Saturday, 30 June 2012

First Step, Final Step

This week I finished the first draft of the novel, all 100,500 words of it, and realised I had taken only the first step. It's quite a big step, I think, but still a first. I have put the whole thing away, together with all the books I used for research, the (now nonsensical) notes on scraps of paper and character cards, until 1st August. That gives me a few weeks to allow my heart to turn cold towards it. I'll sit down and read it with detachment and make copious notes. I feel a special new notebook wending its way here to make a home with me. A really nice one.

And in the same week of this first step towards producing a book, my eldest daughter took the final one of her degree course at Cardiff University. She achieved a First and we couldn't be more proud of her. Not just for this wonderful result, but for the wonderful girl she is. She has overcome serious personal setbacks to reach this stage of her life and never once given up. And it was a hard road to tread at times. Her result is a triumph for her as a person, as well as an accolade for her hard work. She is also very beautiful and has a smile that, if it were the last thing I ever saw while gripping to the edge of a cliff by my fingernails like Mufasa in the Lion King, I would be smiling back.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Joy of Coloured Card

I have, rather late in the day, discovered how useful it is to have long strips of firm card on which to write details about the characters in my novel. It's better than scraps of paper or a notepad for this purpose because it means you have an excuse to buy beautiful, ready-cut and over-priced strips of card in lots of gorgeous colours. Also, because of their brightness and beauty, I don't lose them. Furthermore, the people in the novel who form a natural group, such as the main family or their foreign relatives or their neighbours or their friends, can each have their own colour. So when I'm struggling to recall aspects of a minor character's life/personality/habits from an earlier chapter, I can just find their colour and check the facts or add to them. All at a glance. (Or I could if I'd discovered this at the beginning.)
I don't usually make any lists or plans whatsoever, but I do love my cards. Just as I love my very weird spreadsheet for its coloured boxes. It may have something to do with colour. I have very bad eyesight, so perhaps I need things that stand out well.
Writing the novel, I reached the stage where I couldn't remember tiny quirks and individual characteristics, so now everything is added to the cards, if I remember to stop and do it. I also have a card for the street where they live. To a small extent, it forms a character of its own.
The other wonderful thing is that it gives a legitimate reason to procrastinate. I'm sure it's better for me to duplicate information on a blue or purple or pink piece of card when I need a pause from writing, than to wander through Amazon yet again, clicking away and adding to the ridiculously tall tower of books waiting to be read. I might count them one day, when I'm procrastinating again.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Bewildering Walls

Well, I've reached almost 80,000 words of the novel now and loved every moment of writing it. I don't want it to end in some ways, but I'm really excited about reading it through for the first time. I'm going to leave it for a month first and try to approach it in a collected, detached and critical way. I'm aiming to reach about 100K and probably delete about 10% of that. All of which seems very mathematical and organised for me, but I think that's how it will go. Or maybe I've been reading Stephen King's On Writing again. I'm pretty sure he says that's a reasonable aim. There will certainly be some deleting.

With the last 20K or so still to write, I was having great fun with it this week, having reached a crucial part of the main character's journey, the part I had looked forward to so much. And I had to stop. I hit a brick wall. Which is ironic, since the theme is walls, both physical and emotional. And here was mine.

It made me laugh to start with, this wall. I was supposed to be the author, steering and guiding my people up to and over their walls. And I'd met one I couldn't circumvent for them, bringing the whole process to a ridiculous stop. I spent the day trying to sort it out. The problem was that this turned out to be an historical novel. Initially, I planned to bring in a thread or two from history and just sort of weave them loosely into the fiction. But the history-aspect grew and grew. And I discovered that I'd set the whole thing a year late for the story-line I wanted. But changing the year would mean changing dozens of details, a painstaking editorial job that might really challenge my hitherto positive attitude to the whole work.

I paced and seethed, ate a lot of cereal and drank a lot of coffee. I was angry that I'd overlooked the details that might have shown me much earlier that I was heading the wrong way. I then stopped being a twit and tried looking at the problem with great care, researching my research before ploughing ahead with these massive, sweeping changes.

And I discovered I was OK! It was such a huge relief. I had panicked, misunderstood some facts and tied myself in knots for nothing. It was just a matter of not reading some information properly. My original research had been in order after all. (I think.) So I can carry on as planned and hopefully reach the end very soon before I put it away for that important month's break. I'll try to read it through in one sitting, setting aside a whole day to do so, without any nit-picking alterations, just being a reader rather than a writer and getting the feel of the whole thing. Then I'll get down to the cutting and developing and stitching disconnected bits together.

This novel began as a short story that became a favourite of mine. It was shortlisted several times in competitions, but never placed. I began to wonder if that might be because it wasn't complete as a short story. Maybe it was the beginning of something more, an introduction to something bigger. I liked the characters and wanted to know what happened to them next. They've kept me entertained ever since, so even if nothing further happens, I will have had a brilliant time writing it and learned a lot from it as an exercise.

I heard last month that I'd been shortlisted in the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen short story competition. I don't think I've got any further than that. But it was good to be in the final twenty five in that particular competition, since William Trevor is my hero. And I came second in the latest Yellow Room competition, which I was very happy about. I love the fiction in that magazine.
I'm also excited to have been invited to meet pupils at Henbury School in Bristol later this month. They have created artwork for ShortStoryVille, organised by The Bristol Short Story Prize. The details are here. They chose my story from the 2010 anthology as inspiration for their art and it's such a thrill to know that and to get the chance to meet them. The story was surreal, involving a man who became an ostrich. It's rare for me to write anything surreal, but sometimes I get the urge and it paid off that time. However, I've never managed to interest anyone in my story of a lady who levitates. Maybe that one was just too silly. I'm looking forward to seeing how the students have interpreted the image of the man/ostrich.

I'm still trying to write short stories as well as the novel, but it's hard to fit both in. Mostly I just choose whichever jostles for position with the most urgency. I love both so much. The pleasure I get from writing never diminishes. When I'm immersed, I always wonder why I spend so much time procrastinating first. The writing is such a joy, even when I get it wrong, that it's odd to think I've sat there putting it off with visits to Amazon etc. I'm not on Facebook any more and I haven't ever really got into Twitter, but I still lose a lot of time gazing at things on the screen that have little to do with writing. However hard it gets at times, it's never as hard as the realisation that it's midday and not a word has been typed yet!

I hope you're all enjoying the bank-holiday break. It's nice not be rushing about. Having said that, we've been laying a floor and finding it very hard work in a large room that has no straight walls or true corners. Walls again!