Internet vs writing

"The internet is of no relevance at all to the business of writing fiction directly, which is about expressing certain kinds of verities that are only found through observation and introspection. It's an incredibly powerful tool and you'd be stupid not to use it, but it’s a distraction in the actual business of writing."

- Will Self, quoted by Carl Wilkinson in 'Shutting out a world of distraction', 6 September 2012, The Telegraph

Look at me

It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me. It is your penance for not being lucky. It is an attempt to reach others and to make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find you have no voice at the world's tribunals, and that no one will speak for you. I would give my entire output of words, past, present, and to come, in exchange for easier access to the world, for permission to state 'I hurt' or 'I hate' or 'I want'. Or, indeed, 'look at me'.

- Look At Me, Anita Brookner, p.84

Its own shape

All novelists write in a different way, but I always write in long hand and then do two versions of typescript on a computer. I realised when I got to the end of the long hand draft [of The Pregnant Woman] that I knew nothing about this novel when I began writing it. The process of writing a novel is getting to know more about the novel until you know everything about it. And it's been described as a kind of dreamlike state where you're letting the novel make its own shape, and you're putting into it the pleasure of creation, which is intoxicating.

- Martin Amis

Week 52

Clearly I write too much about writing a book, rather than actually writing it. The latest Google Ad being served to me starts: Have You Written a Book?

Have I? Well, no I haven't. It's been 52 weeks - a whole year - since I went to a writing retreat in Devon to get the ball rolling on this novel, and in that time I've written almost 90,000 words, left my job and got a freelance writing career going.

Not bad, but not written.

I can't stand the idea of being one of those people who's interminably writing a novel. The phrase is embarrassing enough, and I say "novel" with as much squeamishness as "vagina". I'd like to get this over with as soon as possible.

I also want to write this book fast as I worry it has a short lifespan. Partly because I will lose interest in it and therefore momentum, and partly because the subject - though universal - is timely. A film is due out this month about a similar subject, and a stage show later this year. I need to get this written. I need to finish those 90,000 words.

Detail of a clock

Trouble is, work continues to get in the way, and provides a handy excuse not to get on with writing. Currently I am working seven days a week, with the aim that I shall earn enough money to work less in the future. I tell myself that it's just an excuse, but working all day and in evenings and at the weekends does not make me want to jump out of bed early in the morning and start writing too.

Freelancing lacks the stability of a contract, and with every job I am offered, I wonder if it'll be the last. So I take the work, and push writing out to get it done, the very reason I went down this route in the first place.

For a halcyon month or two, I was working 2.5 days a week. It was bliss. What I'd always wanted - bags and bags of time to write. I was broke, walking everywhere to save on the cost of a bus, and eating at home before I met friends. But I was writing.

Except I wasn't. I was walking. Thinking. Watching films in the afternoon, because I can. Discovering the kind of crazy, popcorn-hating misfits who watch films on their own in the afternoon. Signing up to Pilates classes just for the feeling of relative calm and freedom you get doing a nonchalant cobra stretch next to frazzled new mothers. Opening my Macbook in cafes and wondering at my new lifestyle. Wondering who else had noticed my lifestyle (brackets: Macbook). Buying another chocolate twist to frustrate the hobo eyeing up my seat. Enjoying the city I live in.

Unfortunately I live in London, where the roads are paved with coffee shops that cost three quid a pop. I buckled. I took the work. I need the money, dammit. This ain't no writer's garret, and I ain't no Chatterton.

Besides, I wasn't getting as much writing done as I should. It's a strange phenomenon that, given short bursts of time in between everything else, I write regularly and diligently; but given all the time in the world, I fill it with procrastination. It makes me wonder if all those warnings about full-time writing are true. Is it possible? Does anyone do what they love all the time?

First things first: I need to finish this job. I need to find my work/writing balance again, which means finding time every morning, some spare afternoons as well as weekends to get this book done. Not too much time, mind. But time.

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

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 50

Week 50. Whoa. I've been writing this novel for almost a year.So it's not a good time to not be writing much. I haven't been writing as much as I was before Christmas and it's making me really stressed - I want to be writing, I want to finish this book before I lose any momentum or the story slips through my fingers. It's all my own fault. I've taken on a fair bit of work over Christmas and January which means I'm working every day, seven days a week. Fitting writing in is hard, especially after the Christmas break when it's difficult to get back into any saddle.

