Monday, 22 April 2013

Wrestling snakes - by Nicola Morgan

That's what it feels like when a novel just won't do what it's told. And that is what I've been grappling with for the last eighteen months. Big time. Anaconda big time. Crying in the night and thinking my career must be over if I'm this rubbish time. A high concept idea which elicited interest whenever my agent or I mentioned it, but which began wriggling from my grasp pretty much from Chapter Three. And they are short chapters...

I finished the first draft. Didn't like it. Good beginning, good ending, tangled boring mess in the middle. And by "middle" I mean all but the first three and last three chapters. Yes, short chapters.

Left it for a few months.

Attacked the snakepit again. The snakes seemed to have multiplied in my absence, revealing a whole load more flaws that I hadn't seen before.

More crying in the night. More wrestling. More wondering why it was so hard. Other writers were finishing novels left right and centre. What was wrong with me?

Eventually finished the second draft. Didn't like it any better. More crying.

Left it for a few months.

Attacked the pit for the third time, in a spirit of "I will do this if it kills me because I will despise myself if I don't." Put other work on hold - including a book that has a contract and a deadline, which this one doesn't.

Tried a storyboard technique. It didn't work.

Tried mind-mapping. It didn't work. But it had pretty colours.

Tried my patent mathematical drama-versus-time graph technique (which I'd invented to solve a previous book's problem, successfully.) It didn't work this time, though it did show me something - that the snake was bigger than I'd thought. And there were more of them.

Tried a new technique which I haven't got a name for but which has the effect of identifying each snake's position, firing a tranquilliser dart at it and, while it's semi-conscious, manoeuvring it into place and then sticking pins in it so it can't move until I say so.

At the same time I was revealing my desperation to anyone who would listen on Twitter. I described it as wrestling an anaconda-sized plot problem.

These were the well-meaning responses I received:

  • Take a break from it. (I'd done that twice already.)
  • Go for a walk. (Works well for worms, but not anacondas. Also, it would be a hell of a long walk.)
  • You can do it. (Not necessarily.)
  • Eat chocolate. (Good idea.)
  • How come you have this sort of problem when you've written so many books? (Good question.)
  • You write my book and I'll write yours. (Since that was Joanne Harris, that was a GREAT idea. Actually, I think I'm confusing two conversations, but still.) 
  • Awww, poor you. [[[hugs]]] (Thanks.)
  • Introduce zombies. (Not helpful.)
  • Or penguins. (*glares*)
  • Or zombie penguins. (You're not taking this seriously.)
Now, (*whispers*,) thanks to my tranquilliser dart technique, the signs are currently positive but I'm not going to tempt fate with anything approaching hubris. What I want to say is something which most writers know and which non-writers might be interested in knowing:
  • It's horrible, lonely and emotionally draining when a book behaves like this.
  • No one can really help. Although talking things through with friends can sometimes reveal the key, essentially the answer comes through our own hard work, no one else's.
  • Although it's painful at the time, the satisfaction of success is huge - and probably true that the greater the pain, the greater the satisfaction.
  • We don't necessarily get better at it. Each book is a new book, a new start and a new challenge. Some books just come out more easily and some are harder. Success is not guaranteed, and practice does not seem to make perfect.
  • Determination is necessary.
So, tomorrow it's back to the snakepit and I'm telling you: it's me or that pesky snake.


catdownunder said...

Well I was going to suggest that if you needed your paw held or a comforting pat/stroking in the middle of the night you could e-mail me or have a DM Twitter or FB conversation. The middle of the night is, after all, a reasonably civilised hour here and any distraction from my own problems is usually welcome...
In the meantime I will keep my own paws crossed for you!

Joan Lennon said...

Each book is a new challenge - that's certainly true. Good luck with your wrestling this week!

JO said...

Oh yes - each new book is a new challenge. No comfort to you, I know, but for me it's so reassuring to hear you say that.

We all have different ways of tackling times like this. I'm no advice-giver, though I sometimes find cake is comforting (though rarely comes with ideas.)

zornhau said...

What I would do (I'm a very minor new pro with franchise contracts, so do ignore me):

1. Write a new plan/outline based on what you like about what you have

2. Rewrite the entire thing from scratch

Reason? For structural problems, it's usually faster to redraft than to wrangle screeds of text that doesn't want to fit elsewhere.

