When I’m Queen (PS this book is driving me fricking crazy)

If words were beans you could feed the whole world with the words I’ve expended in writing this novel.

You could paper the walls of houses up and down the length and breadth of England with the drafts I’ve printed out and chucked away.

If you stood all my sentences end to end they would stretch to the moon.

if you broke them all up into letters you’d need a Scrabble bag the size of Russia to hold them.

And yet… and yet… and yet…

I still haven’t finished it.

That word haunts me. Still. As in: ‘You’re not still writing that novel, are you?’

Another favourite is yet. As in: ‘Haven’t you finished that book yet?’

My face when someone asks about my novel.

My face when someone asks about my novel.

When I’m queen we shall outlaw ‘still’ and ‘yet’ in all public discourse on the subject of printed works and their nearness to completion and/or the duration of time thus far expended with the purpose of completing said printed work.

We shall, in addition, outlaw the asking of these questions by all persons not sufficiently, themselves, acquainted with said process.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning. Instead, bringeth cake.

When I’m queen, those persons who, personally, have no prior, personal experience of the production of a printed work of novel-icular length, shall be disallowed from the raising of eyebrows when excuses are made responses are given. Any and all persons encountered by the person encountering Herculean labours in novel-icular service shall select from the list 7(b) to be found in Appendix 12(f), titled: Soothing Statements. Under no circumstances should comparisons ever be drawn with rocket science or coal mining. In such cases (as indeed sanctioned by the Pope himself) a punch in the face may be forthcoming.

To speak plainly…

I think I may have stuffed up my novel.

Gulp. (And other four letter words.)

So, yes, I am still writing my novel and, no, I haven’t finished yet. Soothing Statements gratefully received.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Four

A first draft is for telling the story to yourself.

The second draft, and the third, and the fourth… and the twenty-seventh… and the four-hundred-and-eleventh… are for telling the story to the reader. In other words: what to leave in (so that everything is not completely baffling) and what to take out (so that you’re not too patronising) and what to rephrase (because that sentence was aesthetically pleasing as the spiral of cat poop that was left for me in the bathtub yesterday morning – not a joke), and so on and so forth.

I wrote 9000 words yesterday, although large swathes of the day were spent on other things, which seems such a miraculous happening that I think we need a spontaneous picture here of some ‘Assorted Saints’ (that’s what the image is called; again not a joke).

And when, then I'd written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

And then, when I’d written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

 Image source (if you’d care to purchase some religious wallpaper)

There has been some fall-out along the way. A surprising amount of typos can be made when you’re writing as if the story is a train that you’re racing to catch. I’m aware (as I said in yesterday’s post) (which slightly, old-fashionedly, makes me think I’m inside the postbag, or the postbox, or being squeezed through someone’s letter box) (um anyway…) WHERE WAS I? Ah yes. I’m aware of wanting 70 thousand words, instead of the recommended 50 thousand, from this hectic month of November, but that’s only a back-to-front way of approaching the fact that the story seems to need/want/demand another twenty thousand words or so. (The Story should get together and go on a date with those Markets we’re always hearing about, and have a good chuckle over the power of an abstract concept to enslave humankind.)

Really, I’ll just keep writing until I run out of story. It doesn’t matter if that’s 70K or 170K, and

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before you tell me ‘no one ever buys first novels longer than 100K’, because first drafts have their own rules, and one of those rules is: THERE ARE NO RULES! Hurray. Cast caution to the wind

Goodbye, caution!

Goodbye, caution!

Image source

and write your little ass off, as badly – or goodly (erm…) – as you like. You will never, never, never again be as free (with this particular book) as you are now.

Remember those halcyon days at the start of a long-term relationship? When it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying, because the other person isn’t listening: the fact that you’re speaking at all – the fact that you exist – is reason enough for your mouth to be opening and closing, while they gaze at your face through the rose-tinted candlelight and wonder how ever their heart could have bothered to beat in the wasteland of their existence before you – you, oh wonderful creature – walked into their life. And even though you never fart in front of them, if you did it would waft like a squirt of Chanel no 5, because nothing can really be wrong that comes out of your body. You could probably even (don’t take my word on this) have a dump on the ground in front of them – possibly even in their shoes – and get away with it. And they’d still want to snog you.

