Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Working without a net

I’d hoped to get an update online a little sooner than this, but real life being what it is, other things got in the way. Never mind – that just means there’s lots to report later... For now, though, I promised to provide some details about the project I’ve decided to work on during 2012. So here goes.

After a few years of concentrating on short stories (and after some harassment from other writers, urging me to get my finger out), I’ve started work on my first novel. It goes without saying that this is an entirely different discipline to the one I’m used to and the learning curve isn’t steep so much as precipitous.

If anything’s held me back from attempting something bigger than my usual writing, it’s the planning. With short stories, I plot meticulously – there’s still room for the tale to breathe, to change and surprise me, but I don’t normally write the first word unless I know with a reasonable degree of detail how I’m going to get from A to B. Taking a similar approach to a novel (while fitting it in around a mentally draining day job) would mean I’d still be tinkering with the plot in 2022, so I made the decision to just start. I know very roughly what I want to happen, and in what order, but large swathes of this story will be developed on the fly. It’s like working without a safety net – it could be spectacular, or I could end up getting scraped off the floor of the Big Top.

What it has done is get me writing – I’ve committed to 2000 words a week, with the target of 80-100,000 by the end of the year (allowing for slip ups). I write on Sundays, and during the week concentrate on plotting the next weekend’s draft. And so far it’s working.

The problem is, it’s not very efficient.

I’ve found that the key part of writing anything is getting words on the page – no matter how rough, how crap it is, if you have a first draft, you can fix most things in the rewrites. But on this kind of scale, with this level of planning? That really cool piece of character development I thought of during the week? Clashes with what I wrote in week one. That idea that emerged on Thursday lunchtime to pump up the ending? That’ll mean reworking week seven. Again. Ten weeks in, and I’ve had to go back and revise at least half of my total word count.

I’ve attempted to limit the damage by purchasing Scrivener, a piece of software the praises of which Mac users have long sung and which has finally become available for Windows. A one-stop organization tool for long-form writing, it’s actually proven very useful so far, structuring my draft more solidly than if I’d not used it. But the process is still very daunting. And while it’s still early days, I’ve not yet got a sense of whether or not the project is really coming together. For someone who’s used to having everything wrapped up prettily in 5000 words or less, it’s shit-scary.

But I won’t know unless I try, so I’ll forge on and try to update here on progress. One thing that has emerged from the process, however – and something I’ll take away even if this does turn into an almighty car crash – is that I’ve once again got the taste for writing. After such a long fallow period in 2011, piecing this story together has fired my enthusiasm for others – I have two short story drafts running parallel to this novel, more stories on the go at any one time than I’ve ever had.

And that, at least, is a win.


Blogger DAVID BISHOP said...

Don't get too daunted by the scale of the challenge ahead. Short story or novel, you still write it one word at a time, one sentence at a time, etc.

If it helps, try thinking of each chapter as being its own short story. So you're not writing a 100k novel, but 20 interwoven short stories.

No matter what I'm writing, every time I restart work on the first draft I re-read [and tweak] the last 10 pages of what I've already written. Gets you back into the house style, reminds you where you are with the characters, etc.

Oh, and don't beat yourself if something isn't perfect. Give yourself permission to write placeholder stuff in order to keep moving forwards. It's a first draft, all first drafts are shit, no matter how polished they might be.


1:57 PM  
Blogger Pete Kempshall said...

"Placeholder stuff" - that's exactly what it is! But as you say, it keeps the momentum up, which is what I'm hoping for. I think I'm just a preparation junkie... should probably just go with it and see what happens.

(And good to hear from you - hope all's going well in the frozen north!)

8:07 PM  

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