Category Archives: writing

Tense, nervous headache

I realised this morning that I hadn’t done a writing post since July 2011. I sincerely hope this doesn’t mean that I’ve failed to do any actual writing since July 2011, because that would be deeply embarrassing.
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Best laid plans

I haven’t written anything for over two weeks. To some extent, I can justify this by having been slightly busier socially over the past fortnight than I usually am, having attended birthday parties and wedding receptions and even fitted in a visit to my parents. However, deep down I know that’s a cheap excuse, because there were many occasions when I could quite easily have made time for half an hour with the Work In Progress, and instead decided to clean the oven or watch another episode of Pretty Little Liars.

While I might have nothing tangible to show for the last couple of weeks, that doesn’t mean my brain has been idle. Far from it; in fact, one of the things that keeps me persisting with the WIP is that ideas for it keep shooting into my brain at the most random times, and I feel that if I’m still feeling so inspired about this story about four years after I first thought about it, then there must be something worthwhile in it – for me, even if not necessarily for the rest of the world.

I’m trying to ensure that I don’t waste any of these ideas, so I’m trying to scribble them down as they come to me, assuming it’s practical at the time. Last night, I even happened to be within reach of my laptop when I had a sudden flash of inspiration, so I opened up my long-neglected “plot ideas” document to add this latest nugget.

As I looked back over the other things I’d written in that document, I was surprised to see how many I’d forgotten, neglected or otherwise ignored while working on my WIP. For example, one of the big ideas I’d had very early on was that the main character has two best friends who don’t really get on with each other. They’re civil enough, but the only thing they really have in common is him, so they’re always a bit awkward and stilted around each other. I like that idea, and I haven’t entirely given up on it, but certainly so far I’ve found it rather hard to write convincingly, so there are whole, giant sections where the two of them  are laughing away like old pals, just because I wanted to get on to the bit of plot I was really interested in, and I reasoned I could come back and fix that in the edit.

It wasn’t just that, either – I found several paragraphs going into great detail about a main character, describing his physical appearance and various aspects of his personality, only to realise that I’d forgotten most of them and contradicted these original plans several times already.

I’m unsure how I feel about looking back over my notes. I don’t really want to be a slave to them, because sometimes you come up with your best work when you just follow the things that flow into your head in the moment, even (or especially) when they take you in an unexpected direction. But at the same time, I made those notes because those ideas were important to me and, crucially, looking back at them now, I can’t help feeling that these bare bones I wrote down before I started work are actually better than the stuff I’ve been writing so far. So I’m torn: I don’t really want to go back and edit at this point, because I wanted to get much further into the actual plot of the story before I even thought about that, but I feel I’d be making more work for myself further down the line if I don’t correct the mistakes now, because I’m going to want to make sense of the whole thing together sooner or later, and if I start sorting out the internal inconsistencies now, I’m cutting down my workload in advance.

I’m considering a compromise at this point: this weekend I’m planning to do what I’ve intended to do for a very long time, and actually work out a timeline. I’ve had one in my head for ages, but it’s rather vague and foggy, and I think it’d do me good to get down on paper the rough arc of the story, so that I know which points I need to hit and at what time. I might also do a brief outline of each chapter for much the same reason. This seems like a sensible approach: it’ll give me more of the structure that I clearly need to avoid the waffling and the meandering that’s plagued my WIP so far, but it’ll also give me a fair bit of freedom so that if I want to send everyone off to Margate for the day unexpectedly in chapter nine, I can still do it as long as I remember that somewhere in the same chapter Louise’s puppy is due to run away and Cousin Mallory is due to arrive from Texas. (Disclaimer: these plotlines are for demonstration only and are unlikely to appear in finished story. Although that’s not to say I definitely won’t use them, because Cousin Mallory from Texas could be quite fun.)

Word count (last two weeks): 0 (must try harder)
Total so far: 13, 781

A little less conversation

I’m having a few problems at the moment. Writing problems, I hasten to add – I’m not about to sit here and blog to you all about my sciatica or anything.

First and foremost, finding the time to write seems to be the hardest thing of all. My time management is sometimes a bit questionable, and I have a tendency to live my life in a general level of chaos unheard of outside the mosh pit at a Justin Bieber concert. As much as I get home from work every day thinking how much I’d love to just sit down and try adding a bit more to the work-in-progress, even if it’s only for 15 minutes, it doesn’t really seem to be happening. At the moment, I’m basically managing an hour or so on a Sunday – which, in all fairness, is still better than what I’ve been averaging for the past however-many years, but is still levelling me out at about 1000 words a week, which I feel is not really getting me anywhere in any great hurry. The one thing that is keeping me going, interestingly, is the feeling of obligation to this blog and needing something to write in it, so I’m quite grateful I started it now, if only because there will be a public record to name and shame me if I start slacking.

The other problem at the moment that’s giving me grief is dialogue. In my effort to move the plot along a bit, I’ve managed to push my two main characters together in an environment that gave them a bit of room to grow and develop their relationship. This is encouraging, but the problem I’m having is building that through dialogue. I used to think I was quite good at dialogue – when I was a teenager, I used to sit and write play after play when dialogue was pretty much all I had to work with – but I prefer people to be kind of quiet and monosyllabic when I’m writing, and my concern is that this will be rather dull to read. The last thing I want is to end up with an endless series of one-line statements as two people get all British about their emotions and refuse to actually reveal anything interesting.

