Getting on with it: how long can finishing a novel take?

I’m editing and kind of enjoying it. But it’s slow work. Very slow work.

It feels as if I’ve not achieved anything this year because I haven’t met my goals. In fact, I’m nowhere near my goals in terms of publication* and short story production.  This, I’ve come to realise, can happen when you work on a novel. It’s a big job and one that’s tricky to fit in around a full-time day job. There’s not that much time for short stories and other bits and pieces. Last year, I measured progress in completed short stories; this year, I count words. It might not be a great approach.

I started the year with 68K words and a mess of a manuscript. I now have 98K words and a manuscript that is two-thirds through the first edit. (That’s the edit that turns the thing into a first draft, something people are allowed to read.) I should be pleased that there’s progress but I wanted the first draft complete by the end of last year, so I just feel seriously behind schedule. I’ve been talking to my writer friends about my sense of frustration and my incomprehension that I haven’t finished the thing yet. How can it take this long? It’s not that complicated a story.

Of course, I know exactly why progress is so slow. It’s two things: firstly, I’m not working on it every waking minute. Part of me thinks I should, part of me knows that would be madness.

Secondly, I still have thinking to do. There are holes in my understanding of the world I’m building and until I plug those, there are problems I can’t solve. I think I should have had it all figured out ages ago and it pisses me off that I didn’t. But there you go. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until the problems presented themselves.

I’m practicing cutting myself some slack. It makes it much easier to just get on with it. Still, this was not the year of glorious achievement I had hoped for. It’s a good thing another one’s around the corner.


* I wanted to get four stories published, but got two: In Woodsmore Village was in the Scotman in January; Jack, the second, super-short story, was published earlier this month.

Returning to writing (I was only away for ten days)

I took a break from writing, but not from reading, not even my own work.

Over my ten-day holiday, I read my manuscript, deemed some of it OK and some of it rubbish but all of it mine. On my return home, I filled in all the bits that I didn’t quite finish in the first flush of writing: places marked [BRIDGE] and [ADD CONVERSATION HERE].

Then some stuff happened and the harsh realities of life took over for a few weeks. That stuff has now settled a little, and I’m back to working on my novel. I pledged to Gavin that I’d finish it on Tuesday and almost did – typing frantically in sunlit Harrison Gardens, C., strawberries and tea at my elbow – but not quite. I now owe him 25 burpees and myself a two-hour writing sprint to close out that last hole: [DENOUMENT HERE].

That’s the plan for this week: to finally finish the first draft of my first novel. Then, I’m letting it rest for a little while so I can get on with plotting and writing the first chapter of my next project. I had another idea, you see, and I want to develop it for a particular application. I do love a deadline.

If all of the above sounds vague, I’m not surprised. Everything is a little fussy at the edges. My writing to do list is a mess and my quarterly plan evaluation is almost three months overdue.

I have some catching up to do.

Getting on with it: a novel struggle

I wanted to have the first, rough-as-shark-hide draft of my novel done by the end of November. That didn’t happen. I didn’t allocate nearly enough time. No, time allocation wasn’t the issue: prioritization was. I allowed the novel to slip down the list until it sat below watching the Grimm box set. It’s difficult to rise back up from a position that low.

New year, new plans. They clash.

The last new year’s resolution I made was not to make resolutions I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) keep. That was over ten years ago: I don’t make resolutions anymore. I do make plans, though. This year, I have a lot to do. We want to move and have written a list of what we need to do before we can sell or rent the flat. It’s a long, long list and we want to do the work ourselves to save money. A glorious, airy new place that is, most importantly, in a completely different area. The current estimate suggests that we need to put in 30 man days to get the priority 1 items done. We’re going to be very busy over the next three or four months.

When I’m busy doing all that stuff – what is sugar soap, anyway? – I won’t be writing or reading. That’s a problem. I don’t want to take three months off writing when I know that August and June (or whichever month ends up hosting my summer holidays) will be wordless months. Two months off writing a year I can plan for. Five I can’t.

