Week 58

Screen grab of knobs on speakers from Spinal Tap Picking up the pace with the first draft now; I'm about three quarters through, and writing in a straight line as much as possible. I still make use of asterisks, and addendums, or inserts, but I'm mostly trying to get from one point in the story to the next without thinking about structure or plot points too much. Or even character development - it's amazing what ideas come out when you just write forwards.

It reminds me of something Thomas Carlyle wrote:

Narrative is linear, but action has breadth and depth as well as height and is solid.

I think it was in his essay 'On History'. The point is, narrative has only one dimension, getting from A to B, whereas action is solid. That's action not in the Schwarzenegger sense, but in the Aristotelian sense: a fusion of something like character and something like plot.

I think when I started writing this, I expected action to flow from my pen, that, if this story was worth telling, it would emerge of its own accord, like those illustrations of Dickens where he's dreaming or bent over a desk and all these characters are flying off he paper. In practice, I'm more inclined to think action only comes from narrative. Or to put it another way, to show something, you have to tell it first, tell it to yourself even (and that's the role of the first draft, as Terry Pratchett says). The work is in removing explication until only it remains. "LTRDSW", as a rather lovely editor's note in this Guardian article describes.

More advice from the great man:

“First draft: let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair. I usually find that most of the book will have handed itself to me on that first draft.”

I love "turn up all the knobs to 11". Writing longhand has helped with this enormously - I no longer worry so much about the quality of what I'm writing (there's something about a computer screen that demands finished, polished sentences), and, as a result, not to mention rather paradoxically, the quality ratio is improving.

Right now I am focussing on getting to point B. Breadth and depth and height will come in the cut.

Word count this week: 4,400 First draft: 98,612

Weeks 37, 38

Whoops. Missed last week's update. To be honest I've not written in the past two weeks. I got a bit stuck, and had to spend some time rethinking my story before I could go on.

I'm at least halfway through my first draft, and everything feels in flux - there is so much written, and yet so much to go. I try not to edit while I write the first draft, but it comes together behind me, gathering its scenes and characters together like skirts, a parachute that catches the air behind me and billows, drags me back.

Do I carry on with my original story, knowing it's changed, or do I continue as if I'd written all that I now know leads up to this point?

Even my main character is up for grabs. Last week I wrote something distinctly odd, that made her a lot more disturbing and made me rethink the story, in particular the next bit I'm about to write.

What I'm trying to say is, much as people like Robert McKee or every media commentator at the moment would like you to think, it doesn't feel like I'm in the middle of a "story". Writing a novel - even the first draft, where I'm trying not to think too much, just write - doesn't feel anything like sitting round a fire and telling a story.

There are too many subplots, minor characters and information to get across, it's impossible to get it right first time. I understand now that a "rewrite" is not subbing, crossing out the odd unnecessary word here, or removing an errant apostrophe here. It's rewriting. All this. Again.

I read a quote by Terry Pratchett, about how a first draft is "you telling yourself the story". That feels much more like it. I am constantly in a state of building and rebuilding, switching story cards in my head as I write.

So I decided to take out time and move actual story cards. I took down my old storyboard as my original seven-section structure wasn't working for me. At the end of each section, I felt the story had wound down and I had to wind it back up again for the next "bit". It was a structure I imposed on myself, and I realised I was writing to fill each section regularly, so that each was about as long and dense as the other, and not just writing the story as it happened. When the crisis occurs, and where the first turning point happens, became my obsession. Every book I read, I dissected in my head or notebook: conflict, crisis, climax.

Cork story board

I scrawled scenes in marker pen on cards, not looking at my notes or the outline in Scrivener, but trying to remember scenes, in the hope they would be the most important ones, the ones that progressed the story rather than filled pages.

I then laid them out in order, from start to finish, labelling only "beginning", "middle" and "end" for a bit of colour. They ran left to right, and filled five rows.

Looking at them like that, I had a bit of a breakthrough with my second plot (there are two; one in the past, and one set in the present-day). The scene cards with black borders are that second, present-day plot. I don't want them to act like bookends to a flashback, like the doddery old lady in Titanic. I want them to be threaded in with those from the past, but so far they feel thin in comparison, too close to home and not interesting enough.

Looking at those cards in narrative order though, it became immediately clear what happens towards the end, something that renders everything that's come before questionable, and leads inexorably to the finale I thought of way back in January.

A twist!

Word count this week: 817 Total word count: 69,688 First draft: 59,672