Thursday 26 July 2018

Keeping The Dream Alive

I’m just about three quarters of the way through my next novel which is due to come out next year. It will be my third book published by Atom but it’s actually the fourth novel I’ve written. I self-published the first one, Widows’ Row, in 2012.

Someone recently asked me about sustaining your self-belief when you’re writing a novel. What happens when you get half way through and feel like it’s the biggest load of rubbish anyone’s ever set down in words? I’m glad they asked, because it’s something I struggle with too.

All forms of writing have their unique difficulties I’m sure. One of the things that makes writing a novel tough is that it takes absolutely ages. Sure, some people can knock out a first draft in a couple of months*, but they’re usually not people with 9-5 day jobs or two crazy kids and an incontinent dog**.

*I’m not talking about NaNoWriMo here. That’s a crazy and wonderful world all on its own.

**I'm not talking about me here. I don't have a dog.

For most people writing a novel takes several months, at least. And during that time you probably won’t want to share your novel with anyone, not even the p̶o̶o̶r̶ ̶s̶u̶c̶k̶e̶r̶ reader friend who normally gets a first peek. You won’t want to share it at all until it’s ready. Not until you’ve at least checked all those messages to yourself that you've written as you’re going along (‘CHECK IF I’VE BEEN CALLING BOB BOB UP TO NOW. IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN BEN.’)

So how can you sustain the self-belief for such a long time? How can you shut up the inner critic which is telling you how boring it all is? How can you stop feeling like such a loser for even thinking that you could possibly write a novel in the first place?

It’s difficult. Here are a few tips.

1. Remember that you are God. No, bear with me. I’m not saying that you have to suddenly start a cult dedicated to the personal worship of you. We all know people who do this, but if you’re from Northern Ireland I wouldn’t recommend it- people hate that schtick here. But you need to remember that in this case you are the writer- not the reader. You know what’s going to happen next, not because the story is so incredibly boring and predictable, but because you are the one making it happen. So of course you know what happens next. If you didn’t you’d be stuck. And that’s a whole other blog post. You may not have the luxury of time to wait a few days and then read back your manuscript and think ‘Actually it’s not so bad…’, and if you don't have time to do that then you need to develop your own new mantra. How about ‘I am God. My work is interesting. Even when I know what comes next.’ It's fine to blow smoke up your own wotsit, momentarily. You're God! If anyone gets the right to be an egomaniac at this point, it's you.

[Edit: no sooner had I written this than I heard from a couple of writers who prefer the pantsing method of novel writing where they don’t have an outline in mind to play within. I’m going to stick to my guns here. Even if you’re a pantser you still know what you’re going to write before you write it. Even if it’s only a few seconds before you write it. So you’re still God. And you can’t get around that. You’re God, OK? Deal with it.]

2. Introduce the bear with the canoe. OK, so you know you’re God and you’re cool with that. But… what if you’re so bored with yourself that you just can’t move on? Someone once gave me a great tip, but I can’t remember exactly who it was OR what the tip was. Just know that this is something like it, and that I hereby declare that I am not plagiarising this tip, I just have a very poor memory. The tip was: When you’re stuck up a mountain and you don’t know where to go next, bring on the bear with the canoe. What this means is- take the story off somewhere different. You don’t have to climb up, or climb down. You could meet a bear with a canoe and do something completely different with your plot.

[Edit: an hour before this post went live I found out that the real story was about the Marx Brothers having trouble with a film script that saw them struggling up Everest with a grand piano. They didn't know what to do when they got to the summit. They were discussing it for days and eventually someone who was cleaning their office suggested 'You could meet a gorilla,' so that's what they did. I have no idea where the bear in the canoe came from. Thanks to Damian Gorman for bringing this to my attention years ago, and then again this evening.]

Pretend you're someone else.
3. Pretend you’re someone else. If it’s not enough to know that you’re God, then by all means stick someone else on the personality menu as well. Who is it? Your best American friend who saves all their self-doubt for after the completion of their work? (You only need to get through this bit for now- you can worry about the future later on. Get your Zen acting skillz to work here- you only have to be someone else in the moment) You can be anyone- think of the most self-confident person you know and, in the moment of writing, channel their self-wonder. You can be anyone, you can even be Jordan Peterson if you like! Pretend you have all the self confidence in the world! Sometimes it even starts to seep into reality. (If this happens then take caution- you don’t want to start actually believing that you’re Jordan Peterson in real life).

I do all of the above when I’m writing a novel. Sometimes I let myself have a little ‘Oh Em Gee it’s all AWFUL!’ meltdown. And then I go for a walk and I take my notebook and I write down all the craziest, maddest possibilities for plot progression that I can think of. The teenagers who find a pink lacy bra in the vicar’s room. The gang that tries to stop a vicious fight by playing David Bowie’s Laughing Gnome song.  The Priest who is actually an atheist. And then I pick one and go with it and discover that writing is really good craic again. You don’t have to keep the crazy scenes you write (remember- you’re God. You’re doing this to energise yourself and rediscover the spark of your characters) but a number of times I have ended up keeping them, and if you do keep them then you end up with more words AND you’ve had all the craic getting things moving again.

Feel free to share your un-sticking tips in the comments and good luck to everyone who’s mad enough to be writing a novel.

If nothing else you can take inspiration from this slice of 1980's goodness.


Susan Price said...

Every writer gets the 'I'm no good' blues. It passes.

I once spent about three years writing a book. I'd rewritten it so many times I knew it by heart. And it was boring, really boring. And awful. So I gave up on it and stuck it in a drawer. Six months later, I came across it, re-read it -- and it was the greatest work of literature ever written in the history of the world!

So I rewrote it again -- at the end of which,it was boring again. But I decided that I'd put in so much work, I might as well send it to my agent, if only to show that I had been working on something.

My agent sent it to Faber, who accepted it almost by return of post (pre-email days.) It was translated and published all over the world and has just been republished in Japan. In a truly cheesy style, I am now going to reveal the book's title: The Ghost Drum, which won the Carnegie.

Point is, a writer's opinion of their own work is distorted by weariness, boredom, hope, lack of confidence and a dozen other things. You're never going to see it clearly. You just have to slog on and on. I forget who said that Persistence was the greatest virtue a writer could possess, but it's true.

Shirley-Anne McMillan said...

Wow Susan! Thank you so much for sharing that!

Anne Booth said...

This is a great post - and the comment by Susan is brilliant and so encouraging. I have a novel I first completed 10 years ago and put away, I am revising it for the umpteenth time, I showed it to someone and have been asked to submit it and I have been procrastinating as it is so boring. Maybe it is, But maybe it isn't as bad I as I fear and I should just send it, So thank you x

Susan Price said...

Anne, go on - send it! You've nothing to lose.

Shirley-Anne McMillan said...

That's great Anne! Do send it. Very good luck to you!

Lynne Benton said...

Very cheering post - and responses! Thank you.