I haven’t quite finished my first novel but have made good inroads on the plot for novel two and three. It’s not very clever, I know, to plan the next project before you’ve finished your current one, but they are contiguous so it feels more like a continuation, an extension, of my current project, than a new one. Same characters, different situations. But I really have to finish novel number one. That’s my first priority.

At this point, I don’t know how to manage all the things I need to do this year. Something has to give, but what?

Progress: writing, writing, writing in September

I set myself a target of writing 60,000 words in September. A week in I realized how ridiculously over-optimistic that was and took the estimate down to 30-40,000. At the time of writing I have written 30,524 and there’s still time to get another few thousand words in. Overall, good progress.

But then there’s the but.


Despite knowing better I expected to write in a linear fashion. That would mean that by now, I’d have 54,000 words taking us neatly from the beginning to just past the middle of the novel. Instead I have the first third kind of done, and a whole bunch of scenes arranged loosely in chronological order. I have clear ideas for the end, but am a little lost on the middle third.

I also have a long list of things I need to do, from research  I need to carry out through decisions I need to make to notes on changes. Some of the notes are in the text, some are in a separate note-book I keep for lists and thinking out ‘loud’. My list of characters has grown, the family tree has fallen to pieces, and I keeping forgetting what we know, what has happened and what the point of it all is. The chapter plan, and its associated word counts, no longer has any resemblance to the text. I’m flailing and need to take a step back to see if I can fit things together before I make the next great push.

And that, I understand, is entirely normal. This is how novels are written. I knew it was hard work: I didn’t know it was so much like wandering about in the dark, bumping into walls and feeling like an idiot.

Ultimately, I’m progressing according to plan. Not according to my structured plan, but according to the overall plan, the one that says “write a novel”. I hold on that thought, tightly.

Writing, writing, writing in September: what a ridicilous goal to set!

I look at last week’s post and laugh. It’s not a bitter laugh, but a fond one. The person who set my goals last week was a naive fool, but one with enthusiasm and a level of optimism that I find endearing.

This is what I’ve learned:

  • I can be quite prolific, but when I’m trying to write something that makes sense, I can only go for so long before I need to take a step back and think. I knew this once, but I’d forgotten.
  • Plans change. I had a chapter progression and it was good but not perfect. Last week I wrote things that showed that I needed to change the order of events. Some planning and thinking is needed.
  • I can only hold so much information in my head at once. I can remember two, maybe three chapters at a time. Not a complete 100,000 word novel.
  • Ideas that don’t relate to the ‘big work’ can still be worth looking at. Last week I wrote a piece of flash that had nothing to do with the novel. It was rather invigorating.

I didn’t meet my word goals last week and I won’t this week but that’s OK. I’ve learned things and am willing to cut myself some slack. Last week, I wrote 12,500 words. That’s a good chunk: I’m almost a third through now. If I continue like this I might still write 40,000 words this month but I’ll settle for 30,000. I’m trying to write the right words and that takes time and thought.

As I say goodbye to the sweet optimist I was last week I wonder what I’ll learn this week.

Getting down to it: writing, writing, writing in September

Sch! It’s September. Don’t talk to me, I’m writing.

I have a novel to write. I was supposed to start it in May, but got delayed. June didn’t get me far, and July and August were complete write-offs with regards to writing. (Note to self: don’t think you’ll write during the festivals. You won’t.) So September is it. I’ve set a target of 60,000 words for the month. That’s an average of 2,000 words per day. Easy, right?

No, not really. It would be, if I could write 2,000 words, steadily, every day of the month. Of course, that’s not how the world works. Although I’m mostly not socializing this month, I do have a long weekend away, and a couple of nights out. And writer’s group. And book quiz.

To get the book written I needed to plan. So I planned. I have, next to me as I write:

  • A chapter listing (incomplete) of what happens in which chapter.
  • A character list with all my characters’ names, brief bios and their relationship to each other and my main character.
  • A one-page calendar for September with events and daily word count targets clearly marked.
  • A draft family tree.

All set. Here goes.