That’s where I am with the novel right now. It can do no wrong. I think about it constantly. I don’t want to know what other people think: if its breath smells like a month-old egg sandwich, or it once went out in public in a denim hat, or it’s actually a closet Tory, or it wanted to do some really strange things with the last girl it slept with. I don’t want to hear that now! I don’t need to hear it. My story’s on a pedestal, god damn it, and it’s going to stay there.

For now.

After Christmas, when I come out from behind the curtains and sneak up on it, unawares, I’ll have taken my love-goggles off and I’ll see it for what it really is. I’ll cringe when it tells me that anecdote about getting arrested in Prague that it doesn’t remember telling me, already, two months ago – and I didn’t really enjoy it the first time, if I’m honest – and I’ll tilt my head and say, ‘Is that a beer belly under there?’ I’ll stop looking under the sofa cushions for that month-old egg sandwich and start leaving breath mints next to the bed. We’ll be out somewhere for dinner with friends, and I’ll hear my novel braying about privatisation, how that’s a good thing, and I’ll notice the man sitting opposite me at the table, who’s telling his neighbour to boycott Shell, and I’ll think to myself, ‘Now he seems nice. Why can’t my novel be like that? Look, he’s pouring water for everyone else first… My novel’s just taken the last shrimp off the plate, and he’s already had his fair share already and then some… Oh Christ, did he just burp?’

It’s going to be a sad and disappointing time. When I start the second draft, I’m going to think everyone at that table is kinder and sexier and sweeter-smelling than the novel I’ve been lumbered with. And I’m not saying I should stay with that novel forever (god forbid, in fact), but you’ve got to at least try to make it work, right?

No matter how much it stinks.

30 Days of Nano: Day Sixteen

Like Withnail, who went on holiday by mistake, I’ve begun waking up by mistake. At the crack of dawn. And it’s the bloody weekend.

Today, for instance, I woke at the rather tidy time of 5.55 a.m. (6.66 would have been better; spookier. Also, of course, impossible.) I’d been hoping to rack up 30K last night (in total obviously; I’m not that much of a maniac), but as I announced on twitter it proved a step too far:

So, 5.55 (or even 5.59. The twitter clock never lies). You’re awake, it’s a grey Sunday morning, there’s tea in the tin… oh bugger it. You might as well get up.

Boil the kettle, etc. Then get back in bed, where it’s toasty, and crack on with reaching 30K.

I made it! Hurrah!

I tweeted some more stuff about tea:

I made a fresh cup and I got back in bed and I carried on writing. Eventually, when my neighbours woke up, I had this to contend with:

But it takes more than a bit of insanely loud ear-splitting drilling to stop me these days. I’m a woman on a mission. (I like having a mission.) My mission is this: to deliver a first draft (to myself) by Christmas.

I have a few rules: the writing itself can be shoddy as hell, but it has to EXIST. What I mean is, no gaps of the ‘Chapter where something happens (not sure what)’ variety. It’s fine to leave continuity errors to sort out later (Scrivener comes into its own here: each document has a note card for mid-scene scribbling of things to remember), but in general I’m trying to solve each problem as it occurs. 

A large part of the novelist’s job is problem solving. In film terms, you’ve got to produce the damn thing before you pull out the megaphone and direct it.

You start out with this:

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And you end up with this:

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Or possibly this:

discovery-rubiks-fashion__small

Image source

The main thing, with first drafts, is to find the story.