Specifically, it's looking at a screen I can't take. Working such long hours as I am at the moment means I'm looking at my screen every day, all day, and I can't face switching it on again first thing in the morning or last thing at night. I also don't want to be tired when I write. I need to be alert so I can keep my head in the current.

This wasn't the plan. The plan was to be part-time and flexible, so that I have more time to write and do so regularly.

I also gotta eat. So January is baby-needs-some-shoes month, and I'm gritting my teeth and bearing it.

I'm going to go through my old notebook and add notes into the work I've done so far, as that's not too taxing. I'll also try writing long-hand when I can. It'll make word counts hard, but hopefully it'll keep me going in one direction, ie towards the end, and keep my hand in while I get this work done.

I've wondered if I shouldn't try writing longhand since reading this article by Lee Rourke in The Guardian. My attempts so far are proof that a) the legibility of my handwriting has taken a pretty massive nosedive and b) cut and paste is a state of mind, not a function of Word. I'm so used to moving words and phrases around I do it in my own writing, squeezed into the margins and between the lines.

So I've started a new notebook and bought my uniballs. Perhaps by the time I finish this work, I'll be as fluent a handwriter as I was when I was six.

Word count this week: 1,352 Total word count: 95,028 First draft: 85,012

Week 49

"I don't really have a time limit but I aim to write 1,000 words a day," she says. "If you write 1,000 words a day for long enough you have a novel. It takes probably about six months of writing to complete a book. I will write furiously, three or four chapters, and then I'll stop and go back and assess what I've written and then I'll carry on. What I don't do is power on until the end and have a first draft. I don't like that because the minute I know there is a problem I have to fix it. I can't just carry on. I really edit as I go along to the extent that I don't want to write the last chapter until I feel really happy with everything I've already done. Often I'll give it a week and come back to it and realise I want to rework a section. I never type the end until I am ready to send it off."

- Sophie Kinsella, aka Madelaine Wickham, in Writing magazine, February 2012, p.14

Interesting approach from a writer who's incredibly prolific. It made me pause when I read it. Am I doing the right thing, powering to the end, trying not to think of all the things that need changing, improving, tweaking, rewriting, binning, of the stuff I've written so far? Should I be fixing what I know doesn't work?

I must say the idea of writing the final line is a book, with everything right behind it, is very appealing. You know that feeling when you think you've got lots to do on a project, and suddenly, miraculously (and not a little disconcertingly), you realise, you've finished?

That would be nice.

At the moment I have facing me a long hard slog til the end of the first draft, just to get the bare bones of the story down, and then THE REWRITE. Which, given how much needs to come out already, and how much needs to be added in, will be more 'write' than 'rewrite'.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how to edit what I've written so far without writing the ending first. The story might yet go off in a direction I'm not expecting, and some of all that unnecessary and flowery back story might be necessary after all.

I think after all I am going to ignore Sophie Kinsella. I'm also ignoring the small internal voice shouting to me to edit as I go - just go back and change that comma, and while you're at it how about that embarrassing bit about the schoolbus? - but I'm going to ignore that too. It's *not* intuition and it *doesn't* know what's good for me. Right now it's telling me to eat another biscuit. Another one. After those eight. So what does it know.

She also goes on to say the best advice is "write the book that you would like to read yourself." I like that. And:

"Don't tell anyone about the great novel you are writing, either. Keep it to yourself. The pressure of people wanting to know about it would not be helpful."

Whoops.

The comment "if you write 1,000 words a day for long enough you have a novel" made me get a bit punchy though. I currently "have a novel", if by "a novel", you mean a document with 85,000 words on it (which are not all "fish"). Trouble is, it doesn't yet have much of a middle and an ending yet, and I'm pretty sure it's too flabby at the start meaning that 85,000 words will probably only be 50,000 when I've had a go with my red pen (keyboard).

"Just write 1,000 words a day and you'll have a novel". Tra la la! It's so easy!

Anyway.

I should be writing.

