I’ve thrown out last year’s plans and started over. Plans are good, but I’m not sure that I’m in a position to make realistic ones.
Last year, my plans were numeric: this many short stories, this much income from writing, this number of performances. Not so this year. I want to write a few more short stories – it’s more fun to send out new stories than ones that have been knocking around for a while. But more importantly, I want to draft the sequel to my first novel. And I want to do it quickly. To this end, I’m changing my approach. A natural gardener, or seat-of-pants, writer, I’m going to try to develop a plan, a plot, an outline.
Novel the first, still not quite there, was only half plotted. A lot changed as I wrote – the killer, for example, and the structure. Novel the second will be fully plotted. I’m spending January outlining it and doing proper background work on my characters so that I can then spend the next four months writing. It’ll be interesting to see if I’m still interested in writing the story once I’ve worked out what’s happening when and how. Most of what I’ve written to date has been grown instead of being built and there are stories in my drawer without endings. Hopefully, this year will give me time to decide what to do with some of these, which to complete and which to retire.
One of the problems with novel the first is that I’ve forgotten what its all about. Because I’ve had long breaks in the writing, and because there’s no firm outline, I’ve forgotten about my characters’ motivations and I’ve forgotten things I meant to put in. What does that tell me? I need to work things out more fully before I start, and I need to keep better notes. To return to the architect and gardener metaphor, I’m going to try architecture for a while since gardening has proved too thorny.
Novel the first began as a job of joy and folly but ended up a mess. I’m hoping that a more structured approach will take the second one further. The process might also help me sort out some of the problems of the first one. It’s resting for now, but it will come out of the drawer at some point.
In the meanwhile, I will learn useful lessons about plotting a novel and have a lot of fun making life difficult for my favourite characters.
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.
I’m short of materials and ideas, so I decided to write a short story a day for the first seven days of this month. We’re on day four. How is it going?
It’s going great but not in the way I expected it to.
No, I haven’t written three short stories and I won’t write one tonight either. But I have written three scenes for my novel and a short story that is a prequel to the novel, about one of the supporting characters. I sat down to come up with new ideas and my brain started galloping around my magical universe, looking out different characters’ eyes, weaving in new threads and setting things up for the sequel. It’d be dumb to fight it.
It’s been difficult to get the last bit figured out and written. For a while, I thought I had lost interest in this set of characters, this entire story. It would seem I haven’t.
I can always write short stories next week.
Or the week after.
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.
I’m going on holiday. I’ll be away and then I’ll return, probably tired, but hopefully sun-kissed and relaxed. I can’t quite decide whether to pack one pair of flip flops or two. If we were going to Tennessee again, I’d definitely pack two. But we’re going to Winchester. Maybe one pair’s enough.
I’ve learned, the hard way, that a holiday is a holiday and not a time for hard work or achievement. The principles of relaxation and attention on your loved ones and personal achievement clash spectacularly if you try to combine them. Each to their own, they are laudable and create happiness. Together, they are a guilt and stress cocktail that ensure that you come home frazzled and dissatisfied with yourself, your work, and the people you wanted to spend time with.
I say I’ve learned.
I’m writing this to the irritating sound of my printer printing the last two thirds of the first-ish draft of my novel. I am really, really close to finishing the thing but I need another read-through. Not of the whole novel, this time, just the bits less polished or missing.
Yes. I’m taking my manuscript on holiday. And I intend to read it. But it’s OK: there are no goals associated with the print-out, no expectations.
I just packed sticky index notes (in fluorescent colours). Still. No expectation. I know better.
This is a holiday.
Last year I achieved five of seven goals. This year, I’ve changed my goals a little and some of last year’s goals, sending a story out at least five times before retiring it for example, is now just part of the process. Likewise, I now assume that if I write a story, I’ll send it somewhere, so writing ten stories implies submitting ten stories. I’ve realised that it’s not realistic to write one per month – some months I don’t write – but ten over the year should be doable, even if I’m working on a novel.
This is what I’d like to achieve this year:
- Get four stories published. One down, three to go. I’ve got six stories out at the moment: one’s in the second sift, one’s in a competition I do not expect it to win, one I won’t hear about and the other three could go either way. I’ve got new markets lined up for most of them so I can send them out again as soon as they get rejected.
- Make £150 from fiction. To do that, I’m submitting to paying markets only, and starting with ones that pay at least $50 per story.
- Write (and submit) ten short stories. Super-flash stories (100 words or shorter) don’t count. I’m planning three long ones (5-6K)*, three of ‘literary’ length (2K)**, and four flash pieces (<1K)***.
- Do four spoken performances. I don’t have anything lined up so far so I might struggle to meet this.
- Do Story Shop. I didn’t get in last year. This year, I really, really want it. If I get it, it counts as one performance.
- Complete novel number 1. In progress.
- Start novel number 2. It (and another, shorter YA novel) is plotting itself quietly in the back of my head.
- Collaborate. Working with someone else will be fun: I think it might change how I work. And I know who I’m doing it with so this one should be easy.
- Get an agent. The main purpose of this year is to find an agent. This one task is more difficult than all the other goals put together.
I know what I need to do and it can be summed up like this: write, submit and read. Business as usual, then.
* Two of which already have working titles: Jonah’s Story and Fingers in the Dirt. Watch this space as they get written.
** The first one of these, The Foods of Lara’s Loves, is looking for a market.
*** One for each performance.
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.
Continue Reading “Getting on with it: a novel struggle”
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.
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.
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.