Mme de P and Mme de P prints

Image source

I’ve never been much of a seamstress (I can just about sew on a button) but, having been in a couple of pantomimes as a child, I’m familiar with standing awkwardly – like an upright chalk-outline – while somebody sticks pins in my clothes. (On a side note, I’ve just discovered, via this site, that I was in panto – Dick Whittington – in 1983 with the Chuckle Brothers’ brothers… Genuinely a brush with showbiz glory. The following year it was Wayne Sleep and the Golden Shot’s Anne Aston, who was well known for her boobs, apparently, although being 11 at the time I was unaware of my proximity to these famous assets.)

They don't make them like this anymore.  Thank God.

They don’t make them like this anymore.
Thank God.

Enough of that. Although I am writing a book set mainly in the 70s, and if anyone watched Channel 4’s It Was Alright in the 70s last night – which really ought to be ‘all right’ as two separate words, Channel 4, if you’re interested – breasts were everywhere in the decade that taste forgot.

Just when you’re wondering, ‘why are there so many images in this blog?’ you go back and count them and, hey presto, there are sixteen of the buggers. One for each day of nano. See what I did there?

But, wait, you cry! There are only fifteen…

Here you go, pedant.

The wooden teacup: crimes against ‘show, don’t tell’.

When my daughter was little I had an idea for a picture book called ‘Where there’s fun, there’s mess’, the idea being – ostensibly – to have parents relax about chocolatey fingers on pearly white sofa cushions and mud in the hallway and landslides of toys on bedroom carpets (but, probably, honestly, more about making my own slutty housekeeping feel like a virtue).

I never wrote that book, but luckily the author Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Lifewhich was called to my attention by the lovely writer Mary Nathan last night. In Bird by Bird, Lamott likens real-world mess to writing mess, and reminds us how vital the latter is to that all important ‘shitty first draft’ (which calls Hemingway’s dictum to mind: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’). Lamott rails against perfectionism (the desire ‘not to leave so much mess to clean up’) and its deathly end result, that horrible writerly trait of ‘tidiness’, which ‘makes me think of held breath’, as she says, ‘of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move’.

As the title says, this is a book about writing and life, and some of her larger statements gave me an ‘ouch’ moment or two of recognition regarding my life, as opposed to my writing (I’ve made no bones about my recent depression, as interested parties can read about here and here and here…). But at least, when it comes to writing, it’s never too late. Perfectionism – and, worse still, its twisted sister, avoidance – have wreaked their havoc in my Real Life (here’s Lamott on the subject: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life’ – too true), but the good news is that I’ve slowly entangled myself from the tyranny of writerly tidiness over the last twelve months (partly by ‘blurting’, as Ray Bradbury called it, about which you can read more here, and partly by hearing my mentor on the Escalator Literature Scheme describe a large chunk of my book as ‘boring’).

We all have default settings as writers, and this is mine: a belief that by piling on nice-sounding words that sit nicely together, like some kind of OCD-inflicted bricklayer, I’m taking a shortcut away from the messy necessity of that shitty first draft – when, in fact, what I’m doing is SUCKING THE SOUL from my story. First drafts oughtn’t to look like this…

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… but this:

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Which brings me to my personal nemesis: the wooden teacup.

We coined this phrase, Mary and I, last night. It so happens we’re both writing books set largely in houses – in elegant houses where people drink tea, sit on chairs, flutter eyelashes, notice the wallpaper, listen to footsteps approaching, remark on the weather – and while such detail doesn’t have to lead to smallness (by which I mean heartlessness, emptiness, woodenness) the sad truth is that laying the nice, neat bricks of your scene in the sort of careful prose that rightly belongs in the editing phase means you’re likely avoiding the fun of the story as well as the mess. If you’re too keen to keep it all tidy – the literary equivalent of ‘picking up after yourself’ as you go along – you’ll find yourself with ‘wooden teacup’ writing: fussy and finicky, lacking a heart (thanks to Mary again for identifying ‘heart’ as a necessary factor of any decent scene – not, of course, in the sense of Hollywood schmaltz, but instead as the single thing that keeps it all beating).