Word count this week: 0 Total word count: 93,676 First draft: 83,660

Weeks 47, 48

Break for Christmas. I took on some work over the festive period, so that, coupled with gorging myself with cheese and chocolate, watching reams of overcooked telly, eating my annual badly written sprouts, meant I got barely any writing done. So here are my writing resolutions:

  • Write every day, before work, even if only for an hour
  • Write 4,000 words a week (15,000 words a month)
  • Finish first draft: end of March 2012 (this has rather massively been pushed back - originally I hoped to get it done by Christmas, but I didn't account for changing jobs, freelance admin, and near-constant drawing of sums on every spare bit of paper in a budgetting frenzy. The draft has become longer too, and will end up being more like 120,000 words, not the 100,000 I originally anticipated)
  • Set aside first draft: April 2012 (ignore the book for a while so that, when I read it again, like a thin, loose fitting jacket, I feel the benefit)
  • Finish second draft: June 2012 (bit optimistic that. I'm rather looking forward to the redraft - my hunch is I'm a better editor than a writer - but I expect it takes longer than a couple of months)
  • Send to agents (haha): Summer 2012
  • Sell my book for millions: Autumn 2012
  • Retire (to Greece, with cats): Christmas 2012
  • Write memoirs about that time I wrote that book: 2037

Word count this week: 1,869 Total word count: 93,676 First draft: 83,660

Week 44

After returning to the first chapter or prologue last week, I worked on two questions this week: why is my main character writing, and at what stage in the story is she writing? First things first. Is she writing, necessarily? Ross Raisin's book God's Own Country is narrated by a voice, not a very literate voice, so one must assume he is speaking rather than writing. Whether it is being transcribed and by whom is irrelevant; the story grips you immediately. The main character Sam is narrating events as they happen, whereas my main character is concerned with events from the past. I think she is writing.

Why? Something has happened. She is explaining herself. First person almost always implies the confessional. Is that the note I want to hit? Is that the note she wants to hit?

And when in the story is this? How much does the character know? Is it right at the end of the story, or some time before? I think it starts with some way to go, at the end of act four in the Hulk's narrative structure.

This consideration isn't just about getting the character's tone of voice right, it involves rethinking her entire narrative arc. Over the course of the story, she, as all narrative theories demand she must, comes to an understanding about herself, but to describe events in the order they happened would require a deliberately naive attitude. An authorial narrator writing in the third person could tell the story and show characters developing, but when it is a character telling the story things are different. The character is in charge. She has experienced all that she is describing, and it has already changed her. How do I make sure she doesn't give the game away from the start?

I focus on my main character too much. A 1982 interview with Philip Larkin reminded me that this is not a single-character medium (thanks to @lloydshepherd for the link). Asked for his definition of a novel, a notoriously thorny question, Larkin replies with a single statement:

"I think a novel should follow the fortunes of more than one character."

Point taken.

Philip Larkin Top TrumpsFirst person narrative does that though; every character is seen through the main character's eyes. There's plenty of scope to imply the main character's viewpoint is flawed, but it is still claustrophobic and incessant.

So I started writing a section with two other key characters. It's a crucial section - act three, to use the five-act structure as a reference - that sets the final events in motion. I've had to think about different characters and how they relate to her, what she thinks of them and what those thoughts let on about herself.

It's often said that characters leap out at you. They jump off the page. Well, bullshit. Mine don't feel real like that (yet). Some days my main character is clear, but some days she's difficult to make out from stuff I'd say, stuff I'd do. I refer to character notes when I forget what a character is supposed to be doing. I pin a list of characters to my board to remind me of their names.

Character is like every element of my book: added to and developed a layer at a time. I think I have a handle on them, and then I think of something else, another aspect to their character or backstory, or whatever it is that makes up an identity. Character doesn't just spring up from nowhere, just as no-one appears fully formed when you meet them for the first time. You must fill in the blanks, make assumptions and change them.

This week's word count is low, but I'm pleased with how the plot is taking shape through a focus on characters. When those two things work together - plot derived from character, and character fleshed out by plot - then you know you're on to something.

Focussing on one, whether by endlessly structuring your book and planning scenes, or by working on character in isolation, believing in a constant index of character, is always to the detriment of the other.

Erm, as Aristotle put it rather better 1,400 years ago. Keep checking back here for more up-to-the-minute news, folks.

Word count this week: 2,943 Total word count: 83,551 First draft: 73,535