Lynne Garner said...

Been there - done it. Saw the light and got to the end. If I can I'm sure you can and when it's finished please do blog about it.

Emma Barnes said...

Maybe you need somebody else to read it for you - your agent, an editor or perhaps somebody of the age-group/interests it's written for? Their perspective might really help - and who knows, they might love the bits that you feel don't work!

I'd also add the most problems I've had with a book was when I was trying to put it into a shape/structure I felt would be more "commercial" - but which was ultimately at odds with what I was trying to do...

Good luck, anyhow! It will work out in the end!

Nicola Morgan said...

Emma - my agent likes it already! She liked the first draft. :)

Thanks, everyone! Glad it's not just me. Well, I knew it wasn't just me...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that excellently timed post, Nicola. I am wrestling with my own anaconda at the moment, only because I'm writing historical fiction it's probably more of a Lambton Worm-style dragon which will eat everyone's cattle if I don't get it under control.
I'm going to copy out your third point (the one about it being more satisfying when you eventually get there) to cheer myself up.
Good luck with your snake.


Stroppy Author said...

Swap anacondas? I've got a similarly ****ing annoying story and Q wants to sell it, and it *won't* lie down and behave. We could try untangling each other's snakes over prosecco, with GP as second-wrangler?

Also - you are right that there is no guarantee it will ever come right. But I think it might be worth giving the zombie penguins a go :-)

Stroppy Author said...

(That should have been 'second snake-wrnagler', not someone who wrangles seconds.)

Stroppy Author said...

wrangler. I give up

Nicola Morgan said...

Stroppy - I think that between you, me, GP and some substantial Prosecco, we could wrangle both our stories wonderfully. Q is also v keen for me to finish mine so she can sell it, so she will be very pleased with us if we manage. And that will be a Good Thing.

rsgold said...

Thank you for that excellently timed post, Nicola. I am wrestling with my own anaconda at the moment, only because I'm writing historical fiction it's probably more of a Lambton Worm-style dragon which will eat everyone's cattle if I don't get it under runescape

Savita Kalhan said...

Nicola, I can totally feel your pain and, like Stroppy, I'm up for the swapping anacondas too! My first draft of the new book is missing an ending - it's gone AWOL and I'm still searching for it! Good luck with yours.

Liz Kessler said...

Really interesting post Nicola. Good luck with your anaconda. From my perspective at the moment, I do wonder if you're trying to wrestle a snake that wants to be left alone? Maybe it's not ready to play nicely and needs completely leaving alone for now...?

Nicola Morgan said...

Liz, very interesting you should say that. When I left it the second time, ie before this final wrestling, i did exactly that. I shelved it. I gave it no instructions or deadline or anything and i started writing something else - two things, one commissioned non-fiction and one other uncommissioned novel. I'd told my agent and myself that I might come back to it one day. I think I probably left it six months, maybe more, but then I just wanted to have another shot. not really because I'd found the solution but really because a) it wouldn't go away and b) people kept asking, "What happened to Lizzy Invisible?"

Anyway, last week, two days after writing this post, I won the fight. The new draft is finished! Gone to agent! No idea whether it will be published but if it's not I can't imagine wrestling it again.

Thanks for all your support, everyone!

Nicola Morgan said...

rsgold - I like the sound of your dragon! Good luck.

And Stroppy and Savita - commiserations. It's so horrible but, as you know, it's worth the pain. Keep working away.

Liz Kessler said...

Woohoo! Well done - and good luck!

Gillian Philip said...

I have an anaconda too, so I will be pleased to be your second wrangler. Get the drink in, Crabbit. But we should not physically wrestle our anacondas. You both get filthy and the snake likes it.

Stroppy Author said...

Do we mind if the snake likes it? I have no desire to make snakes miserable.

Liz, I've also left this for long periods to untangle itself. It untangled a bit after the first six months, a bit more after then three-month interval. But it's still not a nice, straight snake.

Nicola Morgan said...

Stroppy, I think the only long, straight snake is a dead snake. That isn't what we want. *frowns*