For the past two months I have been working rather feverishly on the basic plot of my novel. After the manuscript assessment, I started reading about plot and tried to use what I was learning to help guide my revisions. It turns out that an awful lot has been written about plot.
I read two books and reworked the whole thing, cutting out more than half of what I had and adding and adding and adding more back in. I read through the whole thing the other week, start to finish. It was okay. I had hoped for it to be a near-final draft but clearly it isn’t, because I want it to be more than okay! Rather than a couple of months of editing left, I think it will take me into winter again.
The first half seemed good but then something happened. It drifted and I couldn’t understand why. So I’ve read more and I’ve written lists and I’ve paid much closer attention to novels that I’m reading to understand how they do it. Why do we care about people who don’t exist? Why do we stop caring?
The characters were lost in plot holes because I didn’t want that part of the plot to matter, or because I hadn’t thought of why it should matter. I hoped it wasn’t obvious but of course it was. If I’m treating parts that matter like they don’t, it is very easy to start seeing the whole thing as something that doesn’t matter.
It is back to the drawing board with my shovel. I will fill in those plot holes and god damn it, it will be better than okay when I’m finished with it.
After the manuscript assessment, I cut my 60,000 word draft to 25,000, and have since built it back up to 40,000, with a pretty good idea where the rest is going to come in. Before I go any further though, I have made a drastic decision:
I’m going to change it from first person to third person.
This is a painful exercise and one I have been avoiding for a long time. I did the same with A Perilous Margin but at a much earlier stage. First person is a great way to get a feel for a character at the beginning when you’re unsure who they really are, but after a while it can feel like it is holding the book back. There are fewer angles, and, honestly, the main character can start to seem really annoying because they are always there.
After switching the first chapter, I have come to a new realisation.. When writing in first person, the character is judging themselves, and those judgments can be harsh. I’m not sure how many people in the world really like themselves, but writing in first person makes all those little personal criticisms tangible, like they are facts rather than opinions. Switching to third person, all of a sudden the narrator sounds mean for judging the main character like that, even though when the character was judging herself it seemed perfectly normal. All of a sudden I need to add compassion and understanding to what is happening.
I wanted to give this woman a hug because her harsh inner monologue seemed perfectly normal, yet when it was no longer inner it was unimaginably cruel.
Why are we so much less forgiving of ourselves than we are of others?
A test then, next time you think you have acted badly, or are generally unhappy with who you are. Write down something you did, including how you felt about it, and then switch it to third person. It is truly astounding.
I know everyone has been eagerly wondering what the result of the manuscript assessment was. As I mentioned last time, I had a long wait. When the wait was over, my overwhelming thought was: oh yes, I thought so.
She liked my writing style. She thought it was accessible. She thought the characters were multi-dimensional and their relationships believable. All this is good.
She also thought at least a third of the plot was unnecessary, and that huge areas were missing. She said it was great that she cared about the characters and what was happening to them. But she sounded frustrated that she didn’t know more about why it was happening to them.
It is very similar to the feedback I first got on A Perilous Margin. Plot, I have come to accept, is my Achilles heel.
Which sounds ridiculous, as it is a pretty fundamental thing for writing novels. That, I think, is the problem. For years I have thought of myself practising writing, not writing novels. But writing 13,000 well well-crafted sentences does not make a novel. It makes a whole bunch of pleasant sentences and a very frustrated reader.
It is easy for people who don’t read genre fiction to scoff about plot. If it’s not a thriller or a romance, does it even have a plot? Many books feel like simple, realistic stories about simple, realistic people. No serial killers, no longing gazes over candlelight. When a novel feels real it often feels plotless because it is so like our lives, and our lives certainly don’t have a plot. That is what the best writers do. It may be disguised among ordinary actions but if it’s not there at all then you really do just have a bunch of people who kind of like each other sitting around. It is painfully obvious, and it doesn’t get published.
So I am embarking on a new learning chapter. Since I can afford neither a degree in creative writing, nor a proper online writing course, I am doing the next best thing. Reading books about plot. I will teach myself, because whatever instinct or natural talent I may have clearly does not extend to understanding things like tension, or pacing, or narrative arcs. And if I’m going to write about a bunch of people sitting around, I’d like to at least know why they are sitting around in that particular spot on that particular day.
I sent a manuscript to an editor this week. There is a great service where, for a hefty price, you can get professional feedback. No one has read this manuscript. It is of a fairly personal nature and so the thought of anyone I know critiquing it is uncomfortable, to say the least. But a stranger? I’ll have me some of that.
The thing is, when you have been polishing and polishing and polishing something for a long time, and then you let it go, everything else tends to look a bit shit. I was excited about getting back to work on something I haven’t looked at since July, but on opening the document my heart sank. It’s not very good. Which doesn’t mean it can’t be, but my god the WORK still to do! It’s endless!
So instead of facing that uphill battle immediately, I started something new, because having three unfinished novels going at once clearly isn’t enough. This one, I hope, might be fun. I’m not very good at fun, in general but particularly with regards to writing. I’m not a fun writer. After the personal, slightly tormented slog of the current one (last one? I’m not sure what to call it since it doesn’t have a proper name yet), it would be really good to write something enjoyable. Characters I can laugh with would be nice. We’ll just have to wait and see if the personality make-over is successful though, or if on re-drafting all the fun disappears.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the struggle to keep going. The novel I am working on was feeling unwieldy and misshapen, and I couldn’t get a grip on it. It was only by writing that post that I realised how long that struggle had been going on, and I took drastic action.
