On deadlines and missing them

It’s September. I have just under two months to finish my novella and enter it in an Australasian novella competition.

There ain’t no way I’m going to make it.

To be honest, what on earth was I thinking? Did I really believe I was going to bash out a halfway readable novella in such a short time? Ah, the naïve faith of the (almost) beginner.

The novella actually started as a short story, but I quickly realised it was not going to tell itself in only a couple of thousand words. As I wrote the first chapters, I sensed this was not a tale that would tolerate shortcuts. My two main characters (a father and a daughter), whose internal journeys are far more important than the plot, both required thorough and detailed developmental “arcs”, not a once-over-lightly “Oh look, he’s suddenly realised what a bastard he was and is now working for World Vision and visits hospitals to sing for sick children, all in under 3000 words!” sort of treatment. I read stories like that (well, not exactly like that, thank goodness, but you know what I mean) and I feel cheated.

So, feeling slightly resentful that this writing business was actually going to require some hard work, I drew a deep breath and moved it from my “Short Stories” folder to my “Novella” one.

I decided setting a deadline would be a good way of forcing me to write even when I didn’t feel like it, and to push me through the arid, Sunday afternoon-itis that is writer’s block (more of that dastardly subject in another post).

It didn’t quite work that way. Writing this book is becoming as much a meandering, infuriating, breathtaking journey of discovery as a carefully planned and deadlined “project”. I sit down to write 1000 words and three hours later I’ve written about 300, and wandered off on a tangent that I hadn’t even thought of until that moment. Or I’ll open the document reluctantly, not feeling at all like writing, and all of a sudden it just pours out of me like pennies from heaven and in under an hour I’ve written five pages of quite passable quality.

As I write I discover that the desperately clever plot twist I had planned for the middle chapter just isn’t going to work, so I have to rewrite the last thousand words. Then I realise that a character originally intended to be peripheral should play a much larger part, so I have to completely rewrite her. Next, I decide that a chapter that seemed incredibly moving and crucial two days ago is in fact soppy and redundant, so I kill it. And then I hit on an idea so exciting that I leap around the room, whooping with excitement (until I look up and see the meter man staring through the window at me, vindicated in his belief that almost-middle-aged women don’t get out much).

This just hasn’t gone to plan at all. It’s going to take a whole heap longer than I thought. And there’s one other teeny reason why I won’t be proudly sending my baby off in a few short weeks to stun the literary world.

It’s mostly shite.

Don’t get me wrong, in general I think I’m quite a good writer, and there are some gems in there. But oh my dear God, I read back on some of it and I either laugh hysterically or cringe with shame at the awfulness, the self-important, muddled, was-I-actually-taking-the-piss-when-I-wrote-this rubbish that it is.

There’s going to be some serious re-writing.

And that’s OK, folks. That’s what this process is all about. The key word here is “process”. I need to let go of aiming for an end point (except for actually finishing the damn thing, of course) and enjoy the ride. There’s a fine balance between writing for yourself and always keeping your potential audience in mind, but writing feverishly for an imagined judging panel is not helpful. It is, quite literally, a kill-joy.

I read somewhere recently that writing a first draft is simply about identifying your raw material. Then the real writing, the crafting, the breathing into life, can actually begin. I’m going to go with that, and hopefully by the time I’m finished this bloody novella (perhaps before we next land on the moon), I will have produced something I am proud of, rather than something I’ve dashed off in haste simply to prove I can do it.

Deadline, I’m letting you go.

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