What the publisher said: how to get published, from the horse’s mouth

As part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh City of Literature arranged for writers to meet with industry experts – an agent, a publisher, a creative writing coach, a publicist and an Edinburgh literary expert. We got 15 minutes with our chosen expert on a sunny Sunday morning. My expert was Francis Bickmore, Editorial Director at Canongate Books, a well-known Edinburgh publishing house. Francis is an experienced editor and has worked with Nick Cave, Yann Martell and other big names. I’d sent him a 500 word writing sample, a writer’s CV and questions. I also sent him some background: my questions were about making writing into a career. Here’s what I learned:

  • Write, speak and network. Do what you can to get seen.
  • Apply for everything you can to get the time and space to write and get your name out there.
  • Finish a book before even thinking about contacting agents or publishers.
  • Get an agent.
  • Make friends with other writers, especially established ones writing in your genre. They’ll give you access to publishers and agents.
  • Surround yourself with writers. You’ll need the support.
  • Don’t give up the day-job.

I also asked about the size of their slush-pile and how many new writers they take on. The figures were scary and illustrated how important an agent is. They are the first level of quality control. They are your way in, but also a publisher’s way to filter out a lot of the chaff.

It was an encouraging experience. I know that I’m doing the right things, but have realised that it might take a bit longer to get where I wanted to be than I thought. Never mind. Step the first is to finish my first novel. Bring on September.

Themes: I write about what?

Having complained about werewolves turning up all over my writing, and people thinking I wrote for children, I decided to take a close look at my preoccupations. My themes, you might say. What I found was interesting.

  • Children feature in seven out of 17 stories, but
  • werewolves only in three (four, if you count a mention).
  • I thought legs was a strong theme but they only appear in two of my stories (with a third coming).
  • Half of the stories feature supernatural beasties of some kind, add magic to the mix and we have a clear majority for speculative fiction with a fantasy bent.
  • Two stories are entirely mundane.
  • Five are told in two different voices.
  • It’s 50/50 whether I’ll write a story in first or third person,
  • but in ten of 17 stories the main character is female.
  • In about a third of my stories, the main character doesn’t have a name because, to me, they’re just an observer, a vehicle for telling the story. (In a couple of stories it’s not even clear whether the narrator is male or female because I don’t think it matters.)
  • More often than not, my stories don’t have a clear resolution but
  • stories in the third person are more likely to be resolved than stories in the first.

The last two points are of particular interest to me. When I look the other people’s stories, the ones that appear on websites and in anthologies, it becomes obvious that a resolution, a good, honest, “that’s what happened” end, is very popular. I don’t know many stories that end without closure. I will work on that, and to that end, try to write in the third person more. Even if it’s only part of the story, what with my habit to write in two voices at the same time.

Another thing I found interesting is that my short stories are urban fantasy, but not crime.  The novel I’m writing is an urban fantasy/crime cross-over so you’d think I’d be interested enough in the genre to write crime short stories. I didn’t even submit to the Bloody Scotland short story competition. The prizes looked great, but I find that I don’t have any crime ideas that don’t involve a hint of the supernatural and I didn’t think that would fly. Next year, maybe.

What did I learn from this analysis? Good question.

There’s a tension between stuff I want to write and stuff people want to read. Finding a middle ground – writing what people wants to read – involves adjusting my approach somewhat, but that can be difficult. I’m trying to get better at setting up problems so that they can be satisfyingly resolved, and anchoring my main characters. We’ll see how it goes.

Doing it for real: writing a novel

OK. This is it. It is June and that was when I was going to start writing.

Plotting started in April and took a frantic turn in May. There’s still some research I need to do and a couple of character studies that need a bit more of a polish (What really drives Anna’s mum? I need to know!) but I’m in a position to start.

The starting line is an oddly scary place to be.

I’ve only just put fingertip to keyboard but I can already tell you something about the difference between NaNoWriMo and doing it for real. When you do it for real, the pressure is on. I can feel myself reining myself in even before I’ve started. The writing of this novel isn’t just about having fun but rather about creating something that I can share with the world. This is not high literature, that’s not where I’m going – not with this one – but at the end I want something that I’m not embarrassed to ask people to read. After all, the point is to share it, as widely as possible.

Here goes.