Writing update: owning it, and second draft torture

I get embarrassed talking about writing. When people ask me how my novel’s going, I assume they’re just being polite, blush and mumble and change the subject, or I downplay things: ‘Yeah, it’s coming along OK, but it might not go anywhere so I’m trying to just enjoy writing for its own sake…’ I’m afraid people will think I’m arrogant and pretentious, or just a bore (‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? You haven’t mentioned that before!’). Most of all, I’m afraid of setting myself up for an embarrassing failure. I’ve been talking about writing for years. If I don’t get published people will think I must be really bad and, even worse, pitiably deluded about my ability to string a sentence together.

Recently, a friend pointed out that I’m constantly putting myself down in conversation. It’s not just the writing; I’m afraid of admitting that I might be half-decent at anything. Rather than charming people with my modesty, this constant self-denigration is actually more irritating than just owning what I do. What’s more, it can come across as insincere – because I do believe I’m a good writer, regardless of whether I get published or not. Most of my writer friends aren’t published yet, and I don’t consider them ‘not real writers’ because of that: it’s their self-belief and their dedication to the craft that make them writers, not a six-figure book deal. In fact, one could argue that dedicating oneself to something when there’s no immediate payoff – just early mornings, lonely evenings, sleepless nights wrangling with your plot, but above all the sense of fulfillment that comes with expressing your creativity – is the purest, noblest form of writing.

Payoff would be nice too, of course. 

It’s Lent, and this year I’ve decided I’ll try to banish the feelings of embarrassment, shame, self-doubt and fear of failure that constantly attempt to ambush my life (a nebulous resolution, I know). In that spirit, I’m going to tell you about my writing, proudly. So, here’s my latest novel update.

I’m almost at the end of my second draft, although that little almost feels like the last stage of a triathlon I forgot to train for. It feels like I’ll be writing this bloody novel until my teeth start falling out, and have been writing it since the day I learnt my first word (it’s been just over a year, but oh, how I’ve aged…). I write more frequently than ever, and yet it’s still never finished. I’ve never, ever found the writing process this torturous – and I suspect it’s precisely because I’m finding it so torturous now that this novel is the best I’ve ever written. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is the way it will be again and again and again if I continue to write. It will never get easier; the journey will just be different each time.

Now I know why the previous novels I wrote weren’t good enough. This was my writing process:

  1. Have a vague idea. Think myself very clever.
  2. Plunge headfirst into writing and churn out a few chapters in a frenzy. Read them back and think myself even more clever.
  3. Realise I need a plot and half-heartedly concoct something that I think sounds vaguely plausible.
  4. Write more chapters. Edit each one immediately after finishing until I eventually reach the end. Piece the chapters together and, ta-da, it’s a novel!
  5. Read through novel as a whole. I’ve already edited it, so think the writing is awesome. Tinker with it a bit. There, it’s perfect now!
  6. Put the novel in a drawer. Read it back a year later. Cringe at the disjointed chapters, the inconsistent characters, the lack of a coherent vision or overall narrative structure. Think I’m not very clever at all and will never be a real writer.
  7. Mope for a bit, and then pick myself up and move on.

Picking myself up and moving on was the most important part. For each of those crappy novels, I’m sure I learnt something, even if it was what not to do. For my current novel, largely informed by what I learnt on the Faber course, my process has been very different:

  • Have an idea. Start writing. When I feel it’s actually going to work, take a breather.
  • Write out a detailed plot, divided into a rough number of chapters, with a clear narrative arc, as well as brief profiles of the main characters. (This is not to say I stuck rigidly to this plot; it changed dramatically as I wrote, and had epiphanies while in the shower, so I was constantly editing and updating my plot document.)
  • Write my first draft. Write write write. Keep going. Never look back, however tempting. Churn out reams of crappy prose until I reach the ending.
  • Put it in a drawer. Don’t do any writing; live my life, see friends, cook proper meals, go to the gym… or mostly just end up sleeping. (I left my draft about a month, although some people leave it six months; I can see the value in giving yourself a proper psychological distance, but I’m too impatient!)
  • Self-publish a single copy, so I can read it as if it’s a published novel. (I found this stage painful; I was on a high when I finished the draft, a feeling that was crushed upon reading the crappy words that had seemed ‘raw’ at the time. The draft was pretty terrible, but I could see its potential.)
  • Write out the plot, chapter-by-chapter, in a grid. (In this grid I included the major characters in each scene and the time of year, to make sure characters received equal attention and the seasons changed appropriate… there was an awful lot of ‘pathetic fallacy’ rainfall in my first draft.) Overhaul the grid, making it more coherent and logical.
  • Go through the manuscript and cut, paste and delete to match the new grid. (In this process I cut out about 20,000 words.)
  • This is the stage I’m on now: rewrite. It’s taken months longer than expected, because this isn’t just tinkering: characters have had personality transplants (by which I mean, they now have personalities), new scenes have been written, darlings have been killed. I keep coming across the words INSERT SCENE HERE or MAKE THIS BETTER just when I think I’ve nearly finished another chapter. This can be disheartening when I feel like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone up a hill, but what keeps me going is that it will end – even if it takes three, four or five drafts.

A year and a half into this novel, I’ve come to accept that writing isn’t always a passionate, cathartic rush of images and ideas flowing effortlessly from my soul and my fingertips. Most of the time it’s a long, hard endurance test, and I’m determined to keep on running until I pass out. On top of my completed novel, I hope.

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