latter. I wrote in whatever order ideas came to me.

I tightened up my opening scene, and wrote a few hundred words inspired by a picture I saw on my tea break. I felt my writing was punchier and more in line with how I want my characters to express themselves, but I don’t know if that's the result of taking the pressure off writing in a linear fashion.

I’ve written before about the fallacy of so-called “linear” narrative, and now I’m trying my hand at writing and just reading, I’m certain it’s true.

Stories don’t roll out in succession – they stop and start, get waylaid and find detours, come in the wrong order. (Anyone who’s heard me trying to tell a joke knows how that is.)

More than ever I believe stories are not what you tell, but how you tell it.

Word count this week: 2,960 Total word count: 41,968 First draft: 24,504