The next day, I cut 12,000 words. It was like losing a gangrenous limb. Those three sections had, at one time, seemed necessary. They were long, obviously, and I liked so many things about them. I had worked so hard to make them as good as I thought they could be. But I had had doubts for weeks and the relief when they were finally gone, falling away while the rest of the manuscript drifted slightly higher, was intense and energising.
I began a new plan. I moved other elements around. I streamlined, though that sounds coldly managerial, and all of a sudden I had room for the parts that had been missing. Which means I am once again writing, actually writing, and not just tweaking. Whole new scenes need to be created and, since that is the fun part, I’m in quite a good mood.
It’s easy to write blog posts about things being difficult, so I am going to leave this happy little post here to remind me: there is so much joy in creating something new, and that creation shouldn’t always be shackled to complaints of how hard it is as well.
I have been stuck for a while. I have blamed it on many things but mainly the upheaval of moving to a different city. But I was stuck before that as well, and then I blamed it on summer and it’s associated distractions – socialising, long evenings, heat. The truth is I would be stuck no matter what was going on and these are just useful excuses.
I started thinking that maybe I am done, I’ve published something, isn’t that enough? Am I really going to just keep doing this, over and over and over? It’s really hard. And apparently it won’t ever not be hard. What the hell have I got myself into?
I have a draft of a novel, and another almost-draft. This is supposed to be good. I have done a lot of work and I’m reasonably proud of both of them. I should be elated.
But I’m not. After weeks (months) of tinkering, changing a word and knowing deep down the change did nothing, I did what we all do when we get stuck these days and I asked google. I found this:
A first draft is the beginning of the end. But the end lasts for ever.
Forever is a long time. I feel like I should be seeing a finish line for at least one of these drafts but instead it is like I just got off the plane at the foot of the Andes, and now I have to actually climb the bloody mountains. All of them. Do I restructure? Change the tense? (If you have ever changed the tense of more than a page, you will know what an intimidating thought that is.) Will it actually be better if I drastically change it or am I so tired that anything different will seem fresh and interesting? Do I just throw in the towel and start something else from scratch, something that might be good enough with only one draft? In the words of Mr Bernard Black, don’t make me laugh bitterly.
The worst thing, by far, is that there is nothing for it but to keep going, at a snail’s pace, with lots of cursing and wine, with the knowledge that even if the end comes it might not really be the end, there might be another eight-hundred drafts behind it, and the constant toddler-like foot-stamping changes nothing. This is it, and you better believe it just keeps going.
I find the word draft deceptive. It is so complete, so finite. It seems to belong to the days of typewriters. I can imagine someone sitting, typing page after page after page and laying them each in a pile. I can imagine them reading through it when it was finished, making changes in a nice red pen, then retyping the whole thing. Voila. That, to me, would be a draft.
I have been trying a new thing with two novels I am currently working on. In order to avoid the tendency to reread and continually amend the beginning chapters, which seems to lead to a pretty lopsided book, I have only let myself reread one previous paragraph before I start writing for the day.
Recently, I started from the beginning and read the whole thing. In some ways, I guess what I have just read is a draft.
What I really feel like I have been doing, however, is adding to a skeleton in order to hopefully, one day soon, have a draft. It is like I am making a real body, and the body will be the draft, because then I can cut off some fingers or even a limb, I can smoosh things around and end up with a new body, but I need a body to begin with. This is sounding a bit gross, sorry. Anyway, my first attempts are always skeletal, bare words which carry story but not much else. It is not complete enough, even at 60,000 words, to be a draft because a draft has to be a version of the final result.
To understand what I’m doing better, and because I’m a big nerd who likes thinking about things too much, I kept a few examples of paragraphs from before and after this process.
My dormitory had three extra occupants, I noticed as soon as I entered the room. They were absent but their heavy backpacks were lying against their beds. Men, I guessed by the look of their bags. I felt suddenly jarred by the thought of socialising, easy small-talk seemed suddenly far from my list of priorities. Although they weren’t there and I could in theory have stayed and been alone, I returned to the front of the hostel.
I was desperate to get back to my dormitory, which had been such a sanctuary the week before. I pushed the door open, preparing to feel cocooned in safety, and stopped. There were three heavy backpacks lying against three, formally empty beds. Men, I guessed by the look of their bags. I took a step in and dropped my bag on my bed. My bed, in what had been my room. The thought of socialising jarred against the image I had had for the evening, and small-talk was far from my list of priorities. I kicked off my hiking boots, aware of the odour in a way I hadn’t needed to be the week before, and put on my sandals. I stood, feeling lost, the bags like a presence in the room.
It’s still not finished but it is a relief to see progress. Hopefully that’s what I’m seeing.
I think it needs one more read through before it is actually a draft, and then I will abandon it for a nice couple of months. Then, I have found out about this nifty thing where you can send a PDF to your kindle. That is brilliant. That will be the real first draft, or maybe the seventeenth. Who’s counting anyway?