It has now been three months since I committed to becoming a writer and I still have a lot to learn. I am yet to finish a first draft of the book, and although progress has been good, I am conscious that it is far easier to open up storylines than it is to conclude them satisfactorily without being trite. I have not properly researched literary agents and publishers, as every time I google it my stomach lurches and I have to calm myself with an episode of ‘The Good Place’ or a rerun of ‘Gossip Girl’. As that is not conducive to actually ever finishing the book, I have embargoed those searches for now, but that is a temporary solution while I deal with the hundreds of smaller hurdles that need crossing before submission is even close to needing serious attention.
There are many challenges ahead, but I thought this an appropriate time to reflect on what I have learned so far.
The draft is just a rehearsal
It is far easier to edit a poorly phrased idea than it is to sit in front of a blank screen and come up with the perfect turn of phrase from scratch. Trying to get the content, the phrasing, the pace, the characterisation and the ambiance all as I want them, as well as ensuring continuity, variety and interest in my language is simply not a one stage process. I am learning to forgive myself when a first draft looks like a draft and to view a session where I splurge story from my brain as the very first stepping stone to what a chapter will look like when it is finished.
There are a lot of rehearsals
Nothing compares to the feeling when the story flows from my fingertips as they race across the keyboard and my characters are confronted with disaster or delight. But although the narrative might be there, the words are usually not; sometimes not one remains after an editing session. There is not the thrill in tweaking words and worrying about nuance that there is in taking an idea and giving it form for the first time, but without that labour, the story is easily lost in distracting repetition, inconsistencies or clunky phrasing.
I have learned that my editing process requires a little distance – if the story is still bouncing around my head all fresh and exciting, it feels very raw to take a scalpel to my work. Equally, if I leave it too long before editing, the volume of prose becomes simply too arduous to wade through, so I have to mix up the writing, research and editing to keep the process interesting and maintain focus. Each time I read a passage I focus on a different aspect of it and I seem to be constantly tinkering. As the book grows in length (54,000 words and counting) a full read through has become a somewhat more significant undertaking and I like to have two versions open, one to edit and one to search (how anybody handwrites a book and manages to keep track of everything I have no idea; electronic searching is my crutch) alongside a notebook covered with lists, diagrams, tables and timelines. It can be a time consuming process, but the polish is what makes the story shine.
It’s hard not to blur the lines
My job used to bleed into my personal life through my blackberry, but it always felt very clear what role I was playing at any given time. The line is far more blurry now; I think about plot lines while cooking dinner or singing lullabies and I clear my head after an hour of writing by doing some laundry and listening to the radio. On the whole I like that my worlds have collided and I no longer need two separate personas; I can just be me.
But the mask of the professional is not just a disguise for our quirks, it is also a shield. If a partner critiqued my work as a lawyer, I would stand before them in my demure Hobbs dress and Karen Millen shoes, armed with a pen and paper for taking notes. I was there in my capacity as a lawyer and so my heart was locked safely behind the trappings of corporate life. But feedback as a writer can be far less formal; a comment from a friend or relative while I’m playing cars with my toddler, wiping down the kitchen worktops or eating lunch. Without my guard up, a suggestion that will later prove helpful as I sit at my laptop writing, can pack a painful punch. I need to find a way to take the sting back out of constructive feedback, as I genuinely want and value it.
Every book needs research
To most people this may be stating the obvious, but I had not really imagined that a children’s fantasy novel set in a fictional world would require much research, after all, it’s just made up… But the physics, the biology and the chemistry have to be internally consistent as do the history and geography that provide the context for the story. I want the setting to feel real and that can involve a lot of work for what is sometimes a very minor detail that will pass the reader by quite unnoticed. Fortunately the internet enables me to easily find and read detailed analysis of the obscure, although I expect my google history would now make very odd reading.
I am happy
The writing process is far from easy, but it is a challenge that excites me every day. I never have that ‘Sunday evening feeling’ any more and I love having the head space to be creative and the time to simply sit and write.