The hidden problem within all of that is not wanting to get into that primary-school trap of finding endless ways to avoid saying “he said”. More often than not I prefer to avoid that construction entirely, since if you’re doing your job right, the way they talk should be distinct enough that the reader should be able to identify who’s talking without assistance, especially if there are only two people in the room. All the same, I don’t want to let dialogue that should be sparkling fall flat on the page, so that’s something I’m really trying to pay attention to when I’m reading at the moment – how good authors can take an everyday exchange and really inject some life into that. I’m going to take some notes over the next week and perhaps I’ll post some of the better examples up here and discuss them a bit.

One final issue that I’m having that I feel is embarrassingly primitive of me: my tenses are a mess. I’ve lapsed from past to present and back again so many times that I’ve lost count at this point, and I’m still none the wiser as to which suits the WIP better. Hopefully I’ll manage to pin myself down to one or the other at some point, but for now, I’m going to have a bitch of a time when I come to the edit.

Word count (this week): 1,407
Total so far: 13,781

Fear of plot

It's going well so far

Some might say the greatest tool a writer has is originality. I sincerely hope not, because my inspiration for creating this blog was seeing that the brilliant Kat Sommers keeps a blog that documents her writing process as she’s working on a novel, and it struck me what a brilliant idea that was. So, with apologies to Kat for shamelessly imitating her, I shall be doing much the same thing here.

I’ve been working on this same idea for years now. Well, that might be going a bit far; I’ve certainly had the idea in my head for several years, but the actual amount of time spent actively working on it can barely even be measured in days. This year, for some reason, I decided it was time at long last to really make a concerted effort to get it written out, to determine once and for all if it’s fair to describe myself as a frustrated writer, or whether I’m just frustrated.

So far, I’ve not been doing too terribly. I’m definitely not writing as often as I would like, but I am at least writing, and that’s a vast improvement on my progress in previous years. I have a plot, I have chapters, I have characters, I have a vague idea of where everything is going, so on that level things are going well. Not everything is quite going to plan, but my previous attempts at writing books (largely restricted to National Novel Writing Month, but not entirely) have taught me that sometimes the best ideas are the ones that come wandering into your brain uninvited when you’re attempting to tell a completely different story, and display such total immovability that you end up having to write them whether you want to or not.

For the most part, this has been a problem with characters rather than plot – people keep wandering up and making me believe they’re interesting, and wanting to include them. They’re all fairly tertiary to the main plot, but I rather like the idea of having a big world for my novel, so I’m keen to write them. My concern at the moment is that I don’t really have a use for all of them; I’m almost writing far more than I need to just to give them all something to do. I’m only on chapter four of an extremely rough first draft, and already I suspect many of these people will not survive the edit, assuming I get that far. But for now I’m content to let them exist, because who knows how important they might turn out to be later?

This does feed into a wider problem, though; all the time I’m working hard to give these people something to do, I’m further delaying actually getting into the meat of my main plot. I’ve already spent over 10,000 on some pretty loquacious scene-setting, which is a terrible habit of mine. I took a playwriting course when I was at university, and one of the things my lecturer was (correctly) very keen to eliminate from my writing was a tendency to waffle on for pages when I could just be getting to the damn point already. As this blog entry demonstrates, whatever success he may have had was clearly temporary. But again, that’s what editing is for.

Anyway, to get back to the original point, I’m interested in this habit – not the overwriting, but the delayed gratification of the plot. This has happened to me before, when I’ve been trying to write other stories; I have this idea which I love, this plot which I think is genuinely great and strong and deserves to be told, and yet, when I sit down to write it, I find myself writing anything but. In his book No Plot? No Problem!, Chris Baty mentions other writers he’s spoken to with this problem, this sort of fear of ruining your wonderful idea by actually writing it. Certainly, I’ve found in my efforts so far that what tumbles into Pages isn’t nearly as eloquent as it sounded in my brain when I was sitting on the train or the loo or wherever inspiration struck, but is that playing into a wider fear? Am I concerned that if I actually try to write the plot I want to write, it’ll be clichéd, amateurish and clunky, and that will be the end of it? I think so, a little bit. I think there’s also an element of fear that once I’ve written it, what then? I’m going to have to find an ending, and I fear endings more than almost anything else when it comes to writing. I treat the ellipsis as a close friend because of the way it saves you having to really finish a thought…

But that’s part of the reason why I’m writing this blog as well – I want to force myself to examine behaviour like this, to Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, if you want to get all self-help about it. Whenever the doubt strikes, I remind myself of Ernest Hemingway’s famous quote that “the first draft of anything is shit”, and that this is the reason we have later drafts, and editors. So, essentially, I’ve really got to just get on with it. Just write enough that I have to get there whether I like it or not.

I think today was a good start in all of this. I’ve finally written the first proper scene of interaction between the two characters at the centre of the plot, and now I can build on that. Assuming all those lovely-but-annoying tertiary characters don’t start clamouring for attention again.

Total number of words written today: 1, 286
Current wordcount:
12, 374