Tuesday, 29 November 2016
Bad planning, working titles and contractions: the joy of first drafts
Writing a novel was the last thing I should have been doing. 1st November 2009: I was eight months pregnant and three months into an MA, and there I was, logging in to nanowrimo.org, and writing the first, uncertain sentences of what had the catchy title of Alys’ Vampire Novel.
Over the next thirty days - between reading my course texts, going to NCT classes, heartburn and essay planning - I snatched out words in tens, hundreds, thousands. I stayed up late on writing sprints, lugged my laptop wherever I went, knocking out half chapters in coffee shops, planning as I walked. By the 30th, I had a proper title, nearly 75000 words, and a final line that remains intact today.
Time’s Fool had come in to being.
Oh, sure, there were problems along the way. On about day four, Steven stopped talking to me and didn’t start again for four years. At the end of the second week, John led a character mutiny that destroyed the nebulous idea I had for a plot and forced me to charge off in an entirely unplanned direction. And, on 21st, I realised that I had written only a third of the plot and was forced to summarise what became chapters 7 to 20 in three conversations that happened entirely without dialogue tags so that I could make a decent stab at the denouement.
Meanwhile, I got back ache, Braxton Hicks contractions, a sprained shoulder. I wrote an essay on the deification of Antinous, researched Broadside ballads and listened to Tom Waits’ Alice so many times that when Sprog1 was born, it was one of the few things guaranteed to rock her off to sleep.
Nano always makes for a surreal month.
What I had at the end of that November wasn’t a novel by any means. In fact, because I’m a “pantser” not a planner, what I had was a structureless mess. It took an awful lot of polishing, research, restructuring to make it even resemble the manuscript I’m working on now. In that mess, though, was the story that still forms the core of Time’s Fool, were three characters with the arcs they have to follow, and the first glimmering of what I wanted to say.
Essentially, I had something to be getting on with.
Nanowrimo came in to my life at exactly the right moment, and was the weirdest, most wonderful idea I had ever heard. A novel, a whole novel, in thirty days? Just for a laugh? With no editing, no starting again, no turning back?
One of the hardest things about setting out to write is giving yourself the time to do it in, not merely to pick idly at an idea, but to sit down and get this beastie in to the world. You overthink, you second guess, you procrastinate. I’d been in the doldrums after finishing my undergraduate degree and my torturous first novel (no, you’re not reading it) and had no idea what to do next, how to fit writing in to a suddenly very different routine.
Nanowrimo give me a deadline, a writing routine, a community to cheer me along. More than that, thought, Nano taught me about unapologetic creativity.
Because there is always something you should be doing instead. There are always people and things who want your time and commitments and attention. Nano is when you say, “No. Today I am writing.” There will always be the voice in your head that says it’s not good enough, that you’re nuts, that no-one will ever want to read this. Nano is when you say, “Let’s just see where it takes me, eh?”
Yes, structure, plot, thorough editing are more important skills if you take your writing seriously but without that initial drive, that insistence on giving it a go, it is sometimes difficult to get anything on the page in the first place.
With the exception of 2012, I’ve done Nanowrimo since 2008, trying to keep that sense of challenge, of recklessness, even of selfishness which I found that first year. I remind myself that it’s okay to put your writing first, to take risks, make mistakes, to let things wander off in to uncharted territory.
Time’s Fool wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.
So, what about you? Are you a wrimo? Or do you think the whole thing is over-rated? Does the idea of writing by the seat of your pants appeal, or are you the type to have a meticulous plan? And how do you find the time to write?