Sunday, 9 August 2015

Writing a novel is like mountaineering. Don't forget your crampons.

(This is an amended and expanded copy of my August newsletter, which can be found here.)

It ended with a low moan of relief, rather than a shout of joy and a hurling of papers in the air.

Yes, I have done it. A complete draft of the second book in The Darkest Trilogy has been written! (I never thought I'd see the day - and if you've been following my monthly reports on my web sites, I suspect neither did you!)

I've been working on it for eleven months, pretty much every day. And it feels like it. What a job it's been!

Finishing a novel - or at least a draft for your agent to read, tear apart and hand back to you with 'Must try harder' written across the top - is a peculiar experience. Whilst you have moments of euphoria and joy, occasional tightening of the guts and that rare but delightful sensation when something emboldening trickles out of your brain and floods into your heart as you write, writing a novel is a slog. A long hard slog, much like climbing a mountain.

Everyday you set off, your eye always on the summit, but your focus on the next camp ahead. You have good days when you make tremendous progress, almost sauntering along and you have terrible days, when you get blown off the mountain and have to haul your way back onto the path. (Let me tell you, when my software corrupted and mashed my entire, non-backed-up manuscript, into a ball of chopped and busted words, that was an avalanche which hit me that day on the mountainside! Backing up your work - there's a blog entry coming about this one!)

And if and when you get to the very top, you look about about yourself exhausted, admiring the view and think, "Crikey, that was a long way! What next?", too tired to really contemplate doing anything.

Only, of course, in my analogy, I am more at camp halfway up the mountain, rather than at the summit, because from here I get my agent's edits back, rework the manuscript accordingly, go back to the agent with another draft, then off to the publisher (hopefully), then more edits, and then … then I start on book three!

But we're not thinking about that at the moment. At the moment, as I write this, I am thinking about cold beer, behaving badly, reintroducing myself into my family again. Being a normal human being for the first time in nearly a year.

To write a novel, I think it's important to not look too far ahead of yourself. If you stand at the foot of a mountain and look up at its lofty heights, most likely you'll think, 'bugger this for a game of soldiers' and go off and do something less taxing. Look to writing that first chapter, then the next, then the next section, then the one after that. Then halfway. Then the penultimate quarter. Then the exciting conclusion.

By breaking down into manageable chunks, the whole thing feels so much more achievable. Writing 2,000 words is a 'challenge' but perfectly doable. Writing 120,000 words is 'impossible'. So think small and grow big.

To write a novel you need to gird your loins and apply yourself. Hard. It takes stamina, determination, courage, selfishness. A year of your life. Are you willing to dedicate a year of your life to a project? Because that is how long it'll take, once you've written it (several times), edited it, edited it again, gone back and written it, polished it, shown it to friends and proofreaders. You'll notice I say 'are you willing to dedicate a year', not 'are you able to.' Everyone is able. It's just whether or not you're willing to be selfish enough to lock yourself away and write write write and not lose heart or interest.

Nothing makes you questions yourself, your abilities, your confidence and your sanity like a novel. You'll have days when you think you're a genius and lot more days where you think you're an imbecile. There's no way around this. You just have to keep going, keep trying to believe in yourself, what you're saying and striving for the finishing line. One useful technique is to keep reminding yourself that 'no one will ever read your first draft except you.' This removes a lot of pressure knowing this. You can write much more fluidly, openly and honestly when you tell yourself this. By doing so, the demons crawl back into their holes, the doubts evaporate and the words seem to flow much better. And flowing words tend to mean flowing prose which tends to mean stronger writing.

But novels are hard work. That's why it feels such an achievement to complete one. I've written three now, including The Fallen which is the name of my latest, and with each one I am learning a little bit more about myself, about writing, about pace, characters, and hopefully improving each time as well.

Writing novels comes at a cost, to health (both mental and physical health), materially and with those around you. On my Facebook account, I tried to succinctly capture what writing this latest book cost me. It pretty much sums it up.

"So 11 months, 7 rewrites and false starts, four bumper black ink cartridges, 2 printers, 2,220 sheets of A4, 2 chairs, least a hundred more grey hairs, chest pains, bags under my eyes, a stoop, tears, self-harming, a pitiful weekend away in Weymouth, 128 2 litre bottles of sparkling water, crates of beer and wine, whiskey and whisky, sleepless nights too many to number, writing sessions at 3am, writing sessions at midnight, more coffee than the annual output of Brazil, more tea than all of Sri Lanka produced in the noughties, an ink pen, a sharpie pen, my nails, my sanity, my children's holidays and birthdays, nights too many without my wife, and a million plus words condensed down to 104,000, I have finally submitted a draft of The Fallen to my literary agent."

As my friend and fellow author Russell Mardell said, "Why do we keep doing it? It's either an addiction, therapy, stupidity or masochism. Likely all of them." And I think he's right.

But right now I'm off to the funny farm, with a beer in my hand.

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