In her excellent blog, the novelist Emma Darwin identifies a culprit for what she calls this ‘blow by blow’ writing: a misinterpretation of that hoary CW chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell’. Now many of you doubtless don’t need reminding of this, but I do: unlike playwrights, for us novelists ‘there’s no necessity to write the whole of a scene in real time’, as Darwin says. This shouldn’t have been a revelation to me in the last twelve months (since I’ve pretty much spent my life writing) but the humbling fact is I used to know this perfectly well, when I wrote less self-consciously (i.e. before I was published), but somewhere along my word-blocked journey to Madder Hall I taught myself to show, show, show, no matter how painful the showing, and gave up on the humble art of ‘telling’ as somehow too easy. A lot of the trouble comes from writing in close third person (not a can of worms I want to open here, but watch this space…) without that sense of an author to step in with his or her observations, but what I’ve effectively done is crippled myself – ‘cramped’ myself, in Lamott’s word – by failing to ‘use the infinite contractibility and expandibility of time in a narrative’ (and now I’m back to Darwin – who goes on to hold up her own dirty hands and admit that she, too, succumbs to the wooden teacup once in a while, when ‘tired or stressed or not very well’, ‘pulling the action blow by blow out of [herself] and sticking it on the page’). I urge you to read her post (when you’ve finished reading this one…) and read it right through to the end – where she has some vital observations on the writer as not just a camera (perhaps thank Christopher Isherwood for that), but editor, voice-over and cinematographer too…  

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn't yawn... Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn’t yawn… Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

So the revelation is this: YOU CAN SKIP THE BORING BITS. And if you don’t know what to skip to, then here’s revelation number 2: YOU HAVE NO HEART. (Not you personally, natch – your scene.) All that clinking of teacups and scraping of chairs and offering of matches (the other thing my characters do with mind-numbing regularity is light cigarettes – the book’s set mostly in the 1970s, which is my excuse and I’m sticking to it)… well, zzzzzzz. It’s all so polite and so dainty and sometimes the prose, as it lands on the page, has a cool sort of flow of its own – but what’s prose without story? (A poem, I suppose…) What I aim for now in my first drafts is something as rough as a fishwife’s cackle, that somehow, in spite of the flailing proseholds the interest. Has heart. I want clutter, not teacups, because ‘clutter is wonderfully fertile ground’ (says Lamott), and amongst it are treasures. She quotes Kurt Vonnegut: ‘When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth’. The point is, the world (of your book) is your oyster. In real life you might spend a disproportionate amount of time drinking tea (she types, whilst slurping) but characters in novels really shouldn’t (unless of course you have some juicy subtext in which case the drinking of tea is a prop, as it should be, and not the scene’s purpose). Take stabs at the page with that crayon and see what comes out. Write in longhand on paper. Switch person from first to third, or vice versa. Switch tense, back and forth if you like. Let the thoughts tumble out, let the thoughts become words – don’t be crippled, or cramped, by the need to ‘keep tidy’, to let words dictate thoughts. Read Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making  and remind yourself that writing (whatever form it takes) starts with finding out what you want to say before caring how you say it. Avoid the blow by blow, unless each of those blows really matters. Remember who’s telling the story – that’s you – and as novelists (unlike pesky humans) time is our toy, our plaything.

And, lastly, I want to quote a nice, fat chunk from John Gardner in his book On Becoming a Novelist which, for me, covers pretty damn neatly the question of ‘show, don’t tell’ and warns all aspiring novelists against wandering into wooden teacup territory:

‘The writer with a truly accurate eye (and ear, nose, sense of touch, etc.) has an advantage over the writer who does not in that, among other things, he can tell his story in concrete terms, not just in feeble abstractions. Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should “show,” not “tell”. And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school (one need not show a scene at the private school if the scene has no importance for the rest of the narrative), or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.’

We could, but won’t (because this post is far too long already), take a detour here into T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the objective correlativebut frankly if you think ‘spaghetti: tell’, ‘despair: show’, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Let us see the story unfold in concrete terms (as opposed to abstract), but dunk too many pointless biscuits in too many pointless cups of tea and you may just find you have something wooden where your story